In Public Service: Watching JFK on television inspired Martin Dilan

December 30, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
State Sen. Martin Dilan caught the political bug early and says he is still excited by the idea of helping people in his district. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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State Sen. Martin Dilan developed a keen interest in politics when he was a child. He recalls being a boy and watching the 1960 Democratic National Convention on television in his family’s Bushwick home.

The convention took place in Los Angeles that year. It took several ballots for the young Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy to secure the nomination, and young Dilan was riveted by his television set. The time difference between New York and California, three hours, meant that Dilan was watching late into the night.

“My dad caught me watching it at two o’clock in the morning. He yelled at me, ‘Get back to bed!’” he recalled.

Dilan went back to bed, but soon sneaked again to watch more convention coverage. He had become hooked on politics. “I liked the excitement of it,” he said. In school, his favorite subject was Social Studies.

Fast forward to today, and Dilan is now a senior member of the New York State Senate.

Dilan, a Democrat, has served as a state senator since 2002. His district, the 18th State Senate District, includes parts of several Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, City-Line, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville.

Back when he was a teenager, Dilan was a volunteer in Democrat Abe Beame’s campaign for mayor in 1965. “I stuffed envelopes and distributed campaign literature,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview in his district office at 573 Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg. Republican John Lindsay won the mayoral election.

At the age of 17, Dilan was a campaign manager for a state Assembly candidate. Within a few short years, he was a campaign coordinator for Allard Lowenstein, a legendary anti-Vietnam War candidate in the 1960s who was running for Congress.

During that campaign, Dilan drove civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, around to rallies for Lowenstein.

When he was 18, Dilan served as chairman of programs at Community Corporation for Bushwick.

He recalled how the organization found a headquarters. “A building became vacant. The building was turned over to us,” he said. The Human Resources Administration came in and started programs in the building to help local residents.

It would take several years for Dilan to make the jump from being a behind-the-scenes campaign operative to running for public office himself. But once he did, he threw himself into it with full force.

It started with his local school board, Community School Board 32. He became interested in working to improve the public school system when he and his wife, Debra Hicks, started having children. The couple’s oldest child, Erik, is now an assemblymember, making the Dilans a rare father and son duo of state legislators.

Despite the fact that both he and his son Erik are elected officials, they do not talk politics at home. “The last thing we want to talk about is politics,” he said, adding that family matters dominate the conversation at the dinner table.

“When Erik was born in the 1970s, it was at the peak of fires and blackouts in Bushwick,” Dilan recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Now I have a son. And the schools in this neighborhood are terrible.’

“I became aware of Community School Board 32. I decided to run for a seat on the board. I got elected,” Dilan said. He served on the school board for 14 years, including several years when he was chairman.

He found that he was adept at organizing a budget. He also takes pride in the fact that during his tenure, the school board got the New York City Board of Education to establish Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the gifted and talented. “The school was developed under our watch,” he said.

It was a magnet school, meaning that a child did not have to be zoned for the school to attend. “It became an instant hit. It competed with Mark Twain,” he said.

Philippa Schuyler was a journalist who was killed in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War era.

Erik Dilan took the test for Schuyler and was accepted as a student with no prompting from his parents.

Dilan and the school board also fought to save P.S. 86, a school that the city was going to tear down. The city had argued that the building was vastly under-utilized with few students. “We refused to let them demolish it,” he said.

Dilan and his colleagues fought back, arguing that the school would be needed in the future if the population of Bushwick grew. “We thought Bushwick would come back. We fought to keep all of our schools open. That vision turned out to be correct,” he said.

During his school board days, Dilan was still interested in expanding his political horizons. He became the Democratic District Leader of the 54th Assembly District. He also worked on U.S. Rep. Major Owens’s campaign.

People were urging Dilan to run for the City Council seat representing Bushwick. “They kept asking me, so I ran. It was a close race. I won the primary by 116 votes,” he said.

Dilan served as a councilmember for 10 years.

He knocked on a lot of doors as he campaigned for votes during that council campaign. The first door he knocked on was answered by a local resident, George Walker, who told him, “I’ll vote for you if you get rid of that dilapidated building across the street and create a park.”

The building was demolished and Dilan got a park built there. After Walker’s death, the park was named George Walker Park.

Dilan served on the council during the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations. The council speaker was Peter Vallone. Due to term limits, Dilan left the council in 2001. “I looked at other options,” he said.

He decided to run for state senate, and won a seat in 2002.

The issues in his district include the environment, affordable housing and transportation and infrastructure.

Dilan said he always tries to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans to get things done.

He sponsored the legislation that led to Leandra’s Law, the statute making it a felony to drive drunk while children are in the vehicle, and worked with Republican state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) to strengthen the law.

In the new legislative session, Dilan expects the big issues to include women’s equality, the DREAM Act and ethics reform.

Transportation issues could also loom large, he said. He noted that while Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) came to an agreement over the MTA’s capital budget, the state Legislature has not approved it yet. “You can’t spend money unless the Legislature approves it,” he said.

Dilan is a member of several committees in the state Senate, including Civil Service, Judiciary, Transportation, Codes, Energy, Labor, Rules and Finance.

“Every day is a different challenge,” he said.

Dilan keeps an eye on city issues, too. One issue that has caught his eye is rezoning in the Cypress Hills portion of his district.

“People are worried about being displaced. The rents are going up. You can’t touch a two-bedroom for less than $2,400 a month,” he said.

“I want to preserve affordable housing for the people who have lived here,” he added.

As for his political career, he said, “There is still a lot of work to be done, but I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve made.”


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