Opinions & Observations: North Brooklyn community activists unite behind veteran Assemblymember, blast his opponent as ‘inexperienced’
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Assemblymember Diana Richardson endorse Lentol
The old saying “all politics is local” has special relevance for Assemblymember Joe Lentol because, as one longtime supporter notes, “No one knows the streets, the buildings and the people of this district like Joe.”
With the news this week that Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Assemblymember Diana Richardson have endorsed him, the broadly-based support shines more light on the district.
Assembly District 50 is possibly changing more rapidly than any in Brooklyn. It encompasses historic landmarks and long-established religious bases, Catholic and Jewish, and an explosive demographic change with the energy of new, young families and single urban professionals.
In this setting, firmly rooted in history and passionately dedicated to the future, a gentle, unassuming native son carries on the tradition of service for the third generation in his family. Joe Lentol was born in the district, the son and grandson of an Assemblymember who later became a State Supreme Court Judge. He’s facing a challenger who local activists say is inexperienced and a “lightweight” when it comes to public service. In contrast, Assemblymember Lentol is seen by activists as someone who listens and gets things done, albeit without fanfare.
“He is responsive, pure and simple,” said Deborah Spiroff, an art professor living in Greenpoint. “He listens and delivers … an amazing legislator.”
Ms. Spiroff works in victim advocacy at Wyckoff Hospital and recalls their problems releasing victims of sexual or domestic violence. “We had no recourse but to dismiss them after treatment, to the subway usually, to get home unattended.”
When she called Lentol to ask if anything could be done, he invited Spiroff and her associates to his office “and he listened,” she said. With his decades of service — and clout — in Albany, the result was passage of the Safe Way Home Act, which provided vulnerable victims of abuse safe transportation home free of charge.
Particularly upsetting to Lentol supporters interviewed is that his opponent, Emily Gallagher, they say, waffles on issues related to the police. In previous efforts to run for office she called for more police resources and demanded more police presence in the community. Today, they claim, she has jumped on the bandwagon to “Defund the Police.”
Meanwhile, they add, Lentol has been a longtime criminal justice reform advocate, most recently leading the effort to repeal 50-a, the law that prevents public access to police records. As Chair of the Codes Committee, Lentol has led efforts to reform archaic bail and criminal discovery laws, pass legislation requiring videotaping of police interrogations, pass speedy trial reform, reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and pass Raise the Age legislation.
Indeed, many of Lentol’s supporters who are knowledgeable and active in community affairs are angry that the challenger chose to work against Lentol rather than fight alongside him in the causes she chooses as campaign issues.
“Lentol has been an effective leader in all of the causes she claims to champion,” said Kate Yourke. “He has passed legislation and called upon his clout and longevity in Albany to benefit his community and his neighbors over and over again through the years … Why would we want to displace him until he is ready to retire?”
“I don’t understand how the community would not see through a political opportunist,” added Yourke. “Joe Lentol has no posturing or political bluster. He is a quiet listener, so in the state legislature he is respected, his cred is proven and greatly benefits his home community.”
Ms. Yourke, admittedly, has a beef with Emily Gallagher and the New Kings Democrats who aligned with her. “[Joe Lentol] is a seasoned incumbent who listens and works. His cred and respect in the State Assembly are invaluable to our community … we can’t lose that.”
Responding to a plea for her support, Ms. Yourke wrote a blistering letter to the New Kings Democrats, noting, “I just have to say how disappointed I am that NKD is opposing Joe Lentol … when he has always offered conscientious, sincere, informed and accessible leadership.”
Interviewed later, Ms. Yourke said she was outraged at the “attempt to use ageism, elitism and ignorance to boost the career of an opponent with little experience in elected leadership or the law.”
Julia Foster, a longtime member of Community Board 1, was also angry about the efforts to denigrate Lentol’s decades of responding to community needs.
“All those who oppose him, including the candidate herself, are light-weights when it comes to community service,” said Foster. “I would not even rate her a good member of Community Board 1.”
Gallagher’s website states that the sexual assault task force she led was key in getting a police captain “replaced” for his alleged comments about rape. In reality, Foster says this is far from the truth. “She claimed her non-profit had helped get him moved out of the 94th Precinct,” said Foster. “But in truth he was promoted and transferred as a regular process with police brass.”
Marty Needelman, a longtime activist at Brooklyn Legal Services and a practicing attorney known for countless hours of pro bono community service, added, “Joe has always just done his job. He is not a self-promoter, so he does not make a big noise. He just gets it done. “
Knowledgeable and connected to most non-profit efforts in the district, Needelman has decades of watching “the glue of community service.”
“I tried to convince Emily not to run,” he said.
Having worked with the New Kings Democrats on other issues, Yourke was alarmed to see that in the questionnaire answered by Emily Gallagher to seek the endorsement, she noted “I am a descendant of General Tecumseh Sherman, so you know I love to burn shit down.”
Yourke says this “is the opposite of what we want in this community.”
Community leaders and activists who support Lentol also cite what one termed a “critical shortfall” in his opponent: ability and desire to help small business. Having been a major force in helping rebuild Brooklyn Navy Yard as a job creator, particularly via support for Steiner Studios, Lentol has won accolades for years in that arena.
“Joe Lentol has built up a lot of clout over the years,” said Doug Steiner, chair of Steiner Studios. “He’s the only reason film and television production came back to New York. Joe didn’t just initiate the idea of a production tax credit, he got it signed into law. It’s created 80,000 jobs, and it makes way more money for the state than it costs. Joe’s not like most politicians. He’s not out there always tooting his own horn – he’s a sweet, humble guy that’s effective and delivers for Brooklyn.”
Among those who have worked with Lentol for years is Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
“Assemblymember Joe Lentol has been a longtime champion for small businesses in his district and throughout Brooklyn,” said Peers. “He has been a leader in supporting boroughwide economic development projects the Brooklyn Chamber has launched, including Brooklyn Healthworks, the Good Help Program, and Brooklyn Goes Global. Joe understands the importance of small businesses as means to create jobs and opportunity in our communities, and he has devoted much of his career to ensuring small businesses survive and thrive.”
And others agree. The following is a list of Assemblymember Lentol’s endorsements received as of June 10, 2020.
- Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon
- Assemblymember Dan Quart
- Councilmember Stephen Levin
- Working Families Party
- 32BJ SEIU
- New York League of Conservation Voters
- The National Institute for Reproductive Health
- Communication Workers America, District 1
- Council of School Supervisors and Administrators
- Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn
- Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club
- NYC Kids PAC
- New York State Public Employees Federation
- Laborers’ International Union of North America
- United Federation of Teachers
- Stonewall Democrats of NYC
- NYS Nurses Association
- NYC Carpenters Union
- National Association of Social Workers
Brooklyn native Francesca Norsen Tate has worked for the Brooklyn Eagle and her sister publications since 1983. For more than 35 years she served as the Eagle’s religion editor of the weekly section “Faith in Brooklyn.” More recently, she has researched and written articles for the Eagle’s “On this Day in History” series.
The Eagle previously published a story by THE CITY titled, “Greenpoint activist vies to unseat 47-year incumbent Lentol.”