Senator Gustavo Rivera – March 2011 Public Sector Spotlight

What motivated you to get into politics?

I became interested in politics in college in Puerto Rico. I majored in Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico and then after graduation in 1998, I moved to New York to begin a doctoral program in political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. What I knew of politics was academic. Thanks to professors and mentors at CUNY, I became interested in social movements and how through working collectively, people can make change in their communities. It was then that I got involved at a local level in politics as a community organizer, working for former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer and other elected officials who are now my colleagues in the Senate - Senator Jose Serrano and Andrea Stewart-Cousins. In 2008, I was honored to work for now President Obama and traveled throughout the country working to get him elected. I was also a teaching courses in political science at Pace University. But not once had I ever thought about running for office.

For the last 10 years, I had been content to serve my community by serving others seeking public office in advisory roles – that is, if they shared my values. But last year I felt compelled to seek this office because, for far too long, the people I am proud to call my neighbors in the Bronx had been ill-served by those who were suppose to represent them in Albany. I decided to do something about it.

Instead of hoping things would get better or complaining about the way things should be, I decided to be a part of the way things will be for my community. I hope that my story and my election will inspire others to get involved and run for office. I believe it is important to have different points of view in government. Community leaders, business leaders, young people and people of color are part of the fabric of our country and our state, but are seldom told they should run for office. I know many of you reading this newsletter have never thought of yourselves as a candidate or god forbid, a politician, but you may be exactly the right person to represent your community and bring a different point of view to your local, state or federal government.

From what you have experienced so far in Albany, if you could change one thing what would that be and why?

Greater transparency and ethics reform that includes independent redistricting. New Yorkers have a right to know what their legislators are up to. They have a right to be the ones choosing their elected officials as opposed to the system we have now where elected officials get to choose their voters.

We need reforms that will hold legislators accountable to their constituents and ensure that New Yorkers are getting the best representation possible. That is why the first piece of legislation I introduced was a bill that would mandate all legislators to disclose their income and sources of income to the public. Financial disclosure is just way to increase transparency and reform the way Albany works.

Although 53 of my colleagues signed an ethics reform pledge during their campaigns, Majority Leader Dean Skelos hasn’t brought these issues up for a vote. I believe when elected officials make campaign promises that they should be expected to follow through on them and I hope we will be able to vote for financial disclosure, redistricting and other reforms that will be an important step in changing the culture of corruption that has plagued Albany for so long.

What are some of the challenges facing your district?

I represent a district where the median income is $25,000 a year. My constituents have been hit by the economic downturn and now we’re facing severe budget cuts at a local and state level that would cut funding to critical services they depend on. Those critical services include public safety funding, education funding and Medicaid. Some of the largest challenges facing my district are high crime rates, overcrowded school, unemployment and poverty. My constituents can’t afford these budget cuts.

Housing is the other major concern in an environment where rent is going up and rent regulation legislation is about to expire. We need to extend and strengthen that rent regulation.

How are you working to address those issues?

When it comes to my concerns with current budget proposals, I believe there is a way we can reduce these severe budget cuts and still balance the budget. The key is revenue. Right now, middle class and working families are like the ones that live in my district are being disproportionately impacted by these budget cuts. Often it is the most vulnerable populations, those that depend on Medicaid, kids and seniors who will be hit the hardest.

That is why I believe in extending the personal income tax for the wealthiest New Yorkers. This increase in revenue would greatly reduce the budget deficit and create a budget that is truly about shared responsibility and shared sacrifice.

What is the outlook on your five-year plan?

About a year ago, I decided to run for office- something I thought I would never do. If I had a five-year plan, I didn’t follow it. That being said, I love representing the residents of the 33rd Senate District. Often times, it is what you don’t plan for that can be the most rewarding.

I have a different kind of five year plan - a plan for what I hope to see from the legislature in five years. I hope to see a more transparent and better Albany. I hope to see more leaders and individuals who are true to their communities when it comes time to legislate. I hope to see a legislature that reflects the work of an independent redistricting commission. And as a progressive, I have to say that I hope to see a Democratic majority in the Senate that is able to work with the Assembly and Governor to pass progressive legislation that improves the lives of New Yorkers.