After over forty years as the 50th district’s Assembly member, Joe Lentol reflects on his political accomplishments and what he plans on doing next. One thing is for sure, he won’t be leaving Greenpoint any time soon.
You’ve had a long career as an Assembly member. What are some of the things you are most proud of?
Within my district, I think one of my greatest accomplishments has been rescuing the waterfront.
People complain about East River State Park and Smorgasburg, but they don’t realize that they were looking at a huge garbage transfer station that our waterfront was becoming. There would be garbage coming in and out of our district, garbage trucks all the time.
The part of the waterfront, where East River State Park is, was already a transfer station at the time and we got rid of it [in 1998.] At the other side of the waterfront, on the Bushwick Inlet side, [TransGas Energy] wanted to build a gas fired electric plant that we opposed. And they were both intended to be located right on the waterfront, which was zoned for industrial use. Both were defeated through outstanding community organizing mostly by GWAPP [Greenpoint Williamsburg Association for Parks and Planning, now called North Brooklyn Neighbors].
Through my legislative experience and relationships, we were able to save the waterfront. We got money in the budget to buy the East River State Park site from Norman Brodsky and that took a lot of planning, and a lot of work, to get a Republican administration to go along with funding that site. And we were the first state park in Brooklyn. I feel very happy about that.
It’s always been my priority to have open space because we live in a concrete jungle, all over the city, and people need green space.
Looking back, can you talk about other things you are proud of?
My work in reforming the criminal justice system is superior to anything that has ever been done before in the state of New York.
First of all, let’s talk about injustice and wrongful convictions, which are the absolute worst conditions that humans can be subjected to and may not ever recover from. I spent a lot of the early time in my chairmanship of the Codes Committee to right that wrong and to get legislation passed in order to improve the system by which somebody who believes he’s been wrongfully convicted can get his case heard.
I have to say the absolute highlight of my career, even though this is not the most important bill in reforming the criminal justice system, was getting the “Raise the Age” bill passed, so we can save our kids lives by investing in kids, rather than incarcerating them.
This wasn’t done like a lot of things would be done now, with a Democratic majority in both houses. We had a majority in the Assembly, but always had a Republican majority in the Senate. In order to be a good legislator, you had to understand political compromise and get things done by compromising with a Republican legislative body that didn’t always agree with the things we wanted to do in the Assembly.
We didn’t get everything that we wanted, but we got a decent bill that now is working and saving people’s lives. How do I know that? And this is why it’s the most proud thing I can tell you I’ve ever done. Mothers came to me, especially in Albany, mothers who work and live in Albany and work in the legislature, especially women of color, thanking me. A big burden had been lifted from their shoulders, they thought, about their kids. They didn’t have to worry about their kids getting charged as adult criminals. Because that’s what we did in the state of New York. We were one of two states in the nation that treated youngsters as adults: if you were 16 or 17, you’d get charged as a criminal, and at the time you could go to criminal jail. This changed all that.
I introduced that bill for twelve years before I got it passed, even though I thought it was going to be a slam dunk to get it done. It took twelve years to raise the age of criminal responsibility with a Republican Senate, and it was done with a Republican Senate.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go into politics and run for office. But I learned at an early age what it was all about and how to do it, because my father would constantly have conversations with me about his work in the legislature to understand. That is one guiding principle of political success. And that is the art of compromise. Because you can’t always get what you want
Why did you run for office?
My father [Edward Lentol] wanted me to run. He wanted somebody to carry on his legacy. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. Everybody wants to be their own man, wants to cut out their own niche in life, and I was no different.
But when I got out of law school, there was an opportunity that came up because my father became a judge. I said to myself, you know, if I don’t do it now it may never happen. Because I may never get a chance to run or somebody may have come along and been there for 48 years, like I was [laughs].
What do you love about Greenpoint?
Well, I love the fact that Greenpoint was a neighborhood. Not like living in New York City, where you live anonymously. It’s changed a little bit now with the influx of a lot of new people were folks don’t know one another. But you know, I grew up with everybody on my block and it was like living in Anytown, USA, as opposed to New York City. And it still is in certain aspects, where certain streets, certain blocks and other blocks have changed. But, I really like the fact we’ve had progress in the neighborhood and the neighborhood was made better by getting rid of all of these noxious uses that they wanted to put here, and that you know people could come and live and be happy.
What is next for you?
I still have a lot more to give and a lot more to do. People are asking me for advice all the time, people who want to run, people who are encouraging me to run, people who are running for office and want me to be on that team. So, I think I’d like that role for a while and I don’t think I want to run again, I think I’m retired.