We’re kicking off another season of our election coverage, which for us always means interviews with each of the candidates running. This year, Greenpoint locals will vote for State Assembly, State Senate, and District Leader. You can check out our interview with Assembly Member Emily Gallagher here and her challenger Anathea Simpkins here.

As a reminder, Greenpointers does not take money for political ads from any candidate, ensuring our independent coverage.

Off the heels of her first term in political office, State Senator Kristen Gonzalez spoke to us about what she’s accomplished so far. She represents District 59, a three borough district which encompasses most of Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Kips Bay, and Gramercy Park.

This is the only candidate interview that we have lined up for State Senate District 59. The other Democratic candidate for the office, Gus Lambropoulos, did not follow through with a scheduled interview with Greenpointers. See his campaign website to learn more about him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re wrapping up your first term as an elected official. Now that you have a moment to reflect, what are some accomplishments that stand out to you, or lessons learned?

It’s been a really great year and a half that we’ve been in office. I’m really proud of the work that I’ve been doing, both in Albany and back in the district, particularly around three of the issues that we centered in our initial primary. We fought for affordable housing, and since then, in the last two sessions, fought for and won increased tenant protections and have really been working to advocate for renters like myself in Albany. 

We also ran on universal health care and health access, and in the district, we’ve been working on fighting hospital closures. In Manhattan, we have a proposal for a closure with Mt. Sinai Beth Israel, and we’ve been leading the fight on that. And then in Albany, passing two pieces of legislation that really set the standards for hospital closure processes that mandate community input, but also a data-driven approach, and I think that’s really exciting to have passed bills and be organizing a district. 

Finally, we had worked on and ran on a green New York, and since taking office as a member of the Energy Committee, we helped pass the Build Public Renewables Act, which is a landmark piece of legislation that gives New York the right to build and own its own renewable energy sources. Back in the district, we’ve been investing in our park space, working on waterfront resiliency, because we have a waterfront district on both sides of the river. And partnering with local community organizations like the Newtown Creek Alliance to think through what a greener northern Brooklyn can look like. So it’s been a productive year and a half in office, but I think what’s been really exciting for me is just actually getting to live and deliver the things that we talked about two years ago.

We’re always hearing, and I’m sure your office is too, about issues surrounding affordable housing and rent increases. Good Cause eviction passed, albeit in a watered down form, but what are some other ways that we can increase affordable housing and tenant protections?

That’s a great question. Even having any version of Good Cause in the state budget was a massive win, because it was so clear from the beginning that the governor and obviously the real estate lobby never wanted to see that bill be passed. In my first session, we held the line so tightly on tenant protections that we actually had the housing package get kicked out of the budget, and then we held it again at the end of session. We left Albany last year without doing anything on housing. And to have brought that fight into this year and then seen the bill through, I think that’s a result, of course, working in Albany, but also working on the ground with a massive tenants movement and housing advocates coalition that really built the momentum to demand that any housing deal have a version of Good Cause if it was also going to have the incentives that real estate wanted to see, like a new program for 421-a.

While I think the version we passed on Good Cause was certainly not the version we had hoped for, because we wanted to have the absolute strongest version of that bill, I do just want to call out that that is still a win. And when I look at housing and at this district, we’re not only a district of renters but we have a lot of rent-stabilized units. In Astoria, for example, almost half the housing stock there is rent-stabilized. In Manhattan, we have Stuyvesant Town, one of the largest concentrations of rent stabilized units. Because of that, when I look at the final version of the housing deal, I saw that there were increases in individual apartment improvements, meaning that the costs could be passed down to the rent stabilized tenants, and as a result, I actually voted no on that package, and I stood up, and I think that’s something I’ve been proud of in Albany, is being able to take hard votes and really just have my votes be informed directly by my constituents across the three boroughs, because there were so many tenant associations where tenant organizers in the district had reached out about that specifically and asked for a no vote.

The question around what else can we do, I think we’re fighting very hard in Albany but some of the other things that I do want to call out that we passed: there was a new version and money for the beginning of a new version for a Mitchell-Lama program. We also had matched the amount of money that we put into public housing that we did on last year’s budget, so I think supporting our public housing is really important, and funding it. But what we’re really moving towards and what I’m excited about is a bill that Assemblymember Gallagher is carrying in the assembly right now, alongside Senator Cordell Cleare in the Senate for green social housing. If we continue to not only build on the wins that we have, but be very clear that the future of housing should be social housing, it will be a longer term fight, but I am sure, based on the progress we’ve made we can win it, and social housing is just a better model for what the future of our housing stock could look like. We can be clear on our long term demands and support bills like this, and we can build on the wins that we already have in the housing movement.

State Senator Kristen Gonzalez at a housing rally. Image via campaign website.

The G train shutdown is approaching, which will make necessary repairs, but might be a bit of a logistical pain for Greenpointers. The MTA and DOT presented their plan for how they will be handling the shutdown at a recent town hall. What was your take on their plan? Do you think it went far enough in providing adequate alternatives for transportation? 

I was a co-sponsor of that town hall along with Assemblymember Gallagher and City Council Member Lincoln Restler. And the MTA did a very good job of presenting. And of course their plan is to maintain frequent service of shuttles during the closure, but also beyond, because we know that there are going to improvements that will be happening even past the initial shutdown.

That said, as elected officials, and I think as a community, it’s our job to really hold them to it. I’m working closely with the other offices to talk about, is the frequency going to be there? Are we going to maintain the open street that we need, in the sense that there’s a very clear bus lane and they’re going to be ensuring that these shuttles have the fastest path to get folks to Long Island City? And keeping an eye on feedback from our constituents to reflect any frustration they may be having. I’m excited that they came, I’m excited that there’s a plan, and I’m certainly happy to see the MTA taking this seriously by appointing a G train czar. I think it’s our job to make sure that things are running the way they need to so that we’re delivering for our northern Brooklyn residents who really see and live the G train as their lifeline in northern Brooklyn. The improvements are important, but so are long-term deep investments and a holistic public transit system that includes expanded bus routes, ferry service, that runs on renewables. So these are all first steps toward the larger fight for a more robust public transit system and the greener New York that I know very much Senate District 59 wants.

Political change is often slow-moving, but if reelected, what are some things you reasonably hope to achieve in the next two-year term?

I want to call out some of the other work that we’ve been doing in our role as chair of Internet and Technology in Albany. Because I chair that committee, I’ve focused a lot on the last year and a half on cybersecurity since we’ve seen an increase of cyber attacks on our local, state, and federal governments. And I’ve also been focused on artificial intelligence. In this last legislative session, I won two landmark pieces of legislation. First, the FAIR Act which passed in the state budget. What the FAIR Act did was regulate the use of deepfakes in elections. And I thought that was really important given that we are in a presidential election year, but also given that we’ve seen a rise in misinformation, especially around the alt-right.

The second bill that was also a landmark is the LOADinG Act, which I passed at the end of session [and] is a bill around government use of artificial intelligence and automated decision making systems. And that bill sets clear standards for how and when and where our state government should be using, not only automated decision making systems to make big decisions about New Yorkers lives but moving forward, sets the standard for how we’re incorporating new types of technology, like generative AI with large language models. What made the LOADinG Act another landmark piece of legislation is because it’s the first bill in the country that’s been passed around AI that includes clear labor provisions that protect government workers from automation. And that’s why the LOADinG Act was so strongly supported by the AFL-CIO, who really helped us get that bill across the finish line, in both the Senate and the Assembly. 

I mention these because obviously AI is going to continue to be a really big topic of conversation for all of us. There’s no sector that will be untouched by the technology and advancements. But because we’ve been able to win on it means that we can also continue to win on it. We’re looking, of course, in the next session in the next two years, to turn our attention to the private sector and have clearer standards there.

Outside of our committee though, we still have a robust legislative agenda, and some bills that I was able to pass through the Senate, but have not been passed through the Assembly that we’re going to come back and fight for. One is the green affordable pre-electrification program, which allows buildings that aren’t quite up to the code they need to be to receive funding from our state government to transition to renewables, to help them get up to code, to help with the larger transition off of fossil fuels to renewable energy to that housing stock that is aging, and a lot of them are needing exactly that type of retrofitting. We’re going to be coming back and looking more at health and hospitals, fighting for more standards around data collection with the Department of Health. I had a bill on shelter WiFi so making sure every shelter or temporary housing facility in the state provides WiFi access for the unhoused. 

These are big fights that I’m excited for next year and the year after. Outside of both our committee agenda and our legislative agenda, I’m really excited to continue organizing in the district. For this, I really do want to focus in on Greenpoint because Greenpoint and Williamsburg have been two of the most organized communities I have ever seen. Through that organizing, we’ve taken on big fights, like for example, the fight to make McGuinness safe, or the fight for investments in our green infrastructure and protections on flooding, and I want to continue working on those things because it’s clear to me that Greenpoint sees a future that really is a model for the rest of the city.

Those local fights are what make me really excited, and as a State Senator, it also gets me a lot of energy at the state level to think about how are we investing in our communities.

Is there anything else you want to communicate to voters?

To introduce myself to any new Greenpointers or folks who didn’t see us in the last cycle, I was born and raised in New York. I’m the daughter of an immigrant family. My mom is a teacher. Growing up in New York, and growing up in a largely immigrant, working class community has really informed my own politics. In my first primary, I talked about how I grew up between two New Yorks. I would commute to the Upper East Side for school, and seeing those two New Yorks, and seeing how our city can look different in different places, based on investment, is also the lens that I bring to this three borough district. What’s been really exciting is not only having a diverse district, it’s that everywhere, there are working New Yorkers who genuinely believe and are invested in the fight for a dignified life, and there’s so much more that unites us than divides us. I feel so proud to have that personal background and to be able to take that lived experience and bring an organizing mindset to office. Before I took office, I organized for a decade around several different fights. I’ve worked across levels of government, from city council to the Obama White House to [Senator] Schumer’s office. I studied political science at Columbia. I also organized around the census and have been on my local community board. All of that experience has really helped me bring the “in the district” organizing to office. This bottom up approach takes what I’m hearing on the ground in all three places, but brings that to Albany. 

That’s really reflected in what we’ve passed, what we’ve championed, and how much we’ve won, because you’re not able to pass anything without a big coalition and without clear legislative partners. Our campaign is the throughline between my own lens and the personal experience with how we navigate in office, I think the coalition that we build has also set us apart. I have been endorsed by every overlapping elected [official] that I’ve been working with. We’ve been endorsed by over 50, between electeds, unions, and organizations in New York City and New York state. Having this progressive coalition that makes us positioned to continue delivering for our community is really exciting. 

The other thing that I would want Greenpointers but also our broader district to know is how much specific investment we’ve brought back to the district. In addition to the local fights I mentioned and the legislation that we’ve passed, I’ve brought back in total between programmatic funding and capital funding, over $9 million to the district. That’s been invested in programming around seniors, around young people, public safety, parks, and so much more. It’s really exciting to be able to announce in Greenpointers the $1 million that we’re going to bring to McCarren Park. We’re going to be doing a more formal announcement of that soon, but that million will go towards infrastructure improvements in McCarren. I feel very proud to have brought back money directly from Albany that’ll improve the lives of every day northern Brooklyn residents and every day New Yorkers who travel to northern Brooklyn to enjoy McCarren Park. [Editor’s note: this $1 million is separate from the $1 million that Council Member Lincoln Restler’s office secured for dog park improvements in McCarren]

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