One recent Wednesday morning, Richard L. Brodsky, an assemblyman from Westchester, was traveling down to Yonkers and reminiscing about all of the liberal hell-raisers he’s worked for or with over his career. The presidential candidate Ed Muskie (“I was holding the mike—he choked up”). The irascible Congresswoman Bella Abzug (“I was a foot shorter after that”). He got to know the singer Pete Seeger while agitating against the nuclear power plant at Indian Point. He idolized Stanley Fink, a legendary speaker of the New York State Assembly.
Then, already late for a meeting, he guided his deputy chief of staff, who was at the wheel, into a parking lot. “Just take the handicapped spot,” he suggested, but she thought better of it and found a legitimate spot of her own, and together, with The Observer in tow, they walked into a low-slung 1960-ish building that Consumers Union calls its headquarters.
“They don’t know it, but I am responsible for them being here,” Mr. Brodsky remarked while waiting in the lobby.
His aide checked them in, but a few minutes later the doorman, a bored, college-aged kid, called him over to the window.
“Do you represent another company?”
Mr. Brodsky shot back, “Why is that relevant?”
“They tell me to ask.”
Mr. Brodsky placed his hand on the counter. “We are representing the people of the 92nd Assembly District.”
This is Richard Brodsky, a feisty, erudite legislator who can be by turns passionate, principled, self-aggrandizing and brash. A self-described progressive known for having a point of view on pretty much everything, he is also emerging as a key player in the battle over congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to charge $8 to drive in core Manhattan on weekdays. Mr. Brodsky does not like it.
Over the course of a day during which Mr. Brodsky allowed The Observer to tag along, the 61-year-old Democrat held meetings with various advocacy groups in his office, in their offices and in the generic state office building in Manhattan; discussed net neutrality, congestion pricing, the proposed subway fare hike, the decline of progressive values and how, when people say that he is a “smart guy,” they can mean two things: that he is a “smart guy” or that he is a “smart guy”—the difference being in the leer in one’s voice.
“If I need to kick ass, let me know,” he said to one ally.
“You might want to stick your nose into that and make everybody’s life miserable,” he told one woman fighting Indian Point.
“We ought to really ride this pony to get New York’s progressive constituencies aware of what is at stake,” he told the people at Consumers Union, with whom he met to discuss “net neutrality,” the idea that technology companies should not censor or manipulate communications via Internet, cellphone or cable television. The way to ride it, he decided, was to hold a public hearing and have the Consumers Union come up with a witness list. The hearing was to take place Oct. 17.
Mr. Brodsky has elevated the public hearing to an art form—one of the achievements he’s most proud of in his 25 years in the Assembly—deftly using the forums to extend legislative oversight and to raise government accountability. Plus, the hearings boost his own profile. Since 2003, Mr. Brodsky has held 63 on topics far and wide: the power outages in Queens and Westchester, the Erie Canal Corporation, the Javits Convention Center and New York City’s hurricane preparedness.
It was at a Brodsky hearing in 2003 that a property owner admitted that he paid $500,000 to former Senator Al D’Amato to make one phone call. At another Brodsky hearing, in 2004, it was revealed that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had not planned to get the Western Rail Yards appraised before selling them to the Jets football team for a stadium.
It is an art that his colleagues in the Assembly have not yet come to understand.
“When it comes time to ask questions,” he explains, “they tend to make speeches. ‘As you know, I have been deeply concerned about congestion pricing and the economic impact on poor people’—no, no, no. When you are in that sort of situation, the question you give to witnesses is, ‘What is the effect on middle-income people?’ That’s why you are there.”