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.”
A DESCENDANT OF RUSSIAN JEWS, Mr. Brodsky grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in a crucible of midcentury New York liberalism. His father organized an engineers union and his mother worked on Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign. They left the same year that the Brooklyn Dodgers did, 1957, and moved to Westchester County. After attending Brandeis and Harvard Law School, the young Brodsky took on a variety of posts aiding politicians, before settling on a private practice that focused on entertainment law.
A thespian in college, he always kept a foot in that world, and maintains a flair for the dramatic. He ended up marrying someone whom he proudly refers to as a “former Broadway showgirl,” Paige Massman, with whom he has two daughters, aged 16 and 22. He plays piano in his spare time with a bunch of other legislators who call themselves the Budget Blues Boys. When he walks, he leads with his chest and shows off his broad forehead by combing back his hair. When he talks, his forceful speech hits you like an ocean wave, and when it recedes, he will throw in a line from Shakespeare or an anecdote about Henry Miller.
Among constituents, Mr. Brodsky is well liked, consistently winning reelection by wide margins. But he has had a hard time advancing to higher office. He ran for Westchester county executive twice, unsuccessfully. Earlier this year he tried to get enough votes among Assembly members to fill the State Comptroller vacancy, but that post went to a chummier rival, Thomas DiNapoli. A legislative insider attributed the loss to Mr. Brodsky’s personality: “He lets everybody know he is the smartest guy in the room, and you are talking about people who have big egos of their own.” A political consultant said, “His meetings are not civil and he takes on causes just for headlines.”
Assemblyman Adam Bradley, a fellow Democrat from Westchester who used to work as Mr. Brodsky’s counsel, was more generous with his assessment.
“In order to implement what he believes is the best public policy, he’s willing to ruffle some feathers,” he said. “That is not true of everybody and that is a courageous approach.”
Mr. Brodsky maintains that he has become more collegial over time.
“We’ve all made mistakes,” he said, “and I have made my share, maybe more, but behind it all is the idea that you have a principled vision of how you would like your community to look and you tell the truth, and you can do that any number of ways, sometimes with charm and sometimes by being feisty.”
Mr. Brodsky is by no means an outsider. He holds a high-ranking committee chairmanship, and his politics are comfortably in synch with those of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Mr. Brodsky defended the speaker from an attempted putsch a few years back and helped lead the drive to repeal the tax on suburban commuters who work in New York City. Mr. Brodsky also opposed the West Side Stadium, which Mr. Silver ended up killing.
AS FOR CONGESTION PRICING, Mr. Silver has been much more skeptical than other government leaders, such as the governor and heads of the State Senate and City Council. It is hard to tell whether he is dictating terms to Assembly Democrats like Mr. Brodsky or if the reservations of Assembly Democrats like Mr. Brodsky have led to Mr. Silver’s ambivalence.
In August, in a clear vote of confidence in the Westchester legislator, Mr. Silver appointed Mr. Brodsky as one of his three appointees to a 17-member panel that is supposed to determine, by Jan. 31, what, if any, congestion-pricing system New York City will impose on drivers. Supporters of congestion pricing worry that he will act as an obstructionist, treating the committee meetings, which are open to the public, as just more hearings to nitpick the proposal to death. His allies, meanwhile, applaud the chance he is giving them to voice their objections and to pound out numerous details in their favor.
The panel’s first meeting, on Sept. 25, did resemble a Brodsky hearing, after all: He asked question after question to reveal the weaknesses, uncertainties and contradictions of the mayor’s plan and the way the M.T.A. wanted to implement it. And yet even some proponents of congestion pricing said that Mr. Brodsky’s questioning was largely helpful.
“Richard is an extremely intelligent guy who I believe could bring consensus to this issue if he really has an open mind,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, and a member of the commission. “For him to become an advocate of congestion pricing is unlikely, but convincing him that the process of getting there is fair and the plan is comprehensive enough are going to be very important to making the commission work.”
Mr. Brodsky maintains that he has an open mind when it comes to the panel, but he has clearly defined views on the issue. In 1995, he sponsored a bill that would have prohibited congestion pricing. This summer, he put out a report identifying 10 objections to Mr. Bloomberg’s plan, ranking from fears that it could lead to charging for using parks to the concern that the 1,000 extra camera stations would constitute an invasion of privacy. Significantly, he (or his staff) did the math and determined that city drivers would be paying almost half of the program’s revenue even though they earn less than their suburban counterparts.
That argument has rankled liberal groups who argue that many more middle– and working-class New Yorkers—95 percent of whom commute to work via bus and subway—will benefit from the revenue from congestion pricing, once it is invested in mass transit improvements.
“A lot of it is lazy thinking—using the language of the middle class to put fear into a large segment of the population for the benefit of a small segment,” said another commission member, Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. “He confuses driving with a public good without recognizing that it is the streets that are the public good.”
Mr. Brodsky believes that progressive groups have been swayed by a powerful billionaire salesman in City Hall, and that there are more effective and less regressive ways to do the same thing. Among them: “congestion rationing,” under which cars would be restricted in their travel depending on their license plates. He recently suggested, for example, that cars with license plates ending with “1” would be prohibited from traveling into core Manhattan on the first, 11th, and 21st of each month.
Rohit Aggarwala, the director of the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, who led a yearlong effort to devise Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal, said that only congestion pricing would relieve traffic congestion, generate revenue and qualify the city and state for $354.5 million in federal funds.
Still, Mr. Brodsky’s arguments have resonance, articulating positions that his colleagues in the legislature can latch onto and making other figures in the state’s political world think twice about which side to be on.
The Working Families Party, a nine-year-old liberal third party backed by unions and community organizations, has not yet formed a position on congestion pricing, in part because of the schism within the city’s progressive community, according to executive director Dan Cantor.
“Brodsky has made it clear that there are cogent arguments on both sides of this thing and he is the most cogent voice on the anti side,” he said. “He is going to articulate and be the champion of the view that this is just an inequitable tax on working- and middle-class people. Others may disagree, but he will be well armed because he reads widely and thinks deeply.”
AFTER THE CONSUMERS UNION MEETING, Mr. Brodsky and his aide drove to the Metro-North station in Yonkers. As he waited on the platform to catch a train down to Manhattan, a middle-aged man came up to him and said he recognized him from cable television. “I hope you run for county executive,” the man said.
Mr. Brodsky smiled and thanked him, and didn’t mention that he already had. He wasn’t going to start an argument about that.