Q&A With Gustavo Rivera: Espada’s Replacement Talks State of the State

Gustavo Rivera handily beat scandal-plagued former ex-State Sen. Pedro Espada in 2010. On Wednesday, he embarked on his second legislative session as a state senator representing the Bronx. Photo by Adi Talwar.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who easily beat disgraced incumbent Pedro Espada Jr. in the 2010 race for the 33rd Senate District (Bronx), spoke with MetroFocus after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address on Wednesday.

Q. You replaced a state senator who was facing a slew of corruption charges on the city, state and federal level. Knowing that, what was your top priority going into the job?

A. The most important thing for me was that the people of my district were served well. As I introduce legislation or debate policy, it’s all about how I can best serve my constituency down in the Bronx. One thing that I said over and over to folks when I was knocking on doors was that the main distinction between me and the other guy [Pedro Espada] was that he had forgotten who he worked for.

Q. Did you feel ex-State Sen. Pedro Espada had not been doing his job?

A. That is precisely right. It is the reason why I am here.

Q. In the governor’s speech today, he said that dysfunction in Albany had been completely done away with. Do you feel the same way?

A. There’s always more work to do. I believe the ethics reform package we passed in 2010 was absolutely a good first step in making sure that people serve the folks who they’re supposed to serve.

But I still believe that we need campaign finance reform. We need to get money out of politics. I also believe that we need to establish independent redistricting. I’ve said it during my campaign and certainly during the past year. I’m very glad that the governor has made it clear that he would veto any redistricting plan that does not come from an independent body.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera says there is more work to be done in N.Y. to gain back the trust of the people. Photo by Adi Talwar.

Q. Cuomo intended to address redistricting today in the State of the State, but didn’t. Why is it such a key issue for you? And, why didn’t he get to it?

A. I think it got left out because of time. Here’s the thing: When this governor says he’s going to do something, he does it. If he looks you in the face and says “This is going to happen,” then it happens. When he says he’s going to veto redistricting lines that don’t come from an independent redistricting body, I trust his word.

Independent redistricting is absolutely necessary because as elected officials we should not be picking our voters, our voters should be picking us. And I believe that the gerrymandering of the Republican party, in the State Senate in particular — the way that they’ve manipulated districts for decades — has given them an artificial majority that doesn’t really reflect the people of New York State. And in a lot of places, on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, the power of minority populations is watered down.

Q. Of the issues Cuomo did discuss, which resonated the most with you?

A. The overall tone I think is the first thing. Again, he is one of the most skilled doers that I’ve had the pleasure of being around. That’s how he got an on-time budget passed last year and how we got marriage equality. When he’s saying that we’re going to have more economic development projects across the state, and how those are going to have a positive impact, I think, “Ok, those are things that are positive and that are going to happen.”

When he talks about the tenant protection unit, of how to protect tenants across the state, particularly in New York City, I know that that’s going to happen. When he’s talking about expanding food access across the entire state, that’s something that I think is also going to happen. When he said children will not go hungry in this state because their parents don’t want to have them fingerprinted for food stamps, that’s something we’ve been working on for a long time. It’s unnecessary to fingerprint people who get food stamps. And he agrees with us.

Q. You were a champion of same-sex marriage coming from a religious, Latino district. Was that a hard vote for you? Did you face opposition?

A. For me, marriage equality has always been about basic civil rights. And I’ve always made it very clear where I stand on this. Just because I may disagree with someone on this particular issue doesn’t mean we can’t work together on a lot of other issues. For example, there’s a local City Council member who’s a reverend in my district, Fernando Cabrera. We work very closely on a lot of issues across the district, but we disagree on this issue.

Q. The Occupy Wall Street movement has struck a chord in New York and across the country and world. What should elected officials be doing to address the concerns raised by this movement?

A. I have and always will be supportive of what the Occupy Wall Street movement did. They actually brought the discussion about economic equality — which wasn’t really taking off — to the forefront. If you look six months before OWS started, the discussion didn’t have any traction. What OWS did was bring up the fact that the people who are actually responsible for the economic crisis have not been held accountable. We’re now having that conversation in ways that we weren’t before. Our job is to be supportive of that and to remind people that we serve the majority of the population, not a select, wealthy few.

Q. Is there a legislative answer to the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement?

A. I believe part of the answer is making our tax system more progressive, which is something we began to do in December, by ensuring that the more money one makes, the higher the rate of taxation. I also agree with the message of Occupy Wall Street when it comes to holding the banks and the folks on Wall Street accountable for the foreclosure crisis and all bad behavior that has led to the recession we find ourselves in.

MetroFocus Multimedia Web Editor Georgia Kral conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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