Sen. Duane decries Albany dysfunction at town hall

After an admittedly “despicable” summer in Albany, State Sen. Thomas Duane expressed confidence that votes on same-sex marriage and rent reforms could come by the end of the month despite the likely political wrangling that will occur when lawmakers return to session.

Speaking at a town hall meeting on Tues., Sept. 1, in Times Square, Duane spent the initial part of the public question-and-answer period apologizing for the “inexcusable” actions of senators on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m not going to talk about the wonderful things I do and how great I am,” said a contrite Duane before the audience of about 75, adding that he was “mortified” by the Senate’s actions over the past few months. “There is absolutely no excuse at all. It was terrible and despicable, and every criticism leveled at us is deserved, and I am deeply sorry,” he said.

Throughout much of the two-hour meeting, Duane regularly referred to his “hate” for the state political machine and some of his fellow colleagues, statements that played well to the senator’s Downtown constituency.

“I am ashamed personally of what I was in the middle of,” he continued. “It was the worst experience in my activist or public-service life, which has been really my entire life. I was horrible and inexcusable and I am deeply, deeply sorry.”

Legislation Duane has advocated most vocally for—gay marriage and rent regulations—came tantalizing close to passing before the coup paralyzed Albany, sending both of the controversial issues to the backburner, he explained.

“I think we have the votes—I know we have the votes,” Duane said of the marriage bill. “There are enough votes pass marriage in the Senate, if people can vote their conscience, if people can vote the way they told me they’re going to vote. In politics, we may be the exception, but generally when someone says you have my vote, you can take it to the bank—because that’s really the only thing we have with each other.”

Duane added, however, that due to rifts caused by the shakeup—some of which have divided members of his own Democratic party—the marriage bill would not make it to the floor on Sept. 10 when the Senate convenes for a special session. Some lawmakers’ continued distaste for Governor Paterson will also prevent a vote on marriage, he said, because Paterson “has made this a signature issue, and I think on September 10, they’re not going to want to give him—some of them would not want to give him a victory.”

Depending on how the special session goes, the marriage issue still remains ripe enough for advocates to resume their push following strides made by supporters earlier this year, Duane noted.

“At the moment, generally in the activist community, people are thinking that [late September] is the better time because there’s a better chance to win, because it would be too difficult to rev everybody up again,” he said, adding that the marriage bill, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) and the Dignity For All Students Act (DASA) “were literally in the pipeline to be brought to the floor and be voted on positively.”

“The end of September is now the time that we’re working to rev everyone back up again, get it on the floor and get it passed,” he added.

Describing the failure to push through tenant protections as “probably my greatest disappointment,” Duane sounded hopeful that rent regulation legislation would pass in the late-September session. The repeal of vacancy decontrol—a law that currently allows landlords to convert units to market-rate once a tenant moves out and the monthly rent reaches $2,000—does not appear to have enough votes to pass in the current climate, he said.

“My dedication to the cause of tenants and rent regulation has been the reason—I would have to say the biggest reason—that I ran for office to begin with,” Duane noted of his commitment to the issue. He contended that the Senate power struggle originally stemmed from the issue due to the landlord lobby’s influence in Albany

“The coup—there’s no doubt in my mind at all that it was about real estate. But they’re not going to win,” he said. “I don’t care how powerful they think they are—people think they are—we are going to come down firmly on the side of tenants and ending vacancy decontrol, and if I have my way, expanding regulation and preserving more affordable housing.”

The attempt to secure middle-school space at the state-owned site at 75 Morton St. should happen “quick, before real estate goes up,” Duane said, adding that now everyone is having children.

“When I was a young gay, we were like, ‘Well the good thing is you don’t have to have kids,’” he joked. “Now, you have to have kids! Gay, lesbian, straight—everyone’s having kids!”

Duane also discussed the need to build a bus garage on the West Side to accommodate the many tour buses that park and idle from Hell’s Kitchen down through the West Village. Possible sites have already been identified, including space in the Hudson Yards, and Duane said it’s an issue he’s remained committed to ever since his days as member of Community Board 4.

In regard to PS 51 in Hell’s Kitchen, Duane said he supports the expansion of pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students only, but not middle-school students due to overcrowding in the area. He also discussed his attempts to secure a second play space on the roof of PS 51 as part of the expansion.

For the redevelopment of St. Vincent’s hospital in the West Village, “every option having to do with St. Vincent’s was awful,” Duane said, acknowledging the need for a state-of-the-art hospital for the community. He added, “we just tried to make the best of a terrible situation.”

One of the last things the senator talked about was illegal hotels, an issue Duane has remained vigilant on. “Long term, we are struggling to regulate them,” he said, noting the state’s difficulty in differentiating between legitimate and illegal hotels.

Duane said he will continue to support efforts aimed at creating a board that would give the hotels a period of time to come up to code and prove they aren’t operating illegally.