By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — While intense division characterizes the national election scene this year, one local Greek-American candidate for state office is assured an easy slide into another term. Michael Gianaris, who was sworn in to the New York State Assembly in January of 2001, hopes that the fact he is running unopposed is an indication that the people of his district are happy with the hard work he has put into his job over the last four years.
“My priorities have been to protect the public safety and the environment,” he told GreekNews, pointing specifically to the energy security act he initiated and which was passed into law last year. The act is the state’s first anti-terrorism law since 9/11. Though he introduced the legislation to address the problem of lax security around power plants, Gianaris noted that its approach has been expanded to include chemical plants.
Before the passage of another bill Gianaris introduced for the protection of communities and children, sex offenders convicted in other states were able to move to New York and avoid having their names placed on a publicly available list, which Megan’s Law required for those convicted in New York. Today, that is no longer the case, and, Gianaris said, “There is more public awareness and safety for children in our neighborhoods.”
A potential candidate for the office of New York Attorney General (he has raised the most funds among those who have announced their intentions to raise funds for a run), Gianaris was one of the plaintiffs in a multi-party suit brought against the New York Power Authority, which resulted in the “mothballing” of the Poletti power project. The suit ran its course and the settlement requires that the NYPA close down by 2010 “the city’s largest polluter, a power plant which emitted pollutants at a margin of two to one over the next largest polluter in the city,” he said. He also counts among his successes the enactment of a clean energy law, which encourages power plants to reduce pollution by 75% or more and is already having a “good impact on air quality.”
When Gianaris ran for office in 2000, the Harvard Law School graduate wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears when it came to public service. Beginning his involvement in civic work in 1988, he chaired a voter registration committee which registered more than 10,000 voters in the New York metropolitan area. He began his career in public service as an aide to Congressman Thomas Manton and later served as Governor Mario Cuomo’s Queens County Regional Representative. However, while that preparation gave him an understanding of government bureaucracy, it could not help him anticipate the impact the events of September 11, 2001 would have on his life both as a human being and as a servant of the people.
“I had expected to come in and work as hard as I could on issues of importance to the community; and knowing that my work is having an impact on people’s lives, that expectation’s been met. But I hadn’t expected the overwhelming danger and the seriousness on a personal level of the job that 9/11 brought with it. I have attended funerals and met with families who have lost loved ones and are suffering such a great loss because of such a horrible incident.”
One of those people is the widow of Carlos Lillos, a paramedic whose memory Gianaris was instrumental in honoring through the creation of a new park in the neighborhood, across the street from an elementary school.
“As the storage place for a construction company’s equipment it is currently an eyesore. When the new park is completed, and in future years, it will be a source from which children will learn about the history of this city and about sacrifice. I am also pleased that through its establishment, we are providing more green space in the area.”
On a more serious note when it comes to issues pertaining to 9/11, Gianaris is disappointed he has not met with the same success with the current federal administration when it comes to obtaining the funds New York needs to protect itself.
“It is a shame that money distributed for terrorism protection is distributed like any other piece of pork barrel spending; Wyoming is getting more money per capita for its protection from terrorism than we are. But the issue is always there, and I will continue to fight for the protection of the citizens I represent.”
In his next term, Gianaris plans to work to make government more efficient and productive and to reform the way its business is conducted. One of three Democratic assemblymen to introduce legislation intended for that purpose, he would like to see the creation of an independent commission for the drawing of district lines. As it stands today, the majority parties in both the State Assembly and the State Senate hold that power.
“Although I think almost all of my colleagues are reelected because they are doing a good job, creating an independent commission removes any suggestion of a conflict of interest when it comes to drawing lines,” he said. The bill already has “a couple dozen” cosponsors and doesn’t appear to have created discord among the members of the two legislative bodies.
If there is any disappointment over not being able to accomplish some of the things he had wanted to (such as requiring ConEdison to protect people from the kind of stray voltage that killed one woman earlier this year), Gianaris quickly reminds us that he will continue to work on “making a difference, the single most important reason I got into this line of work to begin with,” on such issues as the environment, health care and prescription drug coverage for seniors and education for children.
While he is fully aware of the impact public service has had on his personal life (“I don’t have a lot of free time anymore, and my girlfriend isn’t happy about that”), he finds that he loves what he does so much that sacrificing personal time is not a problem.
“For a couple of years, I worked in private practice at a law firm and was doing very well, but it wasn’t getting me going in the morning; I wasn’t waking up with a smile. Today, I find my work very gratifying.”