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By Amanda Dingyuan
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There is a new attorney general to be elected this year, and if we are looking for a résumé to match the job description of a people's lawyer, we can stop right here: His name is Richard L. Brodsky, assemblyman of Westchester, and as long as you agree that statesman-like diplomacy is not the top requirement, he is your man.
He has been busting corporate, and political, chops for more than 25 years with a long record of wins for our team.
Tell me another candidate who can claim to have stared down George Steinbrenner—not in his current dotage, but in his politician-buying prime, and not once but several times. Oh, yes, when Steinbrenner said a few years back that he'd just move his ball club across the river to New Jersey if he didn't get a new Manhattan stadium, Brodsky introduced what he called his "Sports Fans Protection Act." The bill would use the state's powers of eminent domain to condemn the club, and run it as a publicly owned asset like the Green Bay Packers. This beautiful plan did not move forward only because its primary objective was achieved when Steinbrenner dropped his threat.
A few years earlier, Brodsky responded to complaints about the many drunken brawls erupting in the stadium stands. Steinbrenner's Yankees insisted everything was under control. Brodsky introduced a bill creating separate seating for those who would enjoy their baseball without the distraction of beer-induced riots. Again, the Yankees caved, setting aside segregated seats.
Then there was the players' strike that the club owners forced back in 1994. Brodsky introduced a bill to ban the use of replacement players in New York's publicly owned stadiums. More Steinbrenner carpet-chewing ensued.
Last year, Brodsky gave Steinbrenner's heirs their own drubbing when he released their e-mail correspondence with Mayor Bloomberg's deputies. At issue was how much free food the Yankees would provide when the mayor's people sat in their free luxury box at the new $2 billion stadium they were helping the Yankees build on public parkland. The shouting match at the hearing between Yankees president Randy Levine and Brodsky was something to see.
"Your behavior in this entire matter is worthy of the Grandstanding Hall of Fame," shouted Levine, red in the face. Brodsky looked down at the witness, suppressing a smile. His look said: "That's supposed to be an insult?" The free luxury box soon disappeared from the plans.
And these are only his recreational achievements. The notches on Brodsky's legislative belt are many: The state's first-ever cancer-cluster maps, linked to environmental threats? A Brodsky initiative. The deciding vote against the death penalty, back when it was all that voters cared about? Brodsky's ballot. The fight against the Indian Point nuclear power plant? Brodsky helped launch it when he was a Westchester County legislator. The drive to force General Electric to get its PCBs out of the Hudson River? Brodsky, then chairman of the Assembly Environmental Committee, pushed so hard for the measure that an old-fashioned congressman named Gerald Solomon, whose upstate district included GE's plants, declared that Brodsky "ought to be horsewhipped, and run out of the state."
All right, granted: Solomon wasn't the first or last person to think that something along these lines might improve Richard Brodsky's disposition. "He's a zealot!" thundered a high-ranking state Democrat when asked about the candidate. State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is backing Brodsky in the race, but more than a few believe the Speaker is doing so with the hope that he finally gets him out of his hair.
But what of it? Chutzpah, with a dose of arrogance, comes with the territory when you ask someone to go into the legislative lion's den over and over. Brodsky learned how to throw punches as a youth. Hobbled by polio, he was taught by his father how to box: "I fought peek-a-boo-style," he says of his boxing style.
In this year's race for the attorney general's office, there is a glut of talented candidates. Some of them claim that being from the legislature in Albany's time of dysfunction is a straight-out disqualifier. Brodsky single-handedly proves this untrue. For more than two decades, he has been our equivalent of those trust-busting senators at the turn of the last century who took on the titans of industry, the Robert LaFollette–types who used their offices as a bully pulpit for justice.
"In terms of Albany, he's a ferocious force," says Rich Schrader, the former city Consumer Affairs commissioner who now lobbies for environmental groups. "He stands and fights when so many others run for the sidelines."
Take that glorious moment during his series of hearings on abuses by state authorities during the last years of the Pataki administration. Silver had handed Brodsky the reins of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, and the Westchester pol was off to the races. He subpoenaed the leaders of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who were demanding a fare hike at the same time that they were spending billions on a hugely overpriced white elephant of a headquarters at 2 Broadway. Under Brodsky's questioning, the owner of the building told how he and his lenders had paid Alfonse D'Amato, the Pataki mentor and senator-turned-lobbyist, $500,000 for making a single phone call to the MTA's chairman on their behalf. D'Amato squirmed and tried to deny it. Brodsky produced the cancelled checks.
It was the first in a series of Brodsky exposés: He discovered a deal cut by a division of the Thruway Authority to sell 45 miles of development rights along the Erie Canal to a Republican crony for all of $30,000. "The state is selling used trucks for more than this," Brodsky said. Pataki's office insisted that the deal was news to them. But memo and e-mail traffic between the governor's office and the agency, produced under court order after Brodsky subpoenaed it, showed that Pataki's people had been calling the shots the entire time.
Another hearing asked why the state power authority had hired Pataki's former state police bodyguard as a $160,000-a-year inspector general, even though he'd taken the Fifth Amendment in front of a grand jury. Pataki stormed out of a press conference when asked about it. Another hearing spotlighted six-figure contracts awarded by the Long Island Power Authority to the governor's top political consultant. "He's on a witch hunt," Pataki's people said. Brodsky beamed. The only higher praise was the new public authority accountability law, creating new watchdog oversight, that the legislator sponsored and saw signed into law in December.
"I've believed in everything I've done," he said the other day. "And I have been wrong sometimes. But I believed in it. The genius of the American system is that if you bring that quality to the job, good things can happen."
If this isn't enough, there is also the flip, sensitive side of this fierce legislative tiger. Last weekend, he said, he baked a loaf of bread for a friend, folk singer Pete Seeger, and delivered it to Seeger's home in Beacon. Brodsky started baking bread because his wife's family owns a flour company. "I make this old, corn-flour Jewish rye," he says. As for Seeger, the pair got to know each other when they jointly sued the owners of the Indian Point nuclear plant for polluting the Hudson. The lawsuit is ongoing, and Brodsky goes to hear his friend whenever he can: "I heard him in Newburgh this month. He sang the best version of 'This Land Is Your Land' that I've heard in 25 years."