NEW YORK

From Rikers to Albany, Eddie Gibbs is Making History

The lawmaker opens up about moving from incarceration to the State Assembly, and how he plans to use that journey for the public good

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Edward Gibbs is not your cookie-cutter politician. Before being elected to the State Assembly, in January, Gibbs served time in New York’s correctional facilities, making him the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the state legislature.

The distinction has made Gibbs, who goes by “Eddie,” stand out in Albany. Many of his new colleagues have eagerly sought his support on a bevy of criminal justice bills since his February inauguration. “The members will walk up to you and say ‘Hey … welcome! You have a unique story, unique background. Can we put you on this bill?’ And they drive George crazy,” Gibbs tells the Voice over Zoom from his office (referring to legislative director George Espinal). “But it shows you how important my election is to the body, because we can share this experience.”

The 54-year-old represents New York’s 68th District, which covers Spanish Harlem, parts of Central Harlem, Randall’s Island, and parts of the Upper East Side. The seat was vacated last year when former assembly member Robert Rodriguez was appointed by Governor Kathy Hochul as secretary of state. Gibbs, then a district leader, quickly secured the Democratic nomination, and won 81% of the votes in a sleepy special election.

But his political journey was unusual, to say the least. After his prison release, Gibbs was hired as a chauffeur by Murray Richman, the celebrity criminal defense attorney who has represented everyone from rappers Jay-Z and DMX to the city’s Mob families, including the Gambinos and Genoveses. The eccentric attorney took Gibbs under his wing, introducing him to a powerful environment of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. Eventually, Richman encouraged Gibbs to go into politics.

“We said to him ‘Hey, if that’s what you want to do, you can’t go forward without taking these steps,’” recalls Stacey Richman, Murray’s daughter, also a lawyer. (Stacey and Murray Richman spoke to the Voice by phone.) The father-daughter team helped Gibbs compile his application to secure a Certificate of Good Conduct (New York prohibits some individuals with a record of felony convictions or misdemeanors from holding public office; to be eligible they must obtain this certificate), which cleared a legal path allowing the former felon to run.

Backed by the Richmans, Gibbs ran for the Assembly seat in 2006 against incumbent Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the late political powerhouse Adam Clayton Powell Jr. According to Board of Elections records, Gibbs lost the primary but made a respectable showing, winning 18% of the vote share. That experience further ignited his ambitions for public office, and pushed him into more community organizing. “I realized, Oh, people kind of gravitated toward me and voted for me,” Gibbs says of his first campaign. “I was excited.” He became an activist, participating in political rallies and organizing charity events focused on children and senior citizens, before being elected as a district leader.

Gibbs holds a special connection to his constituency. As the second-eldest of four, he was raised by a single mother in East Harlem’s projects. His family survived on welfare, but Gibbs recalls his childhood like many others’: He played hooky with friends, chased after girls, and ran errands for neighbors with his older brother for pocket money. But as the brothers grew up, they began dealing drugs. They started with marijuana, and by age 17, Gibbs was hustling cocaine. The teenager’s rap sheet included pleading guilty to a violation in a domestic violence case and a drug conviction.

Then, as Gibbs tells it, in 1987 an older dealer just out of prison showed up at the family’s front door, expecting to rob money from Gibbs. A fight broke out, ending with a knife wound in Gibbs’s leg and the other guy shot dead. Afterward, Gibbs walked with his mother, who was present at the time of the incident, to the nearby precinct and turned himself in. He spent 17 months on Rikers Island before accepting a plea bargain on the advice of a public defense attorney. “I wasn’t a tough guy,” Gibbs says of entering Rikers as a teenager. “And so going into this other world … it was like, so foreign, and I was really afraid.” The city’s jail was, and still is, notoriously violent (Gibbs calls it “gladiator school”). He eventually served four and a half years in correctional facilities upstate.

Inside the system, Gibbs’s only focus was to get out. He enrolled in a prison education program while serving time at Cayuga Correctional, and earned his associate’s degree in business administration. He was released in 1991. “He wanted to be someone who was effective,” says Murray Richman, who Gibbs considers his mentor. “He wanted to be taken seriously. And the fact that he got elected, he can be taken seriously.”

Despite the painful ordeal, Gibbs credits his rehabilitation to his time hitting the books while behind bars. “I think if I beat the case in 1988 … I woulda came right back home to the streets,” he states. “Staying in prison helped me out because it gave me an opportunity to get my GED, followed by a college degree.” Gibbs’s experience confirms what we already know from research: Prison education programs and other training reduce the likelihood that an individual will return to prison after their release. One of the largest studies ever done on correctional education, by the U.S. Department of Justice and the RAND Corporation, found that incarcerated individuals involved in such programs were 43% less likely to be reincarcerated.

As someone who personally understands the challenges former felons face when reentering society, Gibbs offers singular insight as an elected official—and his colleagues recognize that. While serving on the Assembly’s Corrections Committee, he has co-sponsored several criminal justice reform bills, including legislation to repeal the ban preventing incarcerated individuals from receiving financial aid for higher-education learning through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, and the “Clean Slate” bill, which would seal most misdemeanor and felony records several years after an individual’s release from prison. Notably, Gibbs is also the only Black legislator on that committee, despite wide recognition that criminal justice systems have a disproportionate impact on Black communities.

However, on the heavily politicized topic of bail reform, Gibbs—who spent more than a year at Rikers without a conviction before his plea deal—has refrained from taking an official position. His policy team is studying the issue, and he plans to hold a town hall on it, but he says his constituents are more concerned with other things, adding, “Gun violence is out of control in our district.” He is working on a number of initiatives, including Mayor Eric Adams’s “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” and a guns-to-jobs program that will hopefully go a step beyond gun-buyback incentives. “As opposed to paying kids to give up their weapons, we want to give them a career, something that’s sustainable,” Gibbs explains.

Gibbs’s election to New York’s State Assembly is certainly one for the books, but it could be short-lived if he does not win reelection to a full two-year term this coming November. He has already received an endorsement from Adams, the mayor’s first endorsement of a campaign for state legislature in the 2022 cycle. Yet Gibbs is more focused on what he feels is important: serving the community he grew up in. “Certainly we are petitioning and we are preparing for a primary in June, but we are not going crazy with it,” he says about the upcoming election. The paycheck and privileges of his new job are just temporary perks, because, as Gibbs puts it, regardless of the outcome he will continue serving the community one way or another “until I die.”   ❖

Natasha Ishak is a freelance journalist covering politics in New York City.

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