Alessandra Biaggi is carving her own path

The outspoken New York State senator is already being floated as a potential successor to embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Alessandra Biaggi was, in some respects, repaying a debt of gratitude when she stood beside Scott Stringer as he launched his campaign for New York City mayor last September in Upper Manhattan. The young progressive lawmaker, then finishing her first term in the State Senate, was endorsing a candidate who had backed her grassroots bid for public office just two years earlier.

But that sense of camaraderie fell apart late last month after Stringer’s campaign was upended by allegations of sexual misconduct. Almost immediately, several of his opponents called on him to withdraw from the race, and the Working Families Party pulled its support. Biaggi delivered one of the most damaging blows to Stringer’s prospects when she rescinded her endorsement in a briefly worded joint statement signed by a group of like-minded lawmakers who had helped coronate the two-term city comptroller as a leading progressive in the crowded Democratic mayoral field.

In distancing herself from Stringer’s candidacy, Biaggi was severing her connection to a man credited with boosting her long-shot primary bid against Jeff Klein, whose chummy relationship with the GOP made him one of Albany’s most powerful yet reviled Democrats. But it was also clear that what seemed like a mutually beneficial alliance turned out to be something of a lopsided dynamic — without his progressive base, Stringer’s campaign has almost certainly come undone.

Now three years into her tenure representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester, Biaggi, 34, has gained a reputation, on her own merits, as an upstate force — an influential lawmaker with a growing list of legislative accomplishments who has carved out a space for herself as an outspoken and independent voice in Albany’s cutthroat political sphere.

“We created an opening in Albany,” Biaggi said of her victory in 2018, part of a wave of progressive candidates such as Jessica Ramos and Zellnor Myrie who took down a prominent group of Democratic state senators known to caucus with Republicans. “It was a cesspool and really bad things were happening. But because we transformed it, we were able to do all of these things.”

Already, Biaggi’s name is being floated as a possible primary challenger capable of taking on New York’s embattled governor, Andrew Cuomo, laid low in recent months by a series of sexual harassment accusations and COVID-related scandals that seem to have diminished his chances for reelection. “She’s an extremely popular and energetic senator who has quickly gained stature and seems destined for leadership positions,” said a Democratic political consultant, adding: “She has the smarts and drive to do it.”

New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, right, and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, left, hug as demonstrators gather for a rally decrying New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 outbreak, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

Eli Valentin, an author and political analyst in New York, agreed. “I do believe that she has the potential to go statewide,” he said, describing Biaggi as a “pragmatic progressive” whose qualifications as an elected official give her a marked advantage over previous left-wing contenders like Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout. “We will definitely hear a lot more about Biaggi outside of calling her senator.”

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Biaggi said she was “flattered” by the suggestion that she could mount a credible gubernatorial bid. But without denying the possibility outright, she largely dismissed such speculation. “It’s not something that I am thinking about doing,” she clarified. “But I certainly am here to make the most impact in people’s lives, and I am very much open to the energy of the universe guiding me in that direction. We’ll see where it leads.”

If Biaggi was hedging, it was by no means because she was worried about offending the sensibility of New York’s tempestuous two-term governor. Throughout her time in the state legislature, Biaggi has served as one of Cuomo’s most dedicated bête noires, once likening his administration to a “dictatorship” while, alongside two Democratic colleagues in the state legislature, accusing the governor of hypocrisy on campaign finance reform. “Idiots,” Cuomo responded

For Biaggi, such animosity is borne of first-hand experience: a former lawyer, she worked in Cuomo’s Counsel’s Office before seeking election. “I have been onto him,” she said, “since almost the moment that I have been introduced to his administration.” In late February, Biaggi was among the first elected officials to call for Cuomo’s resignation amid mounting allegations of sexual harassment. “Because I have a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment, it was with ease that I could make that statement,” said Biaggi, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “I absolutely believe the women coming forward.”

Biaggi, who leads the Senate Ethics Committee, has established herself as a leading voice in Albany on the subject of sexual abuse, having chaired the state’s first sexual harassment hearing in 27 years. As a result of the hearing, Biaggi says she was able to draft legislation allowing for “the strongest sexual harassment and discrimination laws in the country, which was not an easy feat.”

“She is definitely making a name for herself as someone who is an advocate for victims of sexual violence,” said Susan Kang, an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“I want to be present to what I’m responsible for,” Biaggi said. “That is really what’s important to me. But I also am committed to growth and to making the most impact I possibly can.”

Biaggi’s name is likely familiar to those who remember her late grandfather, Mario, the well-liked Bronx congressman who resigned from office in 1988 amid a corruption scandal and served 26 months in prison. “I was very close to him,” recalled Biaggi, who was two years old at the time of his resignation. “He was very stern about certain things,” she said, choking up as she remembered their relationship. “If I came home with an A, he’d be like, ‘Where’s the rest of the points?’”

“It’s a lot of where my drive comes from,” Biaggi told JI, noting that she has no current ambitions to follow his path to Congress. “Right now, I do not,” she said. “I want to be present to what I’m responsible for,” Biaggi explained, pointing to unfinished work on survivors’ rights as well as a host of other issues. “That is really what’s important to me. But I also am committed to growth and to making the most impact I possibly can.”

Mario was known as a fierce defender of Israel who developed close ties with Jewish community members during his time in office, and his granddaughter seems to have forged similarly strong connections. Yehuda Shmidman, a Jewish activist in Riverdale and CEO of WHP Global, described Biaggi as a ubiquitous presence in her district who listens attentively and is deeply attuned to her constituents. “I saw her jump into action post-COVID,” said Shmidman, referring to an interfaith Zoom call for local religious schools. “In going around the Zoom room, I saw Sen. Biaggi really hone in on every single person and every single issue.”

Deann Forman, CEO of the Riverdale Y, said that Biaggi “has been an active partner in addressing the needs and concerns of the Jewish community,” adding that the senator has participated in Riverdale Jewish Community Partnership calls on such issues as Holocaust Remembrance Day, COVID planning and the recent wave of antisemitic attacks against several local synagogues.

“That has been a very big part of discussions that I’ve had, whether it’s in roundtables or town halls or one-on-one conversations,” Biaggi said of the wave of antisemitic attacks, including four Riverdale synagogues targeted in late April. “It’s been very important to me, and I know it’s also very important and top of mind to the community.”

Biaggi has never visited Israel, despite invitations from several Jewish community members, but she intends to go at some point. “It’s important to me, and it’s also important to the district,” said Biaggi, who is opposed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “I’m not an international law expert or hold myself up to be in any regard, but I do not believe that economic sanctions are the way to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

“If there was an easy answer to solving this conflict, we would know it,” Biaggi added. “But there isn’t an easy answer to this issue, and I think that it’s one that has to be handled with delicacy.” She laughed. “Meaning delicate, not a delicacy like something that you eat. Like something that is very delicate.”

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, is introduced during opening day of the legislative session in Albany, N.Y. (Hans Pennink/AP)
Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, is introduced during opening day of the legislative session in Albany, N.Y. (Hans Pennink/AP)

Biaggi was critical of a questionnaire distributed last summer by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America asking that City Council candidates pledge not to visit Israel. “I think the questionnaire was kind of an unforced error,” she mused. “I understand fully wanting to include the issue as a question, but I think the way that it was asked really marginalized a lot of candidates, especially Jewish candidates who felt, of course, offended by that. But more importantly, they have family in Israel.”

“It did not sit right with me,” Biaggi went on. “I didn’t particularly think it was appropriate for a City Council questionnaire. I think it’s more relevant for a federal questionnaire, because those are international issues that relate to our Congress.”

Biaggi remains focused on the local level as she works to ensure that small businesses, food distribution centers, schools and other groups receive adequate funding in the wake of the pandemic. “This has really been a fight for our lives,” she said, “because so much of where we’re seeing issues that we’ve dealt with in the past year come from is after decades of under-investing.”

Biaggi is nevertheless optimistic. Albany is now in a thawing period as Cuomo finds himself politically weakened, she believes, and lawmakers are capitalizing on that dynamic, recently legalizing recreational marijuana, which the governor had long opposed, while passing a massive $212 billion state budget after years of what Biaggi characterized as harmful austerity. 

“It’s been really remarkable to see that a lot of the organizing and advocacy that we’ve done has actually paid off,” said Biaggi, who previously worked on Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This is the first budget that I’ve been part of that I feel like we have done a lot of good.”

Five months into her second term, Biaggi’s political capital is rising — particularly in progressive circles, where her endorsements seem to pack a punch. Last June, she made a bold statement when she retracted her support for Eliot Engel — the former Bronx congressman and longtime incumbent who, incidentally, replaced her grandfather in the House — and backed his primary challenger, Jamaal Bowman, a former middle-school principal. Bowman won by a resounding 15 points.

“In the future, I will never again endorse someone who I am not 100%, unhesitatingly and authentically behind,” Biaggi said in a statement at the time. “I have learned something very valuable here. If I am inauthentic, it doesn’t work. I pledge to always tell you the truth and am not fearful of losing supporters or donors based on a stand that I take. I will stand on my record of strong accomplishments for New York and for our district.”

Now that she has rescinded her endorsement of Stringer, it remains to be seen which candidate Biaggi will support, if any, in New York City’s mayoral race, just over a month away. “She has not made a decision about an endorsement,” David Neustadt, Biaggi’s campaign communications director, told JI. 

There is one candidate, at least, whom it is safe to say Biaggi will not be supporting: Andrew Yang, the former one-time presidential contender who has consistently led polling in the lead-up to the June 22 Democratic primary. Biaggi said she finds his campaign fundamentally troubling. “I’m worried that someone who has no experience at all in government in any capacity is being taken seriously,” Biaggi said of Yang, who has never held public office. “That’s what I’m worried about.” 

“If you pay attention and look at some of the things that he’s saying or some of the plans that he has, it’s so clear that he’s not actually prepared,” Biaggi said. “I think it’s a dangerous move on his part to do that. I think he knows that, and I think that he doesn’t care. And that makes me feel angry about his run, honestly.”

Biaggi, who spoke with JI before the allegations against Stringer were made public, declined to elaborate on pulling her endorsement for the city comptroller, who has refused to bow out of the race despite repeated calls for him to do so. 

Discussing another accused harasser whose alleged misdeeds have dominated headlines from his perch in Albany, Biaggi expressed a view that has no doubt occupied her thoughts in recent months. “It’s just enough now,” she said. “We’ve got to move on past talking about the bad behavior of below-average men.”

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