There were times it felt like a campaign rally, but Sunday’s gathering at Lehman College was anything but.
That’s because Alessandra Biaggi’s campaign is over, and she’s now heading to Albany as the new representative of the 34th Senate District.
Biaggi was sworn in by new senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in front of an invited crowd of hundreds at Lehman’s Lovinger Theater. And while inaugurations like Biaggi’s were taking place all over the state, there was something about this particular win that made Democrats like U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer quite ecstatic, taking time off from negotiations to end the partial federal government shutdown in Washington to attend.
“It’s making a lot of us happy for two reasons,” Schumer said. “Who she is … and who she beat.”
While few if anyone mentioned now former state Sen. Jeffrey Klein by name, his legacy still found a way to seep into the afternoon celebration. Never winning many friends among Democrats because of his Independent Democratic Conference that spent years helping Republicans hold on to power in the senate, Klein was voted out of office — as well as a number of his former IDC colleagues — in the September primary.
In fact, Klein was so entrenched in his district — especially in Riverdale — even Stewart-Cousins had her doubts about whether Biaggi could pull it off.
“I’ll be honest,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I didn’t think she had a chance.”
But the leader is all too familiar with those kinds of odds because she had to overcome them herself. And she hoped Biaggi would achieve similar results.
“What people don’t realize is that when you have a race where every single talking head and pundit, and all the smart money and everybody who is supposed to know these things, have already decided that you probably can’t win, and it may even be dangerous for you to even begin to start shaking those bushes and you do it anyway,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Every time she reached out, she lit that spark. And that spark has spread like wildfire.”
Within moments of officially becoming a state senator, Biaggi showed she wasn’t going to let an office in Albany keep her away from community organizing. Looking back to many of the young interns and volunteers who helped on her campaign, Biaggi cited the “desperate need” for the energy and enthusiasm of young people at the ballot box.
“We must and we will pass the list of voting reforms,” she said, “but beyond that, I am personally pledging today, before all of you, to visit every single high school in the 34th Senate District. To talk to students, especially seniors who are about to turn 18 years of age, about the importance of voting.”
Afterward, Biaggi told reporters she’s already started making those visits. During the campaign, whenever she would see teenagers, she made sure someone had a voter registration form to give them.
“This is probably the thing that I am the most excited about,” Biaggi told The Riverdale Press. “Not everybody grows up around a table and talk about voting and why it’s important to be in government. And that’s why it’s up to us.”
That table, of course, was her grandparents table she would sit at as a youngster at The Whitehall, where politics and government were talked about regularly. It didn’t hurt that her grandfather was Mario Biaggi, who spent 19 years in Congress before resigning after a corruption trial in 1988.
That table later moved to the younger Biaggi’s own home, and it’s where the initial discussion about a potential run against Klein came together.
“People like to always talk about my grandfather Mario,” Biaggi told the crowd after her swearing in. “But I want to focus on my grandmother, Marie. She was a community organizer. She knew that no real progress was possible without dedication to your community.
“That I am here today, that I am who I am, I owe in great part to Marie, to my mother, and to my Grandmother Rose, and to all the women — and the men — in my family who were the real builders of my foundation.”
Marie died in 1997, while the former congressman passed away in 2015 at 97.
Biaggi’s win was among a number of like-minded victories that ultimately put the senate in Democratic control. And with that comes change, and Biaggi warns it won’t be easy.
“Progress does not just come from what we learn, it comes from what we are able to unlearn,” she said. “The ideas of change that fueled my campaign, and the people who powered it, represented a major shift away from politics as usual.
“Most people thought that it could not be done, to beat a long-time incumbent, one of the most powerful men in Albany. But it took an entire community to unlearn the old ways of being. To make this happen today, it took an entire community rediscovering their power, and their voice.”