Fighting in Albany, but Dinowitz still ‘Jeff from the block’

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Jeffrey Dinowitz is a slugger upstate, but it’s his work on the ground right here in the community he says he’s most passionate about.

As the lifelong Bronxite tells it, how he became Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is simple: “I got more votes than my opponent.”

But it’s actually not quite so simple.

Dinowitz lived in Soundview before moving to Kingsbridge Heights when he was 10, meaning he’s spent nearly his entire life in the 81st Assembly District he now represents. He became active in community affairs at a young age, before he could even vote, but really entered the political fray through opposition to the Vietnam War.

After that, the first major political campaign he got involved in was South Dakota Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s presidential run against then incumbent Richard Nixon in 1972.

At the time, young Dinowitz didn’t anticipate he’d be involved in politics for the rest of his life. But he stayed involved, volunteering in numerous political campaigns as well as continuing to participate in an array of community affairs — dealing not just with housing but also education and environmental issues, serving on the board of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality in the 1970s.

“I’ve always been very, very involved in the community because I feel this is my home and I want it to be the best possible place to live in,” Dinowitz, an attorney, said.

In 1980, when he was 25, Dinowitz was elected one of the youngest delegates to the Democratic National Convention, running a slate of delegates committed, at the time, to U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy against the Bronx Democratic machine and incumbent president Jimmy Carter.

Dinowitz continued that fight against the political machine in 1986 when he was elected Democratic Assembly district leader during an era when many elected officials and political leaders from the old regime went to jail.

“I’ve been doing this for a very long time,” Dinowitz said.

When Assemblyman Oliver Koppell was moved into the state attorney general’s office in 1994, Gov. Mario Cuomo called a special election to fill the vacant seat, and Dinowitz decided to run.

That first Assembly race was hard-fought, Dinowitz said, against Mark Friedlander, who had chaired Community Board 8 and served as president of the Riverdale Jewish Community Council. But Dinowitz prevailed, and he’s held that seat ever since.

Friedlander instead became a supreme court judge, and the two have been friends ever since.

Being a lawmaker is kind of like doing two jobs at once, Dinowitz said. There’s the job in Albany, which includes working on important issues — from health care to housing rights, the state budget, and passing legislation. And then there’s the job in the neighborhood.

“While I love both jobs, my first love has always been the neighborhood,” Dinowitz said. “The community.”

But that’s not to say he hasn’t been hard at work upstate, where he claims more than 100 of his bills have become law. Among those, in more recent years, included the state’s first anti-human trafficking law, signed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007.

Dinowitz also was the main sponsor of the National Popular Vote legislation, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed in 2016. Once it passes in enough states, that legislation guarantees that the person elected president is the winner of the national popular vote, Dinowitz said.

“That would guarantee we don’t get any more Donald Trumps or George W. Bushes,” Dinowitz said, citing two recent winners of the Electoral College who didn’t also carry the popular vote. “It would just guarantee the person who gets the most votes actually becomes president — a novel idea for democracy, I realize. But a good idea.”

Dinowitz currently chairs the judiciary committee in the Assembly, one of the top committees in the legislature, with jurisdiction over many laws from domestic relations to real property to the judiciary.

In Albany, Democrats have accomplished a lot of important things in recent years, Dinowitz said, like marriage equality, the $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, universal pre-kindergarten, and the SAFE Act.

“Those who claim that the legislature has done nothing because we don’t have the Democratic senate are wrong,” Dinowitz said. “However, they’re right in saying that there are other things that we should’ve gotten done or want to get done but haven’t, yet,” including codification of abortion rights first earned through the Roe v. Wade decision with the U.S. Supreme Court, or strengthening tenant protection laws.

With the general election closing in, Dinowitz is optimistic about a next term. Yet, what really makes it all matter for him is doing it for the people living in his neighborhood.

“There’s really nothing more important,” Dinowitz said. And it’s not just that he’s lived in the neighborhood seemingly forever, but both of his children grew up there as well, one of them raising a family of his own.

“I want everyone who’s raising a family in the community to want to stay here, and to want to be in a community where they can raise their kids,” Dinowitz said. That’s why “on virtually every issue you can think of, I try to get involved in a positive way.”

Everything he’s juggling can mean 60- or 70-hour workweeks for the Assemblyman. But he doesn’t mind.

“I have no complaints, because I love almost everything I do,” Dinowitz said.

“It’s fun. I love the fact that I have a job where I can work in my community to make my community better and stronger — and help people.”

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