The best feature of freshman Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky’s Albany office is its eighth-floor view of the Catskill Mountains. The space itself is pretty snug. Not that Kaminsky is complaining. “Besides,” he says, “when I moved in, one of the building guys said, ‘With everything that’s going on, pretty soon you’ll have a suite.’”
Everything is of course the attrition by investigation that’s been working its way through the state legislature. Kaminsky, a Democrat, is keeping an eye on the drama just like everyone else in town — but he’s doing it from a unique vantage point. His previous job was as a federal prosecutor with the Eastern District of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Kaminsky’s home turf, Long Island. He was particularly good at convicting corrupt legislators, including former congressman Michael Grimm and former state Senate majority leader Pedro Espada Jr. As a prosecutor he also collaborated with the Moreland Commission, whose investigation of the state legislature has led to some of the recent indictments issued by Preet Bharara.
Now that Kaminsky, since January, is himself a legislator, this résumé makes for some awkward moments in Albany. “There’s a ton of paranoia here,” he says. “I had a conversation with a number of colleagues where people were talking about the pension forfeiture laws, and how they’re just draconian. I said, ‘This only applies if you get convicted! Don’t get convicted!’ A colleague says, ‘Well, there’s entrapment— ’ I said, ‘Look, if someone offers you a bag of money, don’t take it!’”
Kaminsky comes across as both more mature and more boyish than his age, 37. He sits ramrod straight behind his small desk, wearing a conservative navy pinstripe suit and a crisp white shirt with a blue-and-yellow tie knotted tightly to his throat — while he scarfs a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sliced strawberries from an aluminum deli takeout container.
His attitude is an interesting mix of hardass and humorous. Kaminsky’s straight-arrow side was honed during six years of working in the Eastern District under Loretta Lynch, who on Monday was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General. Most people with Kaminsky’s kind of immersion in political sleaze do not want to trade in their white hat for a seat in a beleaguered state legislature. But after Hurricane Sandy demolished neighborhoods around Long Beach, where Kaminsky grew up and still lives, he organized free legal clinics for residents and started thinking about how he might change the political system from the inside. Harvey Weisenberg, the longtime assemblyman for the 20th district — which includes everything from the wealthy Five Towns to impoverished North Park — was retiring, and he encouraged Kaminsky to run in 2014.
“It’s not that a position itself is unworthy. It’s just that we have bad people fill it too often,” Kaminsky says.
His sense of humor is partly genetic. Kaminsky’s great-uncle is Mel Brooks, who recorded a robocall for the first-time candidate last fall. Kaminsky — whose father is an accountant and whose mother was a schoolteacher — retrieves the audio from his iPhone and plays it proudly: “He’s bright,” Brooks says in that indelible rasp, “which runs in our family. And incredibly principled — which does not always run in our family.”
The rookie assemblyman has already delivered some tangible results for his district — speeding up the state’s reimbursement schedule for Sandy housing reconstruction, and pushing to open a new emergency room to compensate slightly for the storm-induced closure of Long Beach Hospital.
Given his expertise, though, Kaminsky has naturally been drawn into Albany’s ethics turmoil. Sometimes comically: Colleagues regularly, and half-jokingly, ask if he’s wearing a wire. “I just tell them they don’t use body mikes anymore. That’s old technology.” More substantially, Kaminsky had a seat at the table as an ethics package was negotiated last month. The changes require lawmakers to disclose more about non-government income, expand the pension-forfeiture law, and tighten restrictions on how campaign money can be spent for personal use.
At the press conference announcing the new rules, Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the new guy a shout-out. Kaminsky is aware that it would be easy for him to get used as political cover, a seal of approval for modest ethics measures. “There’s a lot more work to be done,” Kaminsky says; he’s in favor of a full-time legislature and pay raises to “cut out all the crap” related to outside income. “At the same time, it was a real opportunity to have the governor’s office get to know who I am. Because I was involved in some of the ethics negotiations, I now know the governor’s top people, so if there’s an issue in my district, I probably have a better chance of having a good conversation with them.”
Compromising without being compromised is one challenge. Another for Kaminsky will be maintaining his independence without becoming an outcast; he says that in meetings he listens more than he talks. But the larger questions are whether he can hold onto his idealism as he gets into the grind of fund-raising and deal-making. And whether he can find enough like-minded legislators.
“The old guard is like, ‘Bad people are going to do bad things. We did ethics legislation three years ago, we did it last year, we’re going to do it next year. Let’s not overcorrect,’” Kaminsky says. “I just vehemently disagree. I don’t think it’s easy to say who’s a bad person and who’s not. There’s a huge gray area where people stray off. Then the gray becomes darker and they cross a line.”
He’s also learning that, for all the hard work he put into prosecuting dirty legislators, courtroom corruption wins are in some ways cleaner and easier than making progress on ethics through the legislature. Those pension-forfeiture tweaks that were touted as a victory in the state budget deal, and that had Kaminsky’s colleagues so worried? To take effect they require a change to the state’s constitution — and they are now being stalled in the Assembly, thanks largely to the objections of labor unions.
Still, Kaminsky believes the judicial system is of limited value in forging lasting reform in the political system. “You can stay in the prosecutor’s office and do more cases. There will be no shortage of them,” he says. “Or you can try to change things from the inside, which is what I’m hoping to do.”
The current culture of Albany, though, has a way of changing people. “The 1992 Pedro Espada who starts a new health clinic is not the Pedro Espada of 2006 who is ordering lobster and billing the clinic — which can’t afford to do mammograms — not just for the food, but for an extra $18 to have it de-shelled,” Kaminsky says. “I just think that when you’re here for such a long time, and people are calling you senator this and that, and telling you how important you are, you’re in an echo chamber where everyone tells you you don’t stink.”
One blunt new voice won’t transform that dynamic. But it sure is a fun sound to hear.