Newly elected state Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica) was energetic and jovial as he met with constituents on a “listening tour” at Rochdale Village on Friday, planting a kiss on constituent Gloria Williams and shaking hands with the crowd.
Despite the snowfall and frigid temperatures, about 60 people attended the meeting and asked questions on a wide variety of topics including youth services, gun violence and crime, tenants’ rights, cultural enrichment and the creation of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus.
The gathering was among the first public meetings Sanders has had with his constituents as a senator, but he was familiar to most already, having spent three terms in the City Council with offices in Laurelton and Far Rockaway.
“Tonight I’m interested in knowing what you need done,” Sanders said. “And I’m sure all of my staffers have a pen and a piece of paper to write down your needs.”
Rochdale resident Yusuf Abdul-Wali was concerned about youth violence and the lack of services to keep young people out of trouble. “I think it would be a good thing if we could create some employment training opportunities for our young people, especially our young men,” Abdul-Wali said.
Sanders said the problem calls for outside- the-box thinking and that some of the Sandy relief money could be used for job training in up and coming fields such as green technology. He noted that while he was in the City Council, he created what he said is the only affirmative action law in the city, Local Law 129, which gives more opportunities to minority-and- women-owned businesses, and he would like to create similar legislation in the Senate.
Sanders added that more jobs would lead to fewer young men embracing the prison and gang culture trends such as wearing sagging pants. “You want to get rid of that problem, get these fellas jobs because you can’t sag on the job,” Sanders said. “The first time, they send you to management. The second time, you go home.”
On the topic of gun violence, Sanders was quick to point out that on his first day in the Senate, the state passed restrictions on firearms, including a ban on many military-style assault rifles and ammo clips holding more than seven rounds.
“As a Marine Corps veteran I have used some of those weapons and they are not for hunting,” Sanders said. “They may be for hunting people, but they are not for hunting deer, rabbits or anything like that. It’s a terrible weapon to a hunt a rabbit. There wouldn’t be much rabbit left.”
Residents were also concerned about school closures in the area. The latest locations on the Department of Education’s chopping block are Law, Government and Community Service High School; Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School — both in the Campus Magnet complex in Cambria Heights — and PS 140, an elementary school in St. Albans.
Sanders recommended that black educators come together and form groups to address the issues that are leading to school closures such as low academic performance. “We need not wait for the cavalry,” Sanders said. “We need to be the cavalry. Grab like-minded people and start small. Don’t tackle the whole thing.”
Sanders also said that the state needs to take a close look at mayoral control of the city school system and evaluate how effective the policy has been and whether it should be replaced. The policy was revisited three years ago and mayoral control was renewed, but Sanders wasn’t in the Senate then, so he wants to revisit it now.
“That’s the part I’m taking, where we are going to revisit this issue and who has oversight over the schools, because I, personally, am not happy,” Sanders said. “It seems to me that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott have final say and that’s it, and to me, that’s too much power in too few hands.”
Sanders also has a vision for the direction he would like to see the public schools take.
“Let’s turn the system back into a place where parents can have far more say over their children’s lives than we have now, where the community will have more of an impact,” Sanders said.
Rochdale resident Elaine Jackson took the listening tour in a different direction by expressing concern that there are not enough culturally enriching activities in the community geared toward intellectuals like herself.
Sanders spoke about how he had a number of free concerts and other activities geared toward enrichment when he was in the City Council, and said there are such things to do, at places like colleges and libraries, people just need to discover them. Sanders also suggested that residents create their own clubs and groups geared toward their interests and encourage others to join.
Rochdale resident Hughe Williams wanted Sanders to expound on the formation of the Independent Democratic Caucus. “As a voter, when I vote for a Democrat, I think I’m getting a Democrat,” Williams said. “I hope I’m getting a Democrat, but with these changes I don’t know.”
The IDC is a a splinter group made up of five renegade Democrats who have formed a coalition with Republicans and kept power in the Senate with the GOP.
“To me, they pulled failure from the mouth of victory,” Sanders said. “We won. Why on this planet would you put a Republican in charge when you won? I’m not saying to treat the Republicans badly, but don’t you have enough faith to rule yourself?”
The IDC is led by Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and its other members are state Sens. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis), David Carlucci (D-Rockland-Orange), Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) and David Valesky (D-Oneida).
“Sometimes we start fighting as family and we forget the larger issues that are out there, and I believe that Albany found itself in such a place,” Sanders said. “We need the people to say to Albany, ‘We sent you all up there to take care of our business, not to get caught up in your shenanigans.’”