Long before he went to Capitol Hill, Gary Ackerman made change and made history. And he did it for the middle-class working man.
A junior high school teacher in the city schools, Ackerman saw his first child born in 1969. He wanted to take time off to be with the baby girl, but the Board of Education said no. Only women were allowed such leave. But the 26-year-old teacher wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. He sued the board, and won — in a landmark case that established the right of either parent to take unpaid leave for child care.
Twenty-four years later, Congressman Ackerman signed the House-Senate Conference Committee report on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave parents nationwide the same right.
All those years in between, and all the years since, Ackerman has been a strong supporter of common-sense legislation to benefit every American, as well as one of Israel’s staunchest allies in the U.S. government.
Last week the 15-term congressman from northeastern Queens announced that he will retire from the House at the end of the year. Ackerman has made many contributions to the United States during his time in office, and we salute his record of service.
Among his most important — and, at the time, challenging — achievements is the Baby AIDS Law, which requires newborns to be tested for HIV. Before the law was passed, 45 states, including New York, were testing babies for HIV — without telling their mothers the results. The idea was simply to track the disease. To Ackerman, the practice was as disgusting as it would sound to just about anyone today. His law, which in the end garnered massive bipartisan support, not only required testing and disclosure to the mother everywhere, it also prevented insurance companies from dropping people who are tested for AIDS, regardless of the result. The law therefore helped stem the spread of the disease, and protected those who were unfortunate enough to contract it.
Also on the domestic health front, Ackerman worked to stop the sale of downed animals — those too sick to stand — from being sold for food, warning of the potential for mad cow disease. That legislation went nowhere, but then in December 2003, the first mad cow case in the United States appeared —and the Bush administration quickly enacted a regulatory ban, just like the one Ackerman had proposed through legislation.
The congressman has also been strong on foreign policy, especially as it regards support for Israel, the only real democracy and genuine U.S. ally in the Middle East. He has worked tirelessly toward the difficult goal of peace in the region, often meeting with Israeli and Arab heads of state to further that goal. While true peace remains elusive, Ackerman’s efforts to reach it, under presidents of both parties, have been and continue to be front and center.
Recently the congressman combined foreign policy and constituent service in the most meaningful way possible, helping retrieve Hollis Hills law student Ilan Grapel from Egypt, which had charged him with spying for Israel. You can’t do more for the people you represent than helping bring their loved ones home from hostile places.
Between his time as a teacher and his election to Congress in 1983, Ackerman also founded the Queens Tribune, a newspaper that competes directly with this one. Despite his continuing affiliation with the Trib, he’s always returned our calls. We appreciate that — but even more we appreciate his service to the people of Queens, New York and the United States. His successor will have big shoes to fill.