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Queens Chronicle

Barnwell makes his case for another term

Assemblyman highlights his work ethic, blasts his opponent’s rhetoric

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2018 10:30 am

Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth) admits he has nothing in the way of a personal life. The first-term lawmaker says that’s because he often finds himself working well past midnight on issues District 30 residents have brought to his attention.

“We are constituent-based. We’ve never stopped knocking on doors. We proactively look for work,” Barnwell said in a sitdown interview with the Chronicle editorial board last Friday. “I’m up until 2 or 3 a.m. handling cases myself. People have my cell phone number, people Facebook me or email me — I respond to all my emails.”

When he first ran for office in 2016 against then-longtime Assemblywoman Marge Markey — whom he wound up trouncing — the 30-year-old would regularly give out his phone number on the campaign trail, encouraging people to call him directly whenever they had an issue.

He still has the same number today — he told the Chronicle two years ago he would only change it if someone threatened to kill him — and the 32-year-old said that’s just one of the many things that separates him from most other lawmakers.

And it’s also one of the reasons, Barnwell said, voters should send him back to Albany for a second term instead of electing his Democratic primary opponent, Melissa Sklarz, on Sept. 13.

“We’re accessible and we’ll continue to be accessible,” he said. “I don’t play politics, I just like to do my job and I dedicate my life to it. I don’t have a life outside this job.”

Over his first 20 months in office, the lawmaker said, his office has solved more than 2,000 constituent complaints and helped people save hundreds of thousands of dollars on their taxes. His staffers and volunteers also speak a combined 30 languages.

“I always think about the person who wants help but is afraid of the government or doesn’t speak the language,” he said. “I want them to think, ‘I can go to Brian.’ So why should I be re-elected? We’re working our butts off.”

In his two years in Albany, Barnwell has yet to see much success when it comes to legislation he expressed interest in pursuing — specifically changing the definition of area median income when it comes to affordable housing, as well as lowering property taxes for senior citizens.

The AMI equation, which eligibility standards for affordable housing units are based on, includes income levels for the entire New York City metropolitan area.

That formula, he says, should be based on ZIP code, not the median income levels across counties including Westchester in New York and Fairfield in Connecticut.

The latter bill, which he believes might have a better chance of passing than his AMI legislation, would lower the property taxes of elderly residents by $500 every fifth year .

Barnwell described the failure to pass legislation as “disappointing,” but added he fully intends to keep pressuring fellow lawmakers to get on board with his ideas.

“It is upsetting that this bill hasn’t passed. Seniors need help,” he said. “It’s a bill with the most co-sponsors, it’s bipartisan and, to me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Asked what he’s proudest of legislatively over the course of his first term, Barnwell pointed to his bill to create a commission that would study the feasibility, costs, impacts and locations for the construction of a seawall to protect New York City from sea level rise and storm surge.

That piece of legislation earned unanimous support in the Assembly in June, with the state Senate passing it 64-1 that same week — it has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Cuomo.

“Being a history buff, I learned about Galveston. They had a hurricane in 1900, when 8,000 to 12,000 people died,” he said. “They built a seawall and when a similar storm struck 15 years later, just 53 people died.

“We still have problems from Sandy. Homes haven’t been built. Subway tunnels are still problematic,” he added. “A seawall could help not only save lives but billions of dollars.”

If re-elected, Barnwell pledged to not only continue his advocacy for his AMI and senior property tax bills, he also said he plans to combat the use of major capital improvements by landlords to raise rents.

When the owner of a multifamily building seeks to install new infrastructure within a rent-stabilized structure, he or she can apply for an MCI increase, which permanently hikes the cost of monthly rent by up to 6 percent in order to pay for the work.

Barnwell said landlords often use the program to unfairly raise rents, leaving residents unable to afford their rent.

“A lot of our complaints are housing related,” he said. “We want to get rid of MCIs and implement a new system.”

That new system has yet to be finalized, but it would involve “heavy fines” on landlords who still try to pass costs onto their tenants.

Barnwell added that the future bill he plans to introduce may include tax breaks to help owners of smaller buildings pay for improvements.

The assemblyman often declines to speak on the record about other lawmakers or candidates for office.

But last Friday, he saved some of his sharpest remarks for Sklarz — a transgender activist and longtime member of various Democratic clubs citywide — whom he skewered as someone who simply “plays politics” instead of offering real solutions.

In an interview with the Chronicle two weeks ago, Sklarz criticized Barnwell’s 2017 vote against the New York State Liberty Act, which would have banned the detention of undocumented immigrants unless there is a warrant from a judge and more.

Firing back, Barnwell said he has a great legislative record when it comes to immigrants, as he has co-sponsored the DREAM Act, among other similar bills.

But a provision in the Liberty Act, he believes, would have prevented law enforcement from detaining an illegal immigrant who had been previously convicted of a class A or otherwise violent felony and deported, only to return to the state, for more than two days.

“This bill didn’t get voted on in 2018. Why? Because it was such a bad bill,” he said of the legislation, which passed the Assembly in 2017 but failed in the state Senate. “This is why it’s so key to read every portion of the bill. One sentence on page 23 can change everything.”

Responding to Sklarz’s comment about Barnwell’s “lack of support for immigrants” being “personally frightening,” the assemblyman said she’s telling “flat-out lies” and is “basically calling the voters stupid.”

“You are now saying about another human being that, ‘This person is a horrible person. He hates you.’ That’s horrible,” Barnwell said. “I have policies and I don’t see policies from her. It’s, ‘This guy hates immigrants, this guy hates women.’”

“She should know better, but she plays games. She plays politics,” he added. “So it’s disturbing. It’s not fair.”

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