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Queens Chronicle

2019 CELEBRATION OF QUEENS What the Weprins have given Queens

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

Some families are all about baseball. Others, music. In Saul and Sylvia Weprin’s 188th Street household, government and politics tended to be the focal point.

So much so that when a 4-year-old Mark Weprin at his eldest brother Barry’s bar mitzvah heard the rabbi reference Abraham, he thought the man was talking about then-mayoral candidate Abraham Beame.

“That’s the kind of family we grew up in,” said Mark, a former city councilman and assemblyman.

Raised in public life, he remembers as a boy riding on sound trucks in election seasons, telling people to vote for his late father, Saul, and attending political events in Queens.

The Weprin boys’ mother, Sylvia, worked as a teacher who was highly engaged in the community. She still lives in Queens today. She has served on the boards of the Queens Botanical Garden and the Queens Symphony Orchestra, Community Board 8 and the Bridge to Medicine Program with CUNY Medical School.

Her husband, Saul, climbed to the summits of power in state government and laid the foundation for a Queens political dynasty.

An attorney and community activist who was elected district leader in 1962, he won an Assembly seat nine years later and became speaker of the chamber in 1991. He held that position until his death in 1994.

As speaker, Saul worked with his longtime ally and personal friend, Gov. Mario Cuomo, and the GOP-controlled Senate to reach agreements on major issues in state government.

His second-oldest son, Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows), remembers: “He had friends on both sides of the aisle and had those relationships. And I think that was helpful in getting things accomplished, especially when you often had gridlock in Albany.”

The speaker was an outspoken advocate for abortion rights and a pioneering voice for gay rights in the Assembly. He fought for a bill that sought to prohibit sexual orientation-based discrimination in employment and housing. He got it passed in his chamber but Senate Republicans killed it.

Saul’s dedication to Queens and New York led officials to co-name a large part of 188th Street in his honor. Kids today go down slides at the Saul Weprin Playground in Bayside. And the Democratic club that he founded decades before his death is now named after him.

Acquiring influence can get to people’s heads. Albany has plenty of big egos. But politics never changed his personality, David and Mark emphasize.

“He was really the same person when he was speaker when he was a regular Assembly member or just a lawyer and not being involved in politics,” David said.

He remained the man who, with his wife, made sure his children understood the importance of public service.

“My parents instilled in us a sense of community,” he said. “That everyone has a role to play and you treat everyone with respect and you do what you can to give back.”

About three years after graduating from Hofstra University School of Law, David in 1983 became Mario Cuomo’s deputy superintendent of banks and secretary of the state Banking Board. He played a key role in regulating financial firms across the state.

David stepped down from the role in 1987. He started working on Wall Street and had success there. For three years, he chaired the Securities Industry Association. Weprin today still works as a vice president at investment bank Stern Brothers.

In 1994, he won his father’s old district leader position and has held it since. David was elected in 2001 to represent a northeast Queens district in the City Council. He would serve there for eight years, chairing the influential Finance Committee in both terms.

In the Council, David secured critical funds for the high-quality schools of District 26, making sure they were getting the resources that they needed. He also fought to get money allocated to Queens Public Library locations for up-to-date computers.

High-speed internet connections were less common back then. By helping libraries become places where borough residents could get reliable internet access, David points out, he enabled immigrants in Queens to easily communicate with relatives in other countries.

And in each year that he was on the Council, he worked with the Bloomberg administration to deliver on-time city budgets.

New York was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks when Weprin took office in 2002. He joined the state’s congressional delegation in Washington to fight for the Zadroga Act, which gives medical coverage to first responders who served at Ground Zero after the tragedy.

David is now chairman of the Assembly’s Correction Committee. In that role, he’s worked to reform the Rockefeller drug laws and reduce the state’s prison population.

For the past eight years, he had been fighting for the “Religious Garb Bill,” legislation that would ban discrimination based on religious attire and aspects of appearance, like facial hair. The bill finally passed both of the state Legislature’s chambers this year and is expected to become law.

His brother, Mark, was elected to the Assembly in 2004. In 2009, he and his then-Councilman brother David were elected to each other’s seats.

Like his brother, Mark as a councilman was highly involved with the top-notch District 26 schools. Aside from securing city funds to meet the institutions’ needs, he also often spoke to students about the importance of civic activity and the role of government.

“I still, to this day, get stopped by people who say that I spoke at their school,” he said.

Mark introduced a Council bill in 2010 aimed at cutting down on water waste in city parks. Funnily enough, he learned two years later that the Parks Department on its own had turned his proposal into agency policy.

He also allocated funds for beautification and garbage cleanup in Eastern Queens.

Mark stepped down from the Council in 2015, taking a job as deputy secretary of legislative affairs for Gov. Cuomo, who grew up in Holliswood near the Weprin household. Their two families were friends. In 1977, as Mark describes it, the Weprin “family vacation” consisted of work on Cuomo’s mayoral campaign.

In 2017, Mark left the Governor’s Office and took a job with influential lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig. One of his younger partners at the firm actually told him that he remembers hearing him speak at his elementary school graduation.

During his days in elective office, one of the leaders Mark worked with in northeast Queens was state Sen. Frank Padavan, who died of a heart attack in October.

The late GOP lawmaker had been out of office since 2010 but remained very involved with the Queens County Farm Museum. When he learned last year that its longtime executive director was stepping down, he encouraged Jennifer Walden Weprin — Mark’s wife, who had previously worked as director of external affairs and marketing at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona — to apply.

Having started the job in October, she hit the ground running. Visitation to the 47-acre museum has gone up. Year-over-year, attendance at the annual Sheep Shearing Festival, for one, was almost twice as high this year as it was last.

“We’re moving the visitation needle,” she said.

Under Jennifer’s leadership, the Queens County Farm Museum is partnering with Jamaica Hospital Medical Center to run a farmers market at the health facility this summer with fruits and vegetables grown at the farm. The market, which opened on June 13, allows residents to buy fresh produce in an area where doing that isn’t easy: Southeast Queens is considered by many to be a “food swamp.”

Jennifer, who served the public as director of cultural affairs and tourism for Borough President Melinda Katz before taking her post at the Floral Park museum, said she is looking at other roles the 47-acre farm can play in feeding New Yorkers.

All in all, she is really enjoying leading the museum.

“I love it,” she said.

Welcome to the discussion.