Interview: New York State Senator Monica R. Martinez

 New York State Senator Monica R. Martinez is the first female and Latina state senator to be elected into the Third District – which includes portions of Brookhaven and Islip towns, the community of Brentwood, and the eastern portion of Fire Island. Having served in the Suffolk County Legislature Ninth District for five years prior, she succeeds former Islip Town Supervisor Thomas Croci, who vacated the seat after announcing in 2018 that he would not be seeking another state senator term. She defeated Republican contender Dean Murray by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. The 41-year-old native of El Salvador came to the United States at 3 years old. She holds degrees from Stony Brook University, SUNY Binghamton, and NYU, working as an educator, then assistant principal within the Brentwood School District.Fire Island News (FIN): What made you decide 2018 was the time to make a bid for New York State Senator?Monica Martinez (MM): I was a Suffolk County Legislator for five years, representing the areas of Brentwood, Central Islip and North Bay Shore, and felt it was time to help others. We had done great things in the Ninth District, still when I was first approached, it took a little time for me to be convinced, but after all we had managed to accomplish in Brentwood and Central Islip, I realized we could expand in communities across the Third District, which is why I ultimately said yes.FIN: I know the term “blue wave” is getting to be a little old, but how did it feel to be part of the historic takeover of the New York State legislative branches in Assembly and Senate?MM: To be part of the election was important to me, and such a success overall. In terms of being historic, I made history just by being the first woman elected to the Third Senatorial District, as well as the first Latina to be State Senator of the District. Obviously it was great to see more Democrats win across the United States. What people saw within the district that I ran for, was that I was going to serve and protect them as best I could.FIN: I realized that you were the first Latina, but did not realize you were the first woman to serve at all in the Third State Senatorial District. That’s rather astonishing.MM: I know, it’s pretty cool! Whenever I meet young girls, I like to tell them, ‘you can do it!’ Women can have positions of leadership. It’s important to me to send that message to the young girls out there.FIN: Absolutely, and that’s one reason I pursued this interview. I saw pictures of you in Cherry Grove back in June to celebrate the ribbon cutting of their new ferry dock. How did it feel to attend the event in that capacity?MM: It was actually really fun. It was nice meeting people from there, including restaurant owners as well. Everyone was friendly and just happy to be there. They were happy to be part of that community, as was I. I actually visited both Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines during the Invasion on July 4, and that in itself was a very exciting thing to be a part of. Now that I represent the area, I want people to know that I also represent them there.FIN: On that train of thought, since you grew up on Long Island, did you and your family ever spend much time on Fire Island?MM: We did! I did and my family as well, with my siblings. We loved all the beaches. We spent time at Fire Island, we did Jones Beach, Robert Moses, and Long Beach too. I’m a real beach goer. Those were special times with family, and my parents made the time to spend together, reminding us that family comes first – whether at a beach or a park – we spent time at parks too. Those are fond memories.FIN: I also read that your brother, Antonio Martinez, holds office as a Town of Babylon Councilman. What do you credit among the factors in your background that brought your family into public service?MM: That’s a great question. First of all when my mother first came to the U.S. it was always about making sure we had the best education we possibly could get. My brother was a union organizer before he went into politics. He was a political science major at Oneonta State University. Through his work as a union organizer, he saw what was needed in order to work within the government, and that’s what led him to that path. But it’s my mother who has always been one to serve and be a caretaker. I think it’s something within us, just like my mother, we like to try and help people, and improve people’s lives. When my brother went into public service, I remember telling him when I was in high school, and he in college, that I wanted to be like him one day, and now here we are full circle, both of us in public service.FIN: You now chair the Committee on Domestic Animal Welfare. Please tell me more about this work.MM: This committee was created with me in mind; it’s never been around before. Every law concerning animal welfare in the State of New York went through the Agriculture and Markets Committee. At the County Legislature I did a lot of work with animal rights laws, and yes I wanted to protect our furry friends, but also protect our citizens. What I mean by that is when you look at animal crimes you start seeing there is a direct link between animal cruelty and other crimes, including domestic abuse. These laws are intended to give law enforcement a different avenue to prevent these crimes from taking place. I’ve seen women who refused to leave their abusive environment because they did not want to leave their pets vulnerable. That’s why one of the things I want to start looking into is opening women’s shelters where they can bring their pets. Many laws we passed in that committee have not only improved the quality of life for animals, but people as well.FIN: Did your committee have any part of the recently passed law to ban the declawing of cats in New York State?MM: That was drafted before the creation of my committee. I voted for it, but did not sponsor it. I have cats myself. I always say if you have a cat, you know they have claws and that’s who they are. They will scratch up your furniture, so that’s something people need to understand. If that’s a problem, don’t get a cat, but don’t destroy their defense mechanism!FIN: I read that you worked with neighboring district State Senator Phil Boyle to secure a dog run in Bay Shore Gardiner Park. Boyle is a Republican, so that’s evidence to me that you are working across party lines, Can you tell me a little more about that please?MM: Of course, and thank you for that. I actually was still at the Legislature when Senator Boyle approached me about that because Gardiner is a county park. He secured the funding, and was looking for someone to submit the resolution at the county level, and because of my work with the animals I introduced it. It passed unanimously, which was great. But that is one of the things I do because working across the aisle is the only way to get things done. There is a time for government, and there is a time for politics. The people elect us to serve. I’m glad to work with people from the other party, and vice versa. We have a great relationship, and when constituents see that, they have more confidence that elected officials are looking out for their best interests. That’s the only way I believe to govern well.FIN: Last March, an interview published with City & State New York described you a “centrist.” How do you feel about that label?MM: I consider myself a person who represents her district. I know my district well; it’s diverse. It doesn’t mean because I’m a Democrat, I will always vote Democrat. Every single law I have looked at, bill I vote on, I always ask myself: how well am I upholding the U.S. Constitution? How well am I upholding the Constitution of the State of New York? Finally, how will the matter affect the people of my district? With any issue that has come across my desk, there is going to be one side who supports it, and another who is against it, but when I put my head on my pillow at night, I need to make sure I made the best choice for the people I represent.FIN: In that interview, you also offered some candid opinions on school district spending, and how it differs from Gov. Cuomo’s “per pupil” model on examining spending efficiency. As someone who emerged from the education field, can you elaborate on that?MM: You see the disparities among school districts across the State of New York. I believe our current system is flawed in terms of how the formula represents the entire state, and how schools are funded. It’s unfortunate that certain parts of New York State are given more attention than others. Every student has the right to receive an adequate education from adequate instructors. Long Island does much to accomplish this, but we have pockets that need more help, and that’s the problem we are not seeing. I have 14 school districts within my district, and each one is different. Some are affluent, and others are not, but they all deserve an equitable and quality education. We were able to secure record funding this year, which I was very proud to advocate for. As a former school administrator, I know how difficult it is to care for our children and get them the resources that they need – and that the teachers have what they need. Common Core is also a big issue for me. We have to make sure our students are really learning, not just through some test, we need to focus on the whole child. I believe standardized testing has its place, but education should be fun, and in my opinion children learn more this way. So we have to make sure that teachers and students are not tied to those test scores. A child can have the best year, and one bad day during test time. Some children may not have access to services that they need, that’s why early intervention services are so important, also early education. I was able to secure $475,000 for Pre-K initiatives here, along with New York Assemblywoman Solages. Long Island is being missed for Pre-K services, right now about 10 percent of our 4-year-olds do not have access to it.FIN: As a New York Senator, as well as a native of El Salvador, what are your thoughts about the Trump Administration’s policy on immigration, and what’s happening at the southern U.S. border?MM: Many will agree we that need comprehensive immigration reform. My family had the resources and pathway to become the successful citizens that we are today. We need to make sure others have the same opportunity. People leave a country for a reason. It may be war, fleeing disaster or violence. My family left during civil unrest. Fortunately my mother and father had resources. We should not be punishing those who not only are seeking a better life, but also seek to continue living. This nation was built on immigration, and what we see throughout history through different waves of immigration is that each wave has their difficulties, but each wave has also had leadership that has tried to assist and come to their defense. I really hope our government starts putting politics aside and starts working for the betterment of our people across this world.FIN: What are your thoughts about President Trump’s remarks referencing the four U.S. Congresswomen of color in recent tweets?MM: I think women need to stand together. We are still living in a man’s world unfortunately, but we need to lift each other up make sure to teach our girls that it is unacceptable for anyone to treat us bad, to say hurtful things, or harm us. We need to empower young girls to be successful. In 2019, women, and women of color, are still being paid less than men for doing the same job. So there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But we also have men who are out there empowering women, and those are the men we need to stand with.FIN: You have passed the first eight months of your term in office. Discuss what you have accomplished, hope to accomplish, and feel free to discuss anything important to you that my questions in this interview did not touch on.MM: Where do I begin? It definitely was an exciting first six months up in Albany, and I loved every minute of it. There was a learning curve, but I’m a quick learner and loved the challenge. I made sure that I picked the right battles for the good of my district. I’m excited to go back in January, but I’m also glad to be home and meet my constituents face to face. We accomplished a lot. Of 77 bills I proposed, 43 bills passed through committee, and of 39 pieces of legislation – more than half of my introduced bills – went before the full senate for a vote and were ultimately passed by the Senate. At the end of the legislative session in June, 19 of my bills passed both houses of the Legislature and will be heading to the governor’s desk for review. Four of those 19 bills (Chap. 20, 21, 60, and 109) have already been signed into law. I’ve been told that’s pretty good for a freshman senator. One of the most recent laws we are working on that is important to me is Shannon’s Law. Shannon’s Law was named after a woman from West Babylon, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 28, and died at 31, leaving a young child behind. An organization named Got Checked has been advocating for the passage of this law, to allow women and men between the ages of 35 and 39 annual mammogram coverage by insurance. Right now as it currently stands, annual mammograms are only covered by insurance after the age of 40. We just held our first breast cancer forum a couple of days ago at Farmingdale State College, and it went really well. Right now Shannon’s Law is on the governor’s desk waiting to be signed, and hopefully it becomes law. But I’m not done with that yet, there’s still so much we need to accomplish. UPDATE: Hours after the original version of this article went to press, Shannon’s Law bill was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 2, 2019.