By Aaron Short
The moment Helene Weinstein became one of the most powerful women in the state was not particularly climactic.
Herman Farrell Jr., the longtime Harlem Democratic assemblyman and head of the towering Ways and Means Committee, announced in August he would retire after 42 years in office. That set in motion the “churn”—a musical-chairs process where legislators vie for cascading leadership seats until all the openings are filled.
A number of Albany’s eldest members privately contacted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to pitch themselves for the gig, which comes with a $34,000 bonus and a knowledgeable staff. Heastie considered several members before selecting the Sheepshead Bay Democrat and 37-year veteran on September 17, sending out a press release the next day.
Weinstein had ascended to the third-highest position in the chamber virtually overnight. Some members weren’t even aware she was under consideration. Others who wanted the job acknowledge Heastie made a good choice.
“I can’t be disappointed,” said Greenpoint Assemblyman Joe Lentol, “dean” of the Brooklyn delegation. “There are good reasons for a woman to be chosen for a powerful position, and the Speaker may want to be making a statement in that direction.”
Weinstein said in a statement that she was “humbled by the historic opportunity,” and promptly went to work.
“I know there’s a lot of work involved, but it’s a tremendous responsibility and I feel that I have much to offer and work with colleagues to guide us to a place where we can move forward,” she said. “I’m not one who normally boasts.”
Indeed, she has a Twitter account but doesn’t tweet, leaving prominent women in public office to tout her accomplishments on her behalf.
“It was an opportunity to put a woman in the seat, which is groundbreaking for the State Assembly,” said Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. “She’s very intelligent; she pays attention to details; she’s diligent; and we have a lot of confidence in her. I think she was thrilled!”
Former Councilman Lew Fidler, longtime friend and political ally, thinks Weinstein’s “levelheaded demeanor” swayed the Speaker.
“She’s been a very trusting, professional and respectful colleague, and it is my sense she deals with everybody in Albany the same way,” Fidler said. “No one is worried Helene Weinstein is looking for their cookies.”
Weinstein’s start in politics was considerably more dramatic, involving the type of bare-knuckle political brawling many of her current younger colleagues wouldn’t necessarily attribute to the new Ways and Means chair.
She grew up one of two daughters of parents who were active in Canarsie’s civic associations, as well as founders of Temple Shaare Emeth, a conservative synagogue. Back then, Canarsie and Flatlands were largely Italian, Irish and Jewish neighborhoods, and there were still active farms in the region.
“Many blocks I walked to school and there were farms and bits of land. Someone had a goat in their yard,” she said.
Weinstein went to college and law school out of state, but never strayed from Southern Brooklyn. By 1978, just months after passing the bar exam, she was ready to run for office.
“I grew up understanding the importance of regular citizens’ speaking out,” she said. “When opportunity came for new leadership in our community, it was a simple plan to go from practicing law to running for office.”
The plan may have been simple, but it was no easy task. Her challenger was the most powerful legislator in Albany, Speaker Stanley Steingut, who noticed she’d made a mistake on some paperwork involving her residency and had her removed from the ballot seven days before the primary.
But the Board of Elections said her petitions were still valid, triggering her father, Murray, an attorney and community activist, to step up and run in her place. In a shocking upset, Murray won the Democratic primary and then went on to edge out Steingut in the November general election by about 1,200 votes.
“A lot of people were angry that she was knocked off the ballot,” said Brooklyn Councilman Alan Maisel, who helped run her early campaign.
Over the years, Steingut had lost touch with his district, prompting voters to throw the man out.
“The Speaker forgot where he was,” said Fidler. “No one saw him; no one knew him. When we poked him in the ribs his reaction was too little too late.
Murray Weinstein served a term before stepping down, allowing his daughter to run in his place. Helene Weinstein wouldn’t make the same mistake as Steingut: She worked hard at constituent relations and showed up at meetings large and small throughout the district.
“I think she knew that when she got elected, there was more of a focus on her than other seats. She worked very hard,” said Brooklyn Assemblyman Peter Abbate. “She knew she was going to be watched so she was going to do a great job.”
Five women had been elected to the Assembly in 1980, but Weinstein noticed she was the only one with a law degree. She saw opportunities to work on legislation affecting women, children and the elderly.
By 1993, she joined the Ways and Means Committee. She received the Judiciary Committee seat in 1994, which she has led through the fall, passing hundreds of bills throughout her career. Weinstein has consistently been a champion on domestic violence, criminal justice, public safety and foreclosure reform.
Her colleagues call her an “inspiration” and a “role model.”
“She continues to be a leader on every issue important to women in this state,” said Westchester Assemblywoman Amy Paulin. “Her leadership comes in what she has been able to accomplish.”
Paulin first came to the assembly 18 years ago, and she noted that Weinstein helped her pass her first domestic-violence bill then.
“I had a background in domestic violence, and instead of being in competition with me, she embraced the fact that there was somebody else who cared about the issues she did,” Paulin added. “She was supportive, and I’ll always remember and appreciate that. She taught me to do bills that matter to me and matter to her.”
These days, Weinstein has been studying the intricacies of the state budget to prepare for the upcoming session in January, when the governor releases his proposed budget bill. A lot can change by then—especially as Congress puts together its budget, which could include funding cuts to healthcare and social services to states, while also trying to rewrite the tax code by the end of the year.
“It’s going to be a tight year with finances, and we have to try and accomplish as much as we can within limits,” Weinstein said. “We can’t just print money to take care of everybody’s wishes. Some of the responsibility of being chair of Ways and Means is also being able to say ‘no’ to people.”
Weinstein credits her longevity and success at passing legislation to “coalition building” and “perseverance.”
“Legislation is sometimes like fine wine, which was described by a Speaker of many years back,” she said. “Sometimes you introduce a bill and it’s like a Beaujolais—by the end of session it becomes law. Other times it must age many years before it is ready to pass.”
But a savviness about the labyrinthine ways of Albany, honed over many years, helps too.
“She is not a publicity seeker or a grandstander; she is sincerely interested in policy issues, and she has respect across the aisle and across the state,” said Fidler.