Quietly Persistent Brooklyn Senator Who Led On Juvenile Justice and Other Long-Contested Reforms Set to Retire
‘Velmanette builds the wagons, puts them on the road, and then everybody else jumps on them’
There’s a poorly lit, windowless courtroom in lower Manhattan that rarely attracts an audience. It hears child abuse and neglect cases and other family matters. Few who aren’t party to the proceedings could bear watching them – even the judges assigned there burn out quickly from the stress and anguish.
But one morning last year, a New York lawmaker strode into the courtroom with colleagues and aides in tow. The ordinarily empty, lone wooden visitors’ pew in the back of the room quickly filled, to the court officers’ surprise. Brooklyn Sen. Velmanette Montgomery was the rare elected official to observe these cases, typically involving impoverished or homeless New York families and often little known to the general public.
Visits like this have defined the 78-year-old Democrat’s time in the state Senate over the past three and a half decades. Montgomery will retire at the end of 2020 from a public service career spent making perennial calls for reform to improve the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised – with legislation that sometimes took more than a decade to become law.
Her position in the Senate’s minority party for many years at times constrained her aspirations to improve social services, schools and the prison system. It’s been 15 years, for example, since she first proposed still-pending legislation to expand chances for prisoners to reduce their sentences with merit time.
Still, colleagues from both political parties credit the hard-fought gains Montgomery did help achieve, as well as her persistence. And those whose lives she transformed praise the causes she championed – from keeping 16-year-olds out of adult prisons to lifting restrictions on adoptees’ access to their birth certificates and expanding the role of Native American tribal courts in foster care cases.
“I don’t think her constituents realized the opposition she faced in the Senate, as a triple minority, as a Black woman in the Democratic Party,” said Al Vann, a former state assemblyman from Brooklyn. “She didn’t cry about it, she did all she could to deliver. Very unique person to be able to do that, I think.”
Even her would-be political opposition admire Montgomery’s tenacity. “It’s tougher to be in the minority, but that never dissuaded her from zealously representing her constituents,” said John Flanagan, the former Republican Senate majority leader who left office last year.
During a recent socially distanced, sit-down interview, Montgomery and a reporter spoke through face masks to safeguard against the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated her borough and derailed her ambitious plans for her last year in office. She described her longtime need to serve the people in her district, as well as a shift she felt these days – to step back and plan her own life, and get to the theater more.
Reflecting on her decades in Albany, Montgomery said her focus "was never the sexy, new shining thing.” Typically, she said, “everything else was of interest but this – whatever I was working on.” Still, she called her tenure rewarding and illuminating. I certainly felt responsibility in a very different way. It wasn’t so much the lobbyists and people with money. We never had the constituency with money,” she said. “One of the advantages that I always had, I spent so much time getting information from the source. We listened to young people, and worked with them.”
With her broad smile and often donning a bold necklace and dramatic, colorful hat or wrap, she’s been called one of the “deans” of Brooklyn politics, all the while maintaining a low profile in New York City’s hothouse political media.
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