Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Sunnyside) speaks in the Assembly Chamber at the...

Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Sunnyside) speaks in the Assembly Chamber at the State Capitol in Albany on June 19, 2019. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Assembly Deputy Speaker Catherine Nolan said Friday that she won’t run for reelection to the Queens seat she’s held for 38 years, where she fought for civil rights, school aid and the state’s paid family leave law while breaking a path for women in the State Legislature.

The announcement sets off a scramble for the seat in this year’s legislative elections.

Nolan, 63, (D-Sunnyside) had been chairwoman of the banks, labor and education committees. For decades, she had been at the fore of workplace and housing rights for LGBTQ New Yorkers. She also led legislation to protect farmworkers and immigrants and to provide more public input and oversight of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"I and my colleagues in the Assembly will miss Cathy when she retires at the end of this session," said Speaker Carl Heastie. "In her long career in the People’s House, she was a trailblazer for women in the Assembly and Legislature, paving the way and keeping the door open for those that followed her. She’s been a champion for her constituents in Queens and has fought as chair of the Labor and Education Committees to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers."

"For decades, Assemblymember Cathy Nolan has been a steadfast advocate for the people of Queens," said Gov. Kathy Hochul. "We are grateful for her service."

As education committee chair, Nolan was leader in the decadelong political fight to provide billions of dollars more to New York City schools after a landmark court decision in 2006 determined students were being denied a "sound and basic education."

"A number of issues we worked on have been resolved," she told Newsday. "There are still things we need to do, but it needs to be a new person."

Her 37th District includes Sunnyside, Ridgewood, Maspeth and part of Long Island City.

She was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and has been doing her job remotely, sometimes from a hospital bed. She said she is now stable.

"I’m doing well, I’m back in the district office quite a bit, but I just can’t do it the way I did with all the events," she said. "I can’t run for reelection like I used to and be with my voters. I’m a little sad, but 38 years … I always gave it full-out, and won’t be able to do that."

That run began as a 26-year-old newlywed in 1984. She was among 23 women in the 212-seat Legislature then. Today about half of the Senate and Assembly seats are held by women.

"They said of my husband, ‘Who’s going to make him dinner?’ I laughed and said, ‘We’ll work it out. His pasta sauce is better than mine’ … You have to have a supportive family."

In 1998, she became a mother and there were more questions.

"I had quite a few people in Albany say, ‘When are you going to give up your committee?’ and ‘When are you leaving?’ — not if, but when are you leaving … women were always asked to prove themselves, constantly."

"I think I showed you can do it and it’s pretty common now," Nolan said. She credits her mentors, including her father, a labor leader who grew up in public housing; former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 was the first woman to be nominated for vice president by a major party.

"I pretty much loved every minute," said Nolan. "I never minded a fight for the right thing."

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