Changing times and changing attitudes
Sen. Chuck Schumer showed up as invited over the weekend at Union Square in Manhattan to address a colorful band of revelers who only a few years ago would have been considered part of an edgy, counterculture gathering, where arrests would have been commonly expected.
Now the NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally has officially become an acceptable forum for a U.S. Senate majority leader, as well as state Attorney General Tish James, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who attended. The event, said to draw more than 1,200 people, preserved its usual festival or block-party atmosphere, which this time featured glimpses of participants consuming recreationally as they strode by uniformed police. The Rolling Stone web site featured a photo of the "Butterfly Woman" of the Shinnecock Indian Nation leading the parade down Broadway.
There was even a float made to look like a giant joint with the message: "Biden: C’mon, man!," urging the president to enact a full federal legalization.
More than the others, Schumer’s presence marked a political milestone. He spoke in the sun about bringing about federal cannabis legalization "the right way." He said the nation’s long war on drugs had been a war on people, and that he would persist toward ending that. One month ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a New York state legalization bill into law.
As times changed on marijuana, so did Schumer’s positioning. In 1977, as a state assemblyman in his 20s, the Brooklyn Democrat voted to reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts to a $100 fine, later signed into law by Gov. Hugh Carey.
Two decades later, as a congressman running for the Senate seat he would take away from Long Island Republican Sen. Al D’Amato, Schumer very conspicuously did not boast about that vote. He was still in a Democratic primary, and at the time, "tough-on-crime" was a key bipartisan talking point. He coyly downplayed the vote, saying he recalled it only vaguely, when pressed by a reporter at a 1998 crime forum at NYU.
After another 20 years, in 2018, the senator posted a commentary on the website Medium. He wrote in part: "When I first came to Congress in 1981, only 1 in 4 Americans believed marijuana should be made legal. Today that number has climbed to nearly two-thirds, a record high.
"A staggering number of American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American and Latino, continue to be arrested every day for something that most Americans agree should not be a crime. Meanwhile, those who are entering into the marijuana market in states that have legalized are set to make a fortune.
"This is not only misguided," Schumer said, "but it undermines the basic principles of fairness and equal opportunity that are foundational to the American way of life."
Not that his support for the 1977 Assembly measure would ever have made Schumer look marginal. Also voting "Aye" on the bill, for example, was Nassau County Republican Armand D’Amato, brother of the U.S. senator-to-be.
Political winds change. And sometimes they change back again.
—Dan Janison @Danjanison
Amtrak not aboard on quick repairs to East River tunnels
Why did a congressman from the Bronx and a state senator from Long Island hold a joint news conference in Manhattan on Monday?
That was the question as Rep. Ritchie Torres and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky met in Manhattan to talk about a topic they each have reasons for pushing.
The subject? The need to repair the East River train tunnels that carry Long Island Rail Road trains into Penn Station.
Torres and Kaminsky advocated for a faster and less expensive way to repair the train tunnels, which were severely damaged by superstorm Sandy, and are the source of many power and signal outage delays for LIRR commuters. The plan, known as "repair in place," would allow service to continue even as the repair work is done. The idea first gained traction in New York when it was used to repair the L subway train tunnel.
Torres’ interest illustrates the domino effect and interconnectivity of the region’s mass transit system. Besides seeking more efficient and cost-effective ways of making repairs, Torres also has his eyes on Penn Access — the effort to connect Metro-North RailRoad to Penn Station, and to add new Metro-North stations in the Bronx. But Penn Access can only happen with the full operation of East Side Access — the connection of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.
The problem? If the East River Tunnels require a full closure of either or both tunnels, East Side Access will have to be used to replace existing service, bringing LIRR riders to Grand Central instead of Penn and that won’t leave room for the expansion of Metro-North.
"What binds the Bronx and Long Island?" Kaminsky asked. "Our mass transit system."
Torres is introducing legislation that would require Amtrak to use "repair-in-place" methods. But, he noted, at a minimum, he’d like to see Amtrak commission a third-party study to see what is possible.
"The most important question to ask is which method is going to generate the greatest cost savings and time savings and cause the least disruption to commuters," Torres told The Point. "We need to exert maximum pressure on Amtrak to enter the 21st century."
But Amtrak quickly threw cold water on the idea. A spokesman told The Point Monday that the East River Tunnels "can only be fully and properly fixed by closing these tubes, one-at-a-time, to permit complete rehabilitation." Waiting until after East Side Access is done, the spokesman said, would "minimize impacts to commuters."
Torres, however, isn’t letting up. He said he plans to reach out to Long Island’s congressional delegation, which he called "critical" to the effort. Kaminsky, meanwhile, is holding a State Senate hearing Friday on the East River tunnel repair issue, but he noted that Amtrak "cares a lot more about what Congress thinks."
The timing of greater interest from Torres and Kaminsky isn’t accidental, as Torres pointed to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans as a key reason why attention on the tunnels – and the need for less expensive, more efficient options — is particularly important now.
—Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall
Singing a different tune
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—Michael Dobie @mwdobie