Assemblyman Richard Gottfried speaking at a rally for transgender rights

On a Half-Century of Navigating a ‘Maze Lined with Flypaper’

Stories You May Like

CU in Congress: Alumni in the House

Stamp of Approval: Postal Service Honors RBG and Novelist Morrison

Rick Geddes on the State of U.S. Infrastructure—and the Evils of Deferred Maintenance

First elected at just 23, retired Assemblyman Richard Gottfried ’68 holds the record for longest-serving New York State legislator

By Beth Saulnier

When Richard Gottfried ’68 first joined the New York State Assembly, another Richard—Nixon—was in the White House. He’d go on to hold his seat continuously for 52 years, serving under nine governors. Retired in December 2022, Gottfried now boasts the all-time record for New York State legislative service—and is one of the longest-sitting politicians in U.S. history.

A progressive Democrat who represented several Manhattan neighborhoods including Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, and part of the Upper West Side, Gottfried is known for his passionate commitment to affordable healthcare; he was also far ahead of the curve on such issues as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.

Another signature achievement: the creation of the West Side’s Hudson River Park, much-beloved greenspace on land once earmarked for a highway.

When Gottfried first took his seat in January 1971, Republicans held the governorship as well as the majority in both the Assembly and State Senate.

In the ensuing decades—spurred in part by the Democratic surge that followed the Watergate scandal—he’s been in the vanguard of a sea change in New York politics, rising to become a leader in the body’s dominant party.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and his wife, Louise, at a block party in the 1970s
With wife Louise at a block party in the ’70s.

A government major on the Hill (where his sister, Judith Gottfried Ruttenberg ’63, preceded him), Gottfried earned a JD from Columbia—in fact, he was elected to the Assembly while still in law school.

He and his wife, Louise, have been married for more than half a century; they have a son and two grandchildren.

How does it feel to be retired after 52 years?

I’m certainly enjoying it. It surprises me that every day I start out with a list of things I want to get done—and at the end of the day, it seems I haven’t finished half of them.

I’ve gone back to the Chinese painting class that I’ve taken off and on over the years, and I’m continuing my weekly Chinese calligraphy class, a hobby I’ve pursued for 25 years. My wife and I have done some traveling, and we’ve got more planned.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried speaking on the floor of the Assembly
Speaking on the Assembly floor.

Will it be hard to watch state politics from the sidelines?

So far I’m comfortable with it. I follow the Albany legislative news, and I’ve been in touch with several former colleagues on various pieces of legislation. Ever since law school, I have loved drafting legislation.

What’s the appeal?

Some people do crossword puzzles for fun; I like to draft legislation—to make words line up and do what I want them to do. I’ve got a couple of bill drafting and editing projects that I’m working on—some of which my colleagues will welcome, some of which they may roll their eyes at.

Some people do crossword puzzles for fun; I like to draft legislation.

Were you always interested in politics? Did you run for president of your junior high?

I tried school politics a couple of times, with no success. [He laughs.] But when I was 13, in 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for president, and like millions of others, I was very taken with him. I decided that I wanted to make elective office my career—which I recognize is a bizarre ambition for a 13-year-old.

When I got to high school and joined the debating team, I ran into a handful of classmates who felt the same way—one is now my congressman, Jerry Nadler—and we decided to band together and go into politics.

Richard Gottfried at a Vietnam war rally in 1970
The promotional literature for Gottfried’s first Assembly campaign included this shot of him at an antiwar rally.

Stories You May Like

CU in Congress: Alumni in the House

Stamp of Approval: Postal Service Honors RBG and Novelist Morrison

Is it true that the day you were sworn in to the Assembly, the sergeant-at-arms thought you were someone’s kid?

I was 23, but looked half that age; it was before I grew the beard. I said, “I’m Assemblyman Gottfried,” and I guess he thought I’d said, “I’m with Assemblyman Gottfried,” because he said, “You’re gonna have to wait till your father gets here.” But it got straightened out, and I sat in my seat on opening day.

Reflecting on your time in the Assembly, what was most gratifying?

When I was first elected, the Assembly Democratic leader and several of his staff took me under their wing—partly, I think, because they found me amusing, and partly because I was an eager and willing student.

They taught me a lot about how to be effective in the legislature. One of the things that I’m proudest of is that I’ve passed on those lessons to new colleagues, year after year.

NY Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at a rally for abortion rights, with Assemblyman Richard Gottfried standing next to her.
With New York Governor Kathy Hochul at a pro-choice rally.

You’ve described the New York legislative process as a “maze lined with flypaper.” How so?

The legislature is a complex culture in which there are any number of ways that a good idea can fail to get through. You not only need to know how to move an idea through that process, but that at any point, it could get stuck—sometimes just because someone misunderstands your bill. Unless you know how to pry it loose, your idea will be dead.

Of what single piece of legislation are you most proud?

In 1990, we enacted a bill of mine creating Child Health Plus, which provides free or low-cost health coverage for children whose households are a little above Medicaid eligibility. We started out small, with the notion that we could get it enacted without enormous cost—and year after year we’d expand it, which is exactly what we did.

The legislature is a complex culture in which there are any number of ways that a good idea can fail to get through.

In ’97, Congress under President Clinton adopted legislation that basically said any state that enacted something like this would get two-for-one federal matching money. That enabled New York to greatly expand our program—and now, every state in the Union has something similar.

A few years after the state law was enacted, when we were considering legislation to expand it, a family came to Albany as part of a group lobbying for expansion. With them was their son who was about five or six. They’d never been able to afford to take him to the doctor since birth; he was two or three when Child Health Plus started.

Chinese calligraphy with the message, "The future is not a gift"
One of Gottfried’s works of calligraphy bears a quotation from RFK: “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.”

And when they took him to the doctor—I’m sorry, I still choke up when I talk about this—it turned out he had a brain tumor that would otherwise not have been discovered until it was too late.

Because it was discovered early, it was treatable—and here was this healthy, energetic young boy. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Lastly: calligraphy is an unusual hobby. What do you enjoy about it?

It requires you to be both disciplined and free—which I guess is kind of like “freedom with responsibility.” Where did I hear that before? [He laughs.]

I find it beautiful and very satisfying. The characters are amazing feats of graphic design; each style has its own features, how it curves from one stroke to another, and the use of negative space.

A lot of my calligraphy is sayings from Confucius. As philosophers go, he was focused on the here and now—on what you can achieve in the real world. I’ve always found that very appealing.

Top: Gottfried speaking at a rally for transgender rights. (All images provided)

Published January 20, 2023


Comments

  1. Jen Ong-Meyers, Class of 1986

    What a super story to share – thank you for this important and inspirational piece. Tremendous congratulations to assemblyman Gottfried, and much gratitude for your wonderful and valuable achievements and efforts. Duoxie, which is many thanks in Chinese:). Wishing you a restful and rocking retirement sir.

  2. Cynthia Kubas, Class of 1978

    Talk about a “Life Well-Lived”! Congratulations!

  3. Michael A. Koplinka-Loehr

    Fabulous, and inspiring.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like