Catherine Abate, one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, has a varied 25-year record in administrative positions, including city probation commissioner, chair of the state Crime Victims Board, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Human Rights and city corrections commissioner. She was elected to the state Senate in 1994, representing parts of central and lower Manhattan.
A recent Quinnipiac College poll found that 80 percent of those surveyed “haven’t heard enough” about Abate, although 70 percent of respondents replied similarly on two of her opponents, Oliver Koppell and Eliot Spitzer. (A fourth candidate, Evan Davis, was not included.) Thirteen percent of voters said they favored Abate in the election, compared with 16 percent for Koppell and 18 percent for Spitzer. More than half were undecided.
“I’ve never run for statewide office before, as Spitzer and Koppell have, yet there is not much difference [in recognition] between us,” said Abate, 50, in an interview with Jewish Week reporters. “I think that’s good news.”
She has raised $676,000 for her campaign, according to July’s filing with the state Board of Elections.Abate, a graduate of Vassar College and the Boston University Law School, highlighted her connections to the Jewish community. She was brought up in the heavily Jewish suburb of Margate, N.J., and married a Jewish man, Ron Kliegerman. They have a son, Kyle, 20.
“In large measure I’ve spent my life having Jewish communities educate me,” said Abate. “I grew up, while an Italian American, to be very sensitive to issues that affect the Jewish community.”
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Jewish Week: Why give up a secure state Senate seat to run in a tight race for attorney general?
Abate: I can do some good as a minority member of the Senate … but no bill of mine automatically gets out to the Senate floor … I cannot get involved in a full way in terms of policy the way I can as a chief executive. The attorney general’s office is a natural progression, a culmination of my life’s work.
As corrections commissioner, I knew there were some inequities in the system; some Orthodox Jewish inmates year after year were victims of discrimination within that system. I established an advisory council of Orthodox Jewish rabbis. Some of their concerns were Shabbat issues, kosher food compliance, discrimination individuals faced, would the inmates be able to enjoy their observance of the High Holy Days. … I built the first sukkah at Rikers Island.
Then they came to me with an issue that could not be resolved through many administrations and that was the issue of tefillin at prayer time. Everyone at the lower level said it was a security risk. I changed the protocol … and made sure tefillin was made available during prayer time. … I also received recognition from the Jewish community for leadership in fighting anti-Semitism, as the No. 2 person in charge of the state division of human rights.
Mr. Koppell recently criticized you for accepting $10,500 in contributions linked to a tobacco company when, as attorney general, you would have to face that company in anti-smoking litigation. You’ve since returned the funds. Why?
I have enormous respect for the Tisch family. I returned the money because I didn’t want this to be an issue. Many of the [contributors] were daughters and wives not involved in the Lorillard Corp. I have the strongest record in fighting tobacco. I introduced legislation in 1997 requiring Dennis Vacco to come before the Legislature and explain why he was doing nothing to fight tobacco. I also issued a report analyzing the initial settlement that called for $365 billion to be paid by big tobacco. Oliver Koppell raised a false issue. As attorney general [in 1993] he never brought suit against tobacco companies.
The Assembly recently reconvened to pass Jenna’s Law, drastically changing the parole system. Did it do the right thing?
I take some credit for lobbying the governor and the Legislature because when the first Jenna’s Law was crafted, one thing we wanted was for violent people to do longer time. We all agreed some predators need to be incarcerated. But when you have individuals who have been incarcerated for a long time and dump them on the street, that doesn’t help the community, doesn’t help long-range goals. Eventually they changed the bill to include community supervision. If we’re going to solve the problems of crime, it is about vigorous law enforcement, locking predators and violent people up, but it’s also about treatment and prevention because otherwise you’re just waiting for the next generation of children, preparing them for crime.
What type of proactive litigation or legislation would you seek as attorney general?I am already seeking legislation around health-care reform. I have a whole packet of health-care bills that would make sure HMOs make decisions based on health-care needs, not just profit. I would look at bills around domestic violence and violence in schools … and sensible gun laws. If the gun is legal, I’m not going to take it away from you. But you have to be responsible, so children cannot get access to it. You have to lock it up or have a trigger lock.
I am a cosponsor of the bias crime bill. I have not only introduced this legislation but for three years moved to discharge the bill out of the Senate, but along party lines it died. I will hold hearings, work with legislators on both sides of the aisle to get it passed and provide leadership. The governor has not taken an active stand on this … Everything is a question of negotiation and trading, and I’ve never seen or heard of trading around this bill, the way I heard it for Jenna’s Law or tax cuts.
A proposed religious freedom bill in the Legislature has raised concerns about special rights for prisoners or excessive litigation against the state. What’s your view as former corrections commissioner?
If we in society only wanted to avoid litigation, we wouldn’t have a civil rights bill or all the bills we passed on a national level. That’s not reason enough. I know, having run Rikers Island, the largest jail system in the world, that there are ways to accomplish reasonable accommodation … If a [religious practice] presents a threat to safety and society, there is nothing in this bill that says you can’t [stop] it, but it shifts the burden to the state to say, ‘Don’t do it for the following reasons,’ not because it’s a little bit difficult or creates some administrative hurdles.
The state now has laws regarding kosher food and Jewish religious divorces. Is there a danger of too much involvement in religion?
Consumers should be not be ripped off, or think they are buying something that meets kosher standards when in fact it does not. So there is a need to make sure labeling standards are upheld and laws enforced.
I believe in separation of church and state. I don’t think these issues … infringe on the establishment clause. The get law was recently upheld as constitutional. I’m concerned about the plight of [agunot, women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce]. I know the best solution is to encourage rabbinical authorities to resolve this issue, but we can’t ignore the plight of women in these circumstances.
Should there be another law establishing the Kiryas Joel school district?The last time it came before the Legislature, we thought we changed the law sufficiently. That’s the challenge of the next attorney general, to see if we can create these school districts that don’t apply to one community or religion … and also pass constitutional muster. I wouldn’t give up. It’s very important to get legal opinions of the attorney general and my office would be available to help craft that law.
Next week: James Larocca, Democratic candidate for governor.