CNY Vision President and Publisher Dave McCleary sat down with New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in Syracuse, July 22, during his recent tour of Central New York. Heastie decided to tour the region in order to familiarize himself with upstate, both geographically and politically, following the end of the 2015 legislative session.
Vision spoke with Heastie regarding whether or not he feels he has an obligation to the minority community, the state’s expected increase in minimum wage, issues the legislature may have missed, and what his plans are going forward.
Vision: As New York’s first African-American Speaker in the state’s 237-year history, and coming from a middle-class background in the Bronx, do you feel you have an additional obligation to the minority, middle-class community?
Carle Heastie: I think there’s an obligation, but I don’t think it really has much to do with my background. I just think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that people have enough to take care of their families, to get educated, and to have opportunities. I would feel this way, I think, no matter what my background is.
Vision: What concerns do you think are most important to address regarding the African-American community, both upstate and downstate?
Carle Heastie: It’s about jobs, it’s about fighting poverty, and really trying to give people an opportunity to strive to meet their goals. We’ve also been trying to get money for college students as well.
Vision: Do you feel there were any issues concerning the minority, low-income, or middle-class, community that were not addressed during the recent legislative session?
Carle Heastie: Oh yes; there are two things that we weren’t able to accomplish: The Dream Act, and then also raising the minimum wage. I think today’s decision by the state wage board recommending an increase for restaurant workers will lay the groundwork for us to move forward.
Vision: So, what will be your priorities going forward?
Carl Heastie: I would like to continue boosting education funding. I do want to come up with some type of urban agenda. And, I would like to address a state-wide minimum wage, and The Dream Act.
Vision: There were scholarships recently awarded on your behalf at the Williams Bridge Branch of the NAACP’s 50th Anniversary Awards Gala. How important is education (relative to the success of the African-American community), and how well do you think the state fared after negotiating and passing Gov. Cuomo’s education reforms in this year’s budget?
Carle Heastie: The scholarships that we gave came from the association. It was an opportunity to try to help our college students, from our assembly district, to help defer some of their expenses. One of the positive things that came out of the budget this year was the fact that we are putting more money into struggling schools to give wrap-around services; and that’s going to be a model to try to be helpful… I don’t think there’s a real correlation between poverty and low education scores. So just tackling education alone and not looking at the other associated issues is not enough.
Vision: According to your bio, you were a principal negotiator securing an increase in the minimum wage that took effect January 1, 2014. Do you agree with today’s decision by the state wage board to recommend a minimum wage increase for restaurant workers to $15 per hour? What impact do you think it will have?
Carle Heastie: I think anytime you raise the minimum wage for workers, that money goes right back into the economy. It’s almost like a mini stimulus package. If you look throughout history, after raising the minimum wage, there’s never been a downturn in the economy. So, I just hope that this will give us the momentum to do it across the board. Because, while I’m very happy for fast-food workers, there are still other workers, in retail and other industries, that I’d like to see the same thing happen for them as well.
Vision: Just today, there was a fox news report that talked about how, in some areas of the country where minimum wage has been recently increased, folks are asking for fewer hours because they are looking for social services benefits. What’s your thought on this?
Carle Heastie: Well, if you raise the minimum wage high enough, then you won’t have to subsidize people with those programs.
Vision: What insight do you expect to gain from touring Upstate New York?
Carle Heastie: I’m learning some of the similarities upstate has with downstate, and some of the differences. But, in order for this state to succeed, all parts of it must do well.