In 2014, Rebecca Seawright became the first female to be elected to the State's 76th Assembly district, which includes Roosevelt Island. In the years since, she has fought to pass an Equal Rights Amendment bill, marched with Islanders, honored residents as Women of Distinction, and worked behind the scenes on many Island issues. She is up for election again on November 6.
As part of the ongoing Roosevelt Island Time Capsule project, Island teen Francine Elisaia sat down with Assembly Member Seawright to discuss her childhood on a Texas ranch, her decision to step into NYC politics, and where she sees the Island in 25 years.
For previous conversations in this series, including with RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, Nisi owners Kaie and Alex Razaghi, Dr. Jack Resnick, and others, check out the rest of our Time Capsule series.
Left to right: RIRA's Adib Mansour, Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, and Francine Elisaia.
Francine Elisaia: It is my personal privilege as a female teen from Roosevelt Island, born in the Independent State of Samoa, to interview you. My first question is regarding your youth on a ranch in Texas; do you have any fond memories of these days?
Assembly Member Seawright: Sure, I have fond memories from my childhood; my family still lives on the family ranch that I grew up on. My mother just turned 85 years old yesterday and she still lives in that ranch. I have three sisters still riding horses, competing and showing cattle. When you go through Grand Central Terminal, you see herds of people, but growing on a ranch you see herds of cattle. So Texas and New York, due the size of the states, there is a lot of synergies there.
Elisaia: How big of a difference was the ranch life compared to living here in New York City?
Assembly Member Seawright: In Texas, on this ranch, you’d find poisonous rattlesnakes, and we have rattlesnakes in NYC too, just of a different kind. Especially with the national climate going on right now trying to roll back women’s rights. I see a lot of similarities between the actual rattlesnakes and rattlesnakes politically rolling back our rights.
Jumping into Politics
Elisaia: Seeing that your father was a pharmacist and your parents were business owners, what sparked an interest in you to pursue politics?
Assembly Member Seawright: My first introduction to politics was in high school. I was a student activist and a 4H leader. My mentor was fired by the county’s all-male Commissioner’s court. People used to come in to the pharmacy and tell my father, “You better calm your daughter down, she’s defending this woman,” and, “The county judge controls the local sheriff, and the sheriff is going to stop her and harass her on the highway.” That was really my first introduction to politics.... that you need transparency in government and to never be afraid to challenge the establishment.
Elisaia: How were you inspired by this mentor who was fired with no cause and was discriminated against?
Assembly Member Seawright: She provided a great inspiration to me. She was a female leader mentoring younger women. She worked outside the home, in the courthouse with all men. She was just an inspiration; and to see her career end the way it did because they wanted a younger female. It was age discrimination and sex discrimination. So she was a true inspiration to see that she can take on the establishment and make a difference, not only for herself but also for women to come in the future.
Elisaia: After graduating from CUNY with a law degree, did you ever consider becoming a lawyer or judge? When and where did that shift to politics take place?
Assembly Member Seawright: After graduating from law school, I became an assistant district attorney. Then I got married and had two children; I have a son and a daughter in college right now. I became an administrative law judge doing administrative hearings for the MTA.
One day I got a phone call out of the blue from the National Organization for Women saying there is an open seat. I was told the predecessor was accused of sexual harassment charges and had been sanctioned by the Assembly and by the Speaker. There were four men in the race declared for this open seat. A woman had never held a seat on the Upper East Side and they wanted me to consider running. I was an active member of the Community Board 8 at the time and they were scouting around looking for women leaders on the Upper East Side.
I hadn’t really thought about it and when I got the phone call, I was compelled to step up to the plate.
Elisaia: Was it challenging transitioning from being a staffer to a prominent politician?
Assembly Member Seawright: I think it was quite natural. You know, I have a great team of staff and I value their judgment and depend greatly on them, like Jack Robins (sitting in the conference room with us) who was my intern in Albany and now is full time in district community office. So I think it was natural transition from being a staffer to being an elected official.
Elisaia: How did working at the National Women’s Political Caucus impact you? And, what did you contribute to it?
Assembly Member Seawright: I met woman leaders from all around the country – elected women – and it taught me how to fundraise. When I was recruited to run for the position, even though the men that had already filed for the seat, one was self-financed and had a lot of money; it did not scare nor intimidate me. Some people said it was crazy of me to enter the race behind the eight ball without raising any money... just filing for the office. But I had raised money over the years for women candidates. It something that I knew something about and I wasn’t afraid to jump in and immediately start fundraising.
Elisaia: How has being a female politician in a predominantly male work field affected you?
Assembly Member Seawright: If anything, it has motivated me to try to encourage more women to run for office. In the New York State Assembly we’re still very outnumbered by men. I’m a director of the Assembly of Women Legislative Caucus and a member of the bi-partisan Pro-Choice Caucus. So, if anything, it has inspired me more to help other women seeking political office.
Elisaia: I recently read that there are over 200 new female candidates running in politics – the highest percentage ever.
Assembly Member Seawright: I think you’re seeing that number grow because of what’s going on nationally in terms of the #metoo movement and discrimination towards human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights. I think it is fabulous.
Elisaia: What advice would you give young females like me in a male-dominated work environment?
Assembly Member Seawright: I definitely encourage the youth to get involved with their elected officials, starting with knowing who their elected official is. From their City Council member to their Assembly person, to their state Senator, on up to who their Congressional representative is.
We’re very lucky and fortunate on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island to have Congress Member Carolyn B. Maloney, who just continues to do an amazing job for us in Congress. And our United States Senators we have two: Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand. So, not only do I encourage young people and our youth to know who their elected officials are, but also to volunteer in their offices, whether it’s their political or government offices. It is just such a wonderful opportunity to engage in activism.
Elisaia: How is your relationship with Mayor Di Blasio? What projects are you working on with him?
Assembly Member Seawright: I’ve known Mayor Di Blasio since before he was a City Councilman and his wife Chirlane McCray. We served on a non-profit board, the Feminist Press, the oldest feminist book publisher in existence in the world today.
We don’t always agree eye-to-eye on things, namely like the Waste Transfer Station up on East 91st Street. But we do work closely on things, and I depend on his commissioners to give us answers and correct problems, especially as it relates to transportation and our parks, and senior citizen issues on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island.
Elisaia: How has your relationship with Governor Cuomo been? Do you two mostly agree or disagree on politics?
Assembly Member Seawright: It is so funny that you ask that because I would say that I totally respect our Governor and agree on the majority of issues, except for one. You know you’ve made it when you have your bill vetoed.
I passed a piece of legislation through the Assembly and the Senate, made it to the Governor’s desk, and he vetoed it. That was calling on an asthma study to be done for the borough of Manhattan in response to the Waste Transfer Station on 91st Street. While I do agree with a lot of his issues, and I can really really respect his work as Governor, I must beg to disagree respectfully on his veto of my Asthma Legislation.
Elisaia: We’ve seen you closely working with Assembly Member Ben Kallos. What common projects are you working on right now?
Assembly Member Seawright: Council Member Kallos is a wonderful City Council member and I feel very fortunate to have him representing me. Our offices have a lot synergy. His staff was just here a couple of days ago for a meeting with the Department of Health, again on the Waste Transfer Station air quality issue. We work very closely on fighting over development and maintaining a cap on how high new construction can be on the Upper East Side. For Roosevelt Island, our office took the lead on the Westview Affordability Plan, and we worked very closely with Council Member Kallos on other issues affecting Roosevelt Island.
Elisaia: What were your thoughts on the latest Presidential election? How do you think Hillary Clinton shaped or reshaped women in politics?
Assembly Member Seawright: My thoughts on the most recent Presidential elections would be one of disappointment. I was strongly supporting Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee and the first woman elected by a major party to be the President of the United States. I think, if anything, she has inspired a whole generation of women to seek political office and not to just be complacent when it comes to politics and to government.
Elisaia: Aside from work, what are some of your passions?
Assembly Member Seawright: I love to swim. I was in the swimming pool very early in the morning at the 92nd Y. I am a lap swimmer.
And I am a very passionate about getting people engaged in their government. I saw a woman standing in front of our district office this morning and I said, “Why don’t you come in and take a tour... this is your office.” It’s not my office; it’s the people’s office. I’m thrilled we have a storefront community office located right behind the bus shelter between two senior citizen centers in the district and right next door to the post office.
Elisaia: On your days off, what do you like to do?
Assembly Member Seawright: On my days off, I like to catch up with family and friends and on my reading. I am currently reading Cecille Richards’ book, the former president of Planned Parenthood. It seems there are not enough hours in the day. It seems that, in this line of business, there are no days off.
This Saturday we have a shred-a-thon planned. I know, in October, we’re coming up on Halloween and the Roosevelt Island parade – which is always a lot of fun. But in my spare time I love to read and spend time with my children.
My favorite author is Marilyn French, who published three volumes on the history of women. The Feminist Press was lucky enough to be the publisher.
Francine Elisaia: What are fun things you like to do with your family?
Assembly Member Seawright: I have a 23-year-old son who is in graduate school and a 19-year-old daughter who is a sophomore in college; she was elected as Student Senator at SUNY New Paltz. She is a writer and is conducting voter registration drives on her college campus.
When we’re together we love walking the neighborhood, such the East Side Esplanade; Carl Schurz Park and John J. Park have been the backyard to my children; and now you have the beautiful new Cornell Technion campus and the FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. Both my kids were with me on Roosevelt Island last year for a free book giveaway and for a fair. So it is kind of like a family business; my time with them is usually spent doing something around activism and leadership.
Elisaia: Do paparazzi ever follow you around?
Assembly Member Seawright: Paparazzi never really follow me around, however, I do have friends that get followed. I’m always very careful, always looking to see who’s behind me. We have a very busy storefront office and there are a lot of people that disagree with my progressive politics. So I would say I’m always aware of who’s around me.
Elisaia: It is clear that you are well liked on Roosevelt Island; what is it that you admire about our little island?
Assembly Member Seawright: Roosevelt Island is a very special place. Certainly I wouldn’t mind living there. It reminds me of my little hometown in Texas; it is a small community where people are friendly, and know each other by their first name. It is very special and I’m honored and very privileged to have it in my Assembly District.
Elisaia: What do you think needs the most improvement on the Island and how has it been working with RIOC?
Assembly Member Seawright: I really think we should maintain affordable housing on Roosevelt Island. We need to hold Cornell Technion accountable with certain construction. They are building a hotel now. There has been a tad bit of crime. But I’ve always found that RIOC has been responsive to my office. When we get constituent complaints, we can call Suzanne Rosenthal or her staff and we get the answers that we need. Or if we need to push something along, like the Public Purpose Funds that have been stalled. My first year in office, we just refused to take no for an answer at the State level on the Public Purpose Funds, so we were able to be successful in pushing this along and making this happen.
Elisaia: How have you or how do you plan on countering effects of Trump’s laws/legislation?
Assembly Member Seawright: At the State level, my colleague and have been trying to sponsor more gun violence legislation, immigration legislation. In the Assembly, I was a co-sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act, codifying Roe v. Wade into State Law, taking abortion choice out of the criminal statute. So, any chance we get at the State level, we’re trying to sponsor legislation and pass it to protect New Yorkers from what’s been rolled back federally by this Administration.
Elisaia: How do you think teens can get more involved in advocacy for immigrants’ rights?
Assembly Member Seawright: The National Hispanic Federation – a large global nonprofit International Hispanic Federation – has a teen initiative for teens to get involved in immigration rights.
Elisaia: You recently opened up about the Parent-Child separations taking place. What actions do you think need to be taken to prevent more families from being separated?
Assembly Member Seawright: That’s a great question, and, again, we’ve tried to sponsor legislation on the State level. There is a picture of me in my newsletter holding up a sign, “Families Belong Together,” which I brought back from Albany, and it is displayed in the front window. It is outrageous what’s going on nationally, and anything that we can do in the State of New York to combat that, I’m all for it, and we’ll support it.
I think transparency goes a long way. Trying to put forth legislation where this has happened; having different places where people can call an 800 number and get help. It is very difficult to pass legislation on the State level and this is an issue that has torn families apart.
Francine Elisaia: What made you interested in fighting for women’s rights? Why is it important that acts such as the Reproductive Health Act are protected?
Assembly Member Seawright: As a mother with a son and a daughter, and as a PTA activist, I feel that families should have the choice over a female’s body.
One of my mentors in Texas was the Roe v. Wade attorney, Sarah Weddington, who, in Austin, was the first woman to serve as a State legislator. To this date, she still holds the record as the youngest person ever to argue and win a case before the United States Supreme Court – she was 24 years old when she argued Roe vs. Wade. So, for me, it is very personal and dear to my heart having worked for her in Washington and in Texas. I feel that, for my daughter and for my son, I need to continue to do all I can to promote advocacy around choice. It is something I firmly believe: Women should have control over their own bodies.
Elisaia: Recently, Trump’s administration has established a Supreme Court that plans on getting rid of abortion; what actions do you think you will take to counter this? How difficult do you think it will be?
Assembly Member Seawright: We passed, in the Assembly, legislation to codify Roe vs. Wade in the State Constitution. Unfortunately, it did not pass the State Senate, because the Senate is the Republicans’ hands. So, if we flip the Senate in November and it gets in the Democratic leadership, we could finally pass what we’ve passed in the Assembly consistently year after year, and we can finally see it pass in the State Senate in January; we know the Governor will pass the bill because he is pro-choice.
So, continuing to fight for a Democratic Senate and continuing to co-sponsor this legislation would be my commitments.
Elisaia: What have you done to protect Dreamers? What do they contribute to the fabric of NYC?
Assembly Member Seawright: New York is a wonderful State that is very diverse. In New York, in the legislature, I was a co-sponsor of the Dream Act, and will continue to do everything I can for our Dreamers. I believe we need to protect diversity in New York and we need to welcome immigrants and fight for their legal rights. I am very proud to be a co-sponsor on a number of pieces of legislation.
Elisaia: What advice do you have for young females? How can young women take that torch to continue to fight this battle of inequality towards women and girls?
Assembly Member Seawright: There are number of new organizations for young women that has sprouted up around the country, like Rise Up, We Will Run, and different organizations that women can join to run. Citizens Action and Citizens Union are wonderful organizations. I think young people should participate in rallies and marches and be connected with other people that care about their government and their rights being taken away.
Elisaia: Recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for a New York City congressional seat; how do you think her success has impacted females in politics? Do you see any resemblance in your policies and Mrs. Cortez’s progressive views, such as Medicare for all and free college tuition?
Assembly Member Seawright: I favor free college tuition and expanding our Excelsior scholarship programs for SUNY and CUNY, and students in the privates here in New York State. I see a lot of similarities between me and Congresswoman-elect Ocasio-Cortez: We’re both pro-choice. We’re anti-gun and pro-environment (I have 100% rating from the League of Conservation Voters on my environment record). I’m also for the Affordable Care Act.
So I see a lot of similarities. I’m thought of as a progressive and she’s certainly a progressive and I’m so excited to see her sworn in, I believe as the youngest member of the Congress.
Elisaia: Do you see yourself working with Julia Salazar to reform voting laws in New York?
Assembly Member Seawright: Absolutely! We have over 2 million people in New York State that are eligible to vote and they’re not registered because of our laws. You talk about New York State being a progressive state and the leader on so many issues; but we’re not a leader on voting reform, and that’s something we really need to tackle. We need to register more people to vote, but we need to change the law to make it easier for people to vote.
If I might add, my daughter has written a paper on lowering the voting age; she feels very strongly that our younger population should be allowed to vote.
You know it is very hard for our elderly population to get to the polls. New York is a very expensive place to live and rents are very high. People move a lot; so for them to show up to the polls and them to be told that your address says it’s here and you haven’t lived there in years... oh you cannot vote! There are so many things that need to be addressed, so I can absolutely see myself working to strengthen our laws when it comes to election and voting reforms.
Elisaia: Where do you foresee the future of women in politics?
Assembly Member Seawright: I see a very excited wave of women currently running for office and getting elected to office. I’ve endorsed a number of women running for Congress.
I saw one this morning at a Unity rally and I’m very excited about her winning her race – I won’t say her name because we’re in a government office and I should refrain from talking about that in this setting. I’m excited about all the women running right now because we’re not taking for granted what’s going on nationally; we’re fighting back and women are stepping up to the plate.
What’s so good about Hillary’s candidacy is now all these organizations have sprung up training women how to run for office, like Emily’s List and Eleanor’s Legacy and the Women’s Campaign Fund. They’re literally holding workshops teaching women how to raise money and write their stump speech and to understand that they can juggle the demands of family or children or elderly parents they’re caring for and still run for office.
Elisaia: Do you have a goal that you are struggling to achieve? What are some difficulties that you face as a powerful politician?
Assembly Member Seawright: This past Legislative session I’ve sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, which is not in our New York State Constitution. It never made it out of committee in the State Senate once again because the State Senate is in conservative Republican hands. So I’m looking forward to being the lead sponsor on the Equal Rights Amendment Legislation this January in Albany and getting the various leadership and committee chairs on board to support this legislation.
Elisaia: Where do you see yourself in 25 years (when we reopen the time capsule)?
Assembly Member Seawright: I would love to become a Committee Chair, which only comes with seniority in the Assembly, and continuing to mentor young women and encourage them to run for office.
Elisaia: What do you want your legacy to be after you leave office?
Assembly Member Seawright: That she fought as hard as she could for the issues she believed in, in response to her constituents.
Elisaia: Do you see yourself ever running for President of the United States?
Assembly Member Seawright: I don’t see myself running for President, however, if it were the only way to get Trump out, I’d do it... maybe.
Elisaia: When we reopen the time capsule in 25 years, how do you see Roosevelt Island being?
Assembly Member Seawright: I see it being just as it is right now, only more developed with Cornell Technion on the Island. I see it still having the charm it has right now, only growing and flourishing.
We’re doing everything we can to protect that special atmosphere that it is. We got an anonymous phone call from a woman that wanted to give $100,000 and we steered her to Roosevelt Island for the statue of FDR and the little girl on the Island, at the base of Four Freedoms Park.
Roosevelt Island is a very special place, and, for the future, I see it remaining just as special as it is.