Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Ari Brown at his Assembly desk.

It was an auspicious day on Monday, April 25, when Eric “Ari” Brown, 54, was sworn into office in Albany, family and friends at his side.

For at least the past four decades, there has always been at least one Jewish Assemblyman on the Republican side of the aisle. Brown joins the ranks of those who preceded him, with one twist, in that Brown is the first Orthodox Jew and the only one to serve as a Republican.

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Many Orthodox Jews have served in the Assembly but all were Democrats. There are currently three Orthodox Jews in the Democratic conference – Simcha Eichenstein of Brooklyn along with Dan Rosenthal and David Weprin, both of Queens. When Brown (of Cedarhurst, Nassau County) took his oath of office in the Republican conference room on Monday and when he was given praise on the Assembly floor by the Republican leader, the other Orthodox Jewish members did not cross party lines to publicly congratulate Brown on his victory and on joining the ranks of the Assembly.

Brown won his seat on Thursday, April 7, in a special election following the resignation of another Jewish lawmaker, Melissa “Missy” Miller earlier in the year. Due to the legislative break for the holidays celebrated by Jews, Catholics and Muslims, the 25th was the first day back for state lawmakers.

The Jewish Press was the only media outlet to cover the occasion, and was given unfettered access to the swearing-in ceremony.

“As some of you are aware, special elections are kind of tricky things. They are chaotic, they have an accelerated timeframe, and always there is a ton of confusion,” said Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski, Oswego County). “What helps to overcome those challenges is a candidate who knows his community, who stands on the right sides of the issues and is willing to get out there, work hard and get his message to the voters. That’s why we’re very, very fortunate that Ari Brown was willing to run for this office. He brings a tremendous amount of experience and energy to Albany.”

Brown did not use a Bible or any religious book to swear his oath. There was no judge or rabbi to administer the oath; he simply raised his right hand and repeated the oath as Barclay said the words. Then Brown addressed his colleagues:

“Local government is very different. I will try with everything I do to take the same approach in this particular office,” he said. “Small government works great. You get involved with people on a very personal level. I worked with my dad for nearly four decades in the construction business. My father always had these great expressions and life lessons. My father brought me up to a roof at five years old. Who does that? Thank G-d I got all my fingers still and no one ever fell off. My father said, ‘Watch where you’re standing.’ I knew what he meant by that. In Hebrew there is an expression Da lifnei mi attah omed – Look before whom you’re standing. I’m going to focus on my area when I have to work for the state. I’ll focus on my area, which is what I was elected for. I will work across the aisle as best as I can but I will do it as a public servant.”

 

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Being in the Assembly, Brown will have to make a few adjustments in his style of getting legislation accomplished fast, which he is used to as deputy mayor of the village of Cedarhurst. It’s the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome.

Brown joins a conference outnumbered by Democrats by more than two to one – 106 to 44.

“I have to take a breath. It’ll take time to learn, but it should come relatively easy. I’m frustrated with the delays and slowness. I like it fast,” Brown told The Jewish Press. “I don’t like delays. I find it disrespectful that we’re waiting all this time. I don’t understand that. Like I said, I have a bad habit of always being early. There’s no reason for (these delays and waiting around). I don’t think it’s a spiteful thing. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Another item Brown might find frustrating and disrespectful is that even though he won his election on April 7, the Assembly website, which is controlled by the Democrats, still has his seat listed as a vacancy with no bio information or contact information for his district or Albany office. His nameplate outside his office, Room 544, is still missing. One of the first items of business, when Brown found his office on the fifth floor of the Legislative Office Building, was to affix a mezuzah to the doorpost – a practice allowed according to legislative rules. Other lawmakers have a mezuzah on their doorpost as well.

Brown is a card-carrying NRA member and plans to focus his attention on public safety and fighting crime in order to win re-election in November.

With only 16 session days to go until lawmakers break for the rest of the year on June 2 and begin campaigning for their June 28 primary or November 8 general election faceoff, Brown realizes he can’t make a real impact during the remaining time. Without assigning Brown the committees he’s interested in, the Republican leadership simply took the easy way and gave him the same committees his predecessor had, most of which he’s not interested in because they don’t fit his profile. For example, he was assigned the ranking member of the committee on people with disabilities, a passionate area for his predecessor, Miller.

“I have a lot to learn about that. (People with Disabilities) is certainly not my forte. My forte is construction, infrastructure,” Brown told The Jewish Press. “They assigned me to these things. I’ll look to help out the best I can. I just got the bills today. I have to learn and learn quickly. Anything Missy was on I don’t really know much about.”

Another annoyance for Brown on his first day on the job is the disparity of allotments for office personnel, supplies and office space.

I have one staff in Albany and one staff I’ll be picking in the district. So it’ll just be two staff people.

“They gave me $100,000 to run the two legislative offices,” Brown said. “The majority gets $200,000. What does being in the majority or the minority have to do with staff? I’m not a politician. I don’t like these politics at all. How do I pay a staff on Long Island? It’s one of the most expensive communities in the state.

“We’ll do our best. That’s what I’ve always done.”

Brown is currently unmarried and the father of seven and grandfather of two. He says he won’t relinquish his $11,000-a-year job as deputy mayor of Cedarhurst but will keep that post along with his $110,000 Assembly salary. He is also president of a construction company, R. Brown Realty Group, listed under the name Eric Brown.

The only gracious words he heard from the Democrats on his first day were from the Speaker’s rostrum in the Assembly Chamber.

“Assemblymember Brown, welcome to the New York State Assembly. You are now part of this family as you have obviously shown that you can handle family,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry (D -Corona, Queens). “We hope that your time here will be successful and that you will always know that the Assembly will be your home forever.”

After lawmakers gave Brown a perfunctory standing ovation, Aubry chimed in with a quick quip.

“As I always tell every new member, this will be the last time that they get up and cheer for you.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.