Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Jerry Kassar took over the reins of the New York Conservative Party on February 23, 2019, after being the chairman of the Brooklyn (Kings County) Conservative Party since January 1989, 30 years at the helm of the local committee. He lives in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn with his wife, Janet.

New York State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard “Jerry” Kassar is a political insider unlike anyone else in politics today. Kassar, 63, lives in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. In 1995, he was appointed by Governor George Pataki and confirmed by the state Senate to be a commissioner on the Interstate Environmental Commission. This was the beginning of a 38-year legislative career in which he held several senior staff positions in the Assembly (Republican) minority. In 2003, Kassar joined the central staff of the Senate (Republican) majority, and in 2004 he was appointed as chief of staff to Senator Martin Golden, a position Kassar held until his retirement in December of 2018. (Kassar also received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Pace University.)

In a wide-ranging interview about politics and government, Kassar spoke exclusively with The Jewish Press about his views on criminal justice reform, the result when state legislators are not in touch with their district, the recent defeat of Governor Kathy Hochul’s nominee for chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, public financing of campaigns, breaking the supermajority in both houses, and looking ahead to the 2024 legislative races.


“I’m hoping that what has become an ultra-progressive legislative body in both houses starts to recognize that almost 50 percent of the voters in the state do not agree with them,” Kassar said. “I would like to see a more centered approach from the Legislature if only because they would be reflecting, not necessarily the concerns of the Conservative Party but [of] the people of the entire state.”

Kassar’s primary issue for this legislative session is to roll back bail reform measures and other criminal justice issues.

“I do think the single greatest issue confronting the Legislature is rolling back some of the criminal justice laws that are extraordinarily unpopular with most of the citizens of the state and extremely dangerous. Bail reform, for example. Deposing the left-wing lawmakers who pushed for the measure is the key component of fixing bail reform. Judges having discretion, that is the key component and it should be a reasonable approach that most legislators should agree with.”

Kassar was also dismayed by the Senate Democrats’ recent rejection of Judge Hector LaSalle as New York’s chief judge of the court system and the Court of Appeals, the court of last resort in New York. LaSalle is the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, which handles the largest caseload of any department in the state.

Here is the exchange of questions at last month’s confirmation hearing between LaSalle and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

“I gave $100 to the Conservative Party in 2008,” LaSalle recalled.

Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal took the unusual move to use a litmus test to determine whether Judge Hector LaSalle should be confirmed as chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals and lead the entire judiciary in the state. His chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee is being challenged by conservatives because of his left-wing bias.

Hoylman-Sigal: “Do you know about the Conservative Party agenda? It includes opposing a woman’s right to control her own body, opposes the equal rights of LGBTQ New Yorkers, and opposes any attempt to implement common-sense gun violence prevention measures. Do you consider those to be mainstream values?”

LaSalle: “Mainstream values? Those are the values of the members of the Conservative party. I ran as a judge both times. I took the Working Families line when it was available in 2008. I’ve run as a judge and I make decisions based on the law and I apply the law the same to everyone regardless of political party or ideology.”

Hoylman-Sigal: “I will say for the record that the Conservative party also supports radical right Supreme Court rulings against women, immigrants, workers, the environment, so I’m extremely shocked and disappointed that you would have at any point during your career thrown your lot in with them.”

The following is a second exchange of commentary toward the end of the five-hour long hearing.

Hoylman-Sigal: “I’m heartsick to hear that you continue to state that you were honored to run on all the party lines that you have run on. As an LGBTQ person, the Conservative party stands for everything I’m against. They are against my right to marry, against my ability to have kids, against transgender youth. It’s hurtful. It also suggests to me a willful ignorance about the platform of the Conservative party. Candidates should know what parties stand for. Frankly, I don’t know what you stand for, given that party line you took.”

LaSalle: “Senator, every statement you made about the Conservative party, I repudiate. I do not agree with any statement that treats you or any of your rights any differently than anyone else’s. I share your concern for those positions.”

Kassar said he thought those two exchanges were irrelevant when it comes to judicial nominees who are regularly cross-endorsed to show impartiality. “The makeup of judges in general should be those who are fair and [who follow] the law. It should not be about race. It should not be about creed. It should not be about sexual orientation at all,” Kassar said. “It should be about their qualifications and their ability to administer justice fairly. I am always concerned and even shocked when an argument is presented that a judge’s ability to be fair emanates from their race, religion or sex. I know many attorneys who would make highly qualified judges that are not being considered for their ability to interpret and rule on the law.”

Focusing on a controversial Assembly race, Kassar lamented the struggle Assemblyman Lester Chang was put through to retain his legislative seat because of a questionable residency requirement.

“I live in the district and voted for him,” Kassar said. “I would have been incredulous if he had not been seated, with him receiving clearly more votes than Peter [Abbate, the 36-year incumbent Chang defeated.]”

Chang lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn in a house with his 92-year-old mother who allegedly has Alzheimer’s. The house is not in his district so he could not even vote for himself.

“Lester will certainly be a good representative. I think he is in the process of finding a place within the confines of the district, which the law allows through December 31st of this year,” Kassar noted.

Kassar rationalized the misstep this way:

“Life can be a process of loose strings that need to get tied down. It’s unfortunate that this happened to be one of his loose strings. The issue of the electorate and who should serve in office has really nothing to do with whether he properly or improperly dealt with a rental issue,” Kassar said. “It has much more to do with how the people voted. In this district, Peter Abbate, who was apparently well defeated by an individual who was a resident of Brooklyn but not even a resident of his specific district following the reapportionment law. The issue becomes here that Peter has certainly lost touch with his district and that’s the second takeaway from this. Abbate is a guy who basically was representing government labor unions and was replaced by the people of the district who were not necessarily concerned with Abbate representing government labor unions.”

Kassar also came out against the recent $32,000 per year pay raise that also would limit the amount of outside income a lawmaker can earn, beginning in 2025. With the passage of the pay raise bill and signed by the governor, state lawmakers now earn $142,000 a year, plus per diem pay. They will work, passing bills 63 days this year along with their district work, helping constituents.

“Some of those issues relating to income is a result of this year’s unfortunate passage of a bill that raised salaries but at the same time capped outside income in a manner where you’re going to end up with a legislature that is less and less in touch with the average person because fewer and fewer of just regular people are going to be able to go into the legislature,” Kassar said.

There is a workaround to this cap. Sources at the Capitol told The Jewish Press that a business owner/legislator could put a spouse or child on the payroll and pay them the salary the lawmaker would have received. Then, that family member could pay the household bills, possibly from a separate bank account set up for that specific purpose.

“Certainly that sounds unethical and possibly corrupt, but what else is new here? I think workarounds are in general, by definition, unethical,” Kassar said. “That’s why they are called workarounds. They shouldn’t have capped the outside salaries and they shouldn’t have raised their salaries. They are in a different world and you’ll end up with a full-time legislature where you don’t need a full-time legislature. It’s going to be a solution looking for a problem.”

This year, 13 hearings are scheduled to determine new district lines for the state Assembly. Five of those hearings have already been held. The final hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, February 7. After all the testimony is reviewed, the drafting of new lines will begin by the Independent Redistricting Commission. You can go to: to view testimony from past commission meetings.

“Hearings are being held now on new Assembly lines. If you saw the new ones they will likely be running on in 2024, in many places the district lines are very similar to what the Assembly candidates just ran on, which were different from the ones they ran on in 2020,” said Kassar. “We did very well running on the lines they just ran on but we could have won more seats. I would suggest to you that after this next creation of district lines that we will be just as strong.”

Kassar said he opposed the creation of publicly-funded state races.

“Legislators also created a public financing law, which limits some of the value of their Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee fundraising push. I don’t support public financing of campaigns at all, but they should recognize that they may have also tripped themselves up in some ways. We will see how all this plays out” Kassar said.

Kassar expressed an upbeat note when thinking back on the 2022 elections.

“I thought we had a good year and I wasn’t necessarily specifically surprised in any situation,” Kassar said. “I guess what surprised me and disappointed me was how there were a couple of very, very close races that just tipped the wrong way against us.

“There were also three state Senate seats – the Orange County seat which pitted Republican-Conservative Dorey Houle against Democrat James Skoufis. (Skoufis flipped a seat once held by retiring Republican Senator Mike Martucci, which did not end up being very close with a difference of 1,426 votes or 1.5 percent), Republican-Conservative Vito LaBella, Bay Ridge resident, narrowly lost in Brooklyn against Democrat Iwen Chu, a Dyker Heights resident, by only 215 votes (six-tenths of a percentage point).”

In a race that was decided in late December last year, incumbent Democratic Senator John Mannion won with 10 votes to spare in the Syracuse area after a hand recount took place. He defeated Republican-Conservative Rebecca Shiroff, who is Jewish. “It’s disappointing but also a surprise that we fell on the short side where I was hoping we would fall on the positive side. Shiroff was an excellent candidate and my hope is that she would run again,” Kassar said. “She was in D.C. at Congressman Brandon Williams’ swearing-in so she is still certainly in the political arena. She certainly wasn’t going away. If anything, she was going towards another run.”

Senator Simcha Felder (D – Borough Park / Midwood) and Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D – Borough Park) received the endorsement of the Conservative party. Felder picked up the endorsement of the Republican party as well. Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon (D – Utica, Oneida County) is the only other Democrat endorsed by the Conservative party. Of the 48 Republican members in the Assembly, all were endorsed by the Conservative party plus the two Democrats make 50 members in the state Assembly with Conservative Party backing.

“The two Simchas are very important to our overall approach to governing because we do have to recognize in the Conservative party that there is a Democratic control and we’re fortunate to have individuals like Senator Simcha Felder and Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein who I believe have on a number of occasions reflected our view in that Democratic conference,” Kassar revealed. “Simcha Felder and Eichenstein wind up with more votes on the Conservative line than on the Democratic line. They are Democrats and we’ve always had Democrats that have been close and friendly with the party.”

Republicans came close to breaching the wall of the supermajority in each house. In the 150-member Assembly, the Republicans are three seats away. In the 63-seat Senate, the Republicans are two seats from the magic number to break the supermajority. Kassar remains optimistic and looking forward to the contests in 2024.

“The Republicans have 48 seats in the Assembly and it could have been 50 seats. I think next time, in two years, it will be 51 seats,” Kassar predicts. “Despite reapportionment you will continue to see increases in the Republican-Conservative membership in the Senate and the Assembly simply because the compression the Democrats were trying to do did not happen due to that final special master order to do the reapportionment. I do think there is enough there to bring the Republicans over the one-third minority in the Assembly and definitely over the one-third majority in the Senate. Right now, we’re looking at communicating to what we consider a fairly extensive swath of the state. The fact that the Democrats in the legislature are not really reflecting the views of the Democrats in their districts or the independents in their districts and they will end up hopefully confronted with a good set of candidates to grow out of the fact that we’ve now had a couple of successful years.”

The Conservative Party will hold its two-day legislative conference Sunday and Monday, February 5 and 6 in Albany.


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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at