New Greek TV's featured Greek of the Week is New York Senator Michael Gianaris.
Senator Gianaris, who hails from Astoria, is the first Greek-American ever elected into legislative office from New York City. The politician graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors Degree in Economics and Political Science from Fordham University, prior to obtaining his law degree from Harvard University, after attending New York City's public school system.
The Democrat who is a first generation Greek-American and represents New York's 12th State Senate district, has enacted a plethora of concrete measures on both the state and national level. These include authoring the United States' initial Airline Passenger Bill of Rights law and the Energy Security Act, in addition to writing the Clean Energy Law.
The down-to-earth Senator, whose original surname was Giannaris, offered the following interview where he discussed his love of politics, ties to Greece, American initiatives and more.
Maria Athens: What initially attracted you to politics? Can you tell us about your background leading up to your Senatorial position?
Senator Gianaris: My interest in politics came while I was in college. Growing up in Astoria, you can't help but be active in the Greek community when you are a child of immigrants. A guy with bushy eyebrows who looked like many people in this neighborhood decided he was running for President.
Michael Dukakis was the Governor of Massachusetts then and it was to me, a statement of what's possible in the United States. He like me was a child of immigrants and had a relatively new history in this country, and ran for the highest office. I got swept up in it and worked hard to help him. Unfortunately it was unsuccessful, but it made me realize that I love politics, government, and helping people, so I went from there.
Maria Athens: Was it a natural decision to attend Fordham University, where your father teaches?
Senator Gianaris: It was an easy choice. I was young because I skipped a grade in Junior High School and my parents, being overprotective Greek parents, wanted to make sure I was close by where they could keep tabs on me. Going to the same school where my father taught gave them that opportunity, but I managed to sneak away for law school.
Maria Athens: You seem to genuinely care about your constituents, where did you learn such a strong value system?
Senator Gianaris: I don't think it's a coincidence that the Greeks invented the concept of participatory democracy, people looking out for their neighbors, and people having a say in their government at the grassroots level. Before I was elected, I was active in the community. I was a member of numerous civic groups and a member of the local community board here. After my experience with Dukakis I worked in government and for my Congressman. I worked for Governor Cuomo [the previous one not the current one] when I was younger.
The entire point is there is no money to be made in public service; it's a sacrifice in terms of income. The reward is seeing people who walk into these doors after we've helped them keep their home or get their social security check, or even something small, like fixing a street light on their block or building a park, which we did in the Astoria Heights area years ago. When people get the help that we provide and you see how its changed their lives, that's the reward for me.
Maria Athens: What are the biggest challenges in your jurisdiction?
Senator Gianaris: Like every neighborhood we care about making sure the streets are safe, having good schools, and providing adequate healthcare facilities. We are making strides in all of these areas. In fact, it's the one part of New York where a hospital is actually getting built instead of being shut down.
Beyond that, it's a very changing neighborhood. Western Queens is gentrifying very quickly and if you look at the waterfront in Long Island City and in Astoria, there are towers going up every single day. With that comes new people into the neighborhood which creates a burden on the infrastructure. Every time a new building goes up we have to negotiate to make sure we acquire more school space, better train service, and police on the streets; all the things that go with adding thousands and thousands of people into the population.
We have some special issues that deal with new and quick development that is coming here. Air quality has always been an issue because we happen to produce 60% of New York City's electricity here in Astoria. We have had some major achievements, such as shutting down the single biggest polluter in New York. We have done some things that are particular and unique to Western Queens.
Maria Athens: What have been the highlights of your career this far?
Senator Gianaris: I have achieved the closure of New York's biggest polluter; not just the closure but the dismantling of it, which never happens. We actually had the smoke stacks come down and not up, which is unheard of in our neighborhood. That just happened within the past year. This is not only a visual sign of progress, but a real sign for the people who have asthma and emphysema in the neighborhood.
We also fought very hard during the ten-day 2006 blackout. We achieved some changes in the law to make sure they work better in the future and we haven't had a problem since. We have made it easier and safer for people to live. More broadly we have had some national achievements, such as the establishment of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights law by the FAA, that started here in New York with the bill I wrote. We got it enacted here in New York and then President Obama adopted it for the entire country.
Maria Athens: What causes do you hold closest to your heart?
Senator Gianaris: I think New York is a special place. It's part of the United States which is the best country in the world, but it's also a unique international location where people from all over the world feel they have a stake. Certainly my parents did and the Greek community did, and other communities have had that same experience. I try to help create the environment where good, hardworking people can come here and if they roll up their sleeves and work hard, they can get ahead.
There's not many places in the world where that can be said anymore. But that's always been New York's calling card. Looking out for those people and making sure that these abilities are not burdened by high crime or inadequate schools or any of the things would get in the way of that progress, allows them to unleash their natural energy and their initiative, which is why people come here in the first place. Looking out for those people is what drives me.
Maria Athens: How do you handle the heightened amount of criticism of the Democratic party under President Obama's reign?
Senator Gianaris: These things are cyclical. If you look back at Bill Clinton's presidency, there were times when people loved him and times where they hated him. The same can be said for President Obama and for President Bush. It's the nature of politics that it goes up and down. Right now we are in a period where the Republican party just had success in the elections so there is a shift in that direction. With the presidential election coming in just two years, I think we will see it shift back again. I try to keep a stable view of things and not get caught up in the erratic shifts that occur from day-to-day.
Maria Athens: If you were a politician in the homeland, how would you go about creating a functioning infrastructure?
Senator Gianaris: Greece has their own set of challenges but it seems they are getting through it. We have our own difficulties in New York. I'm not going to pretend to tell the people in Greece what to do.
Maria Athens: What is your proudest political achievement?
Senator Gianaris: Probably being the first Greek-American elected to office from New York. Astoria has been Greek for decades and for many years, we never had a representative in government. When I got elected in 2000, I was the first one from New York City to do so. That then opened the doors and now we are at a point where in the state legislature, we have six Greek-Americans.
We have gotten the first Greek woman elected, Aravella Simotas, who took my place in the Assembly when I moved on. We've had the first Cypriot elected also from this neighborhood to the City Council, Costa Constantinides. I would like to think that if I hadn't broken through that barrier, that wouldn't have been possible. I think the community has gotten galvanized by having the ability to have that representation.
Maria Athens: What are your governmental goals?
Senator Gianaris: We want to make sure that New York continues to be a place that people want to come to. New York City is a very different environment than upstate New York. Down here, the economy is thriving and people are moving here and there is growth. I represent this pocket of New York City but I also am the Deputy Leader for the Democrats for the entire State Senate, so I try to keep an eye on helping the state as a whole.
I strive to make sure we bring that balance, so upstate's economy can get back on track and match the dynamism of the downstate region, which is important in maintaining the New York and American dream. We want to create an environment for people who come here and work hard to succeed. In upstate, that's hard to do right now because the economy is suffering. Keeping the cost of living down, making sure kids can get educated, and making sure things are kept safe for people to function here, are my concerns.
Maria Athens: What Greek-American and Greek initiatives are in you involved in?
Senator Gianaris: I try to be supportive of as many Greek organizations as I can. I am involved in the Hellenic Lawyers Association, the Federation of Hellenic Societies, HANAC; the list goes on and on. I never want to forget to mention the Cyprus cause; the Pancyprian Association is a group I work very, very closely with. The Cyprus situation is too often forgotten about by other communities. There is a lot of attention on other crises internationally, but for some reason Cyprus has not garnered that attention.
Maria Athens: How would your mother describe you?
Senator Gianaris: I think my mother is very proud but also very demanding. I think she's happy with what I have achieved. She should be proud of what she and my father did to put me in that position. There's always high expectations in our community so I think she hopes there is more to come.
Maria Athens: How much of an influence was your Hellenic heritage while growing up in Astoria? Can you tell us about your upbringing?
Senator Gianaris: A massive influence. I went to the public school system here but I did go to Greek school in the afternoon at St. Katherine, which is my church still to this day. In Astoria growing up in the '80s you can't escape it; even if you're not Greek there's still a Greek influence on you. Certainly as a Greek-American, the values of the community are deeply embedded in me as a person, which means a high standard of ethics, an incredible work ethic and caring about my community. That's what I try to bring to this job.
Maria Athens: Where does your family originate from in Greece? How often do you get back to the homeland?
Senator Gianaris: They are from Kalavryta. When I was young we would go every summer. It's funny when I tell people who are not Greek that I go every summer, they would think it's the greatest thing. It was the greatest thing but different then how they thought of it. They imagine me laying on the beach on Santorini everyday, but we are in the mountains. We visited the horio and stayed in the shack with goats walking outside; a beautiful experience.
As I got older and started working it was harder to make the time to go. When I got elected I had the opportunity to visit a few times in official capacity. I went with Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 when he spoke at The World Conference of Mayors in Athens. I went with the delegation from the State Legislature in 2003. In 2004 I went back with Mayor Bloomberg for the Olympics, because at the time we were trying to get the Olympics to come to New York.
Maria Athens: Ouzo, raki or tsiporou?
Senator Gianaris: Tsiporou is hardcore, for when you really want to go for it.
Maria Athens: What's your advice to the new generation of Greek-Americans?
Senator Gianaris: Don't loose touch with your heritage. It's an incredible gift and the values that Greeks have carried on for thousands of years still exist. The farther removed someone is from their direct lineage to Greece, the easier it is to loose track of what one's identity is. Don't loose track of that, stay educated about your history and family lineage, because there are many things to be proud of.
The great thing about this country is that people bring the best of themselves from elsewhere here and lend that to the U.S. As Greek-Americans continue to progress in their careers and communities, they need to make sure to keep that Greek part of themselves active.
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