On the East Side, a New Political Force
Rebecca Seawright, a relative newcomer to state politics, grabs an early endorsement lead
UPPER EAST SIDE Rebecca Seawright has emerged as the clear front runner in the race for the 76th Assembly District on the Upper East Side.
She got a huge early endorsement from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who has a wealth of credibility in Upper Manhattan. And months before the race was on anyone’s radar, Seawright managed to round up a host of other big-name endorsements: in addition to Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Tish James all have endorsed her, as well.
She also has the support of a half-dozen Assembly members, including Dan Quart and Deborah Glick, and five City Council members, including Dan Garodnick, who first appointed her to the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8 in April 2013. The building workers union 32BJ and the Working Families Party have also endorsed her.
The slew of endorsements represents an unusual consensus of political opinion very early on in the race — all for a woman who until very recently was little-known in New York politics.
Originally from Texas, Seawright got her start as a state delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She later became a fundraiser for Ann Richards when she was the Texas state treasurer running for governor, which is what eventually brought Seawright to New York.
In Texas she was also the state director of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and served for five years as the chief of staff for central-Texas legislator Bob Melton. She later held positions with two Texas congressmen, Marvin Leath and Charles Stenholm, and a senator, Lloyd Bentsen.
In New York, Seawright served for 14 months as an assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn DA’s office, and still has a private practice specializing in contract law. She was appointed to the board of CUNY’s Feminist Press in 2006, and became vice-president in 2008. In 2011, she was elected chair. In that capacity, she raises funds for the Feminist Press – the oldest feminist publisher in existence – and manages a budget of nearly $1 million.
Seawright’s daughter attends a public high school in Manhattan and her son is a student at SUNY Albany. Her husband, Jay Hershenson, is the senior vice-chancellor of university relations and secretary of the board of trustees at CUNY.
“Being active on a PTA, raising two children, serving on a community board, practicing law, that is managerial experience. And not only that, she was chief of staff for five years to a Texas legislator,” said a Seawright spokesman.
Seawright serves on CB8’s education and transportation committees, and was appointed by Councilman Dan Garodnick last April. However, Our Town found that in 2013, she missed five out of 14 meetings, including the first meeting after her appointment. So far this year. CB8 records show Seawright was absent from four out of 10 full board and land use committee meetings, with three excused absences and one unexcused absence.
“She has to balance a lot,” said the spokesperson, in explaining the absences. “She’s balancing children, she’s balancing being a PTA member, being a mom.”
Seawright is facing Democrats Gus Christensen, a former investment banker; David Menegon, an Army veteran and former Xerox executive; Ed Hartzog, a lawyer and fellow CB8 member; and Republican David Garland, a former business management consultant.
“She’s lived on the Upper East Side, raised a family here, been a PTA mom, her husband is obviously very well-known among legislators and government leaders having been a senior figure at CUNY for a long time, so she’s sort of a known commodity in her own way,” said one Democratic insider. “Raising your kids in public schools on the Upper East Side, that speaks a lot. That means you have deep roots in the community in your own way.”
Amid the wave of endorsements for Seawright, the only notable exception is Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the dean of the East Side Democratic establishment, who has yet to endorse. As for why Maloney hasn’t yet jumped on the Seawright bandwagon, the insider said there’s no real benefit for her to impose herself in the race at this point.
“Maloney has three political clubs she’s going to have to deal with in the long term future, everyone else has endorsed [Seawright], but Maloney is very leery of making enemies in her own back yard. I think she prefers to just keep her powder dry.”
A Maloney spokesperson told Our Town that the congresswoman has been focused on constituent issues in recent months and has not been as attuned to political concerns in the district.
Another longtime Democratic operative on the Upper East Side agreed that Seawright is the most comfortable candidate for the more established pols in the district.
“Menegon and Hartzog don’t have the money, and Christensen scares them,” said the operative. “He could run for city council in 2017 without matching funds, or State Senate in two terms and outspend Krueger three to one.”
But established Democrats like Brewer and Krueger told Our Town they endorsed Seawright because of her stance on the issues in the district and a history of championing causes dear to the veteran politicians’ hearts.
“When you look at her background and her understanding of a broad range of public policy issues…I think her background matches very well with the issues that are going to come to her as an elected official,” said Krueger.
Krueger said she met with each of the candidates in the 76th Assembly district race, and is comfortable supporting Seawright.
Brewer met Seawright in the 1980s through the National Women’s Political Caucus, and said she has similar reasons for supporting her.
“She went to law school here, got married here, had her kids here, she’s just always in the right place in terms of the issues I care about,” said Brewer. “I know her really well, and I like the fact that she’s independent…and I respect the work she’s done in the past.”
When asked about what she thinks of her political ascendancy, Seawright said she’s “humbled and honored by the endorsements of some of the most effective elected leaders in our community – they know and share my commitment to reforming government and relentlessly pushing to improve our housing, schools, transportation and senior services.”
While the race is far from over, and the amount of money she can raise over the life of her campaign will certainly be a factor, Seawright is heading into the heart of campaign season well ahead of the rest of the field.
“Many people regard this as her race to lose,” said the Upper East Side Democratic insider. “She’s the only woman in the race, and this is the most female-heavy Democratic primary electorate in any Assembly district. She’s got a huge edge.”