‘Velmanette builds the wagons, puts them on the road, and then everybody else jumps on them’
There’s a poorly lit, windowless courtroom in lower Manhattan that rarely attracts an audience. It hears child abuse and neglect cases and other family matters. Few who aren’t party to the proceedings could bear watching them – even the judges assigned there burn out quickly from the stress and anguish.
But one morning last year, a New York lawmaker strode into the courtroom with colleagues and aides in tow. The ordinarily empty, lone wooden visitors’ pew in the back of the room quickly filled, to the court officers’ surprise. Brooklyn Sen. Velmanette Montgomery was the rare elected official to observe these cases, typically involving impoverished or homeless New York families and often little known to the general public.
Visits like this have defined the 78-year-old Democrat’s time in the state Senate over the past three and a half decades. Montgomery will retire at the end of 2020 from a public service career spent making perennial calls for reform to improve the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised – with legislation that sometimes took more than a decade to become law.
Her position in the Senate’s minority party for many years at times constrained her aspirations to improve social services, schools and the prison system. It’s been 15 years, for example, since she first proposed still-pending legislation to expand chances for prisoners to reduce their sentences with merit time.
Still, colleagues from both political parties credit the hard-fought gains Montgomery did help achieve, as well as her persistence. And those whose lives she transformed praise the causes she championed – from keeping 16-year-olds out of adult prisons to lifting restrictions on adoptees’ access to their birth certificates and expanding the role of Native American tribal courts in foster care cases.
“I don’t think her constituents realized the opposition she faced in the Senate, as a triple minority, as a Black woman in the Democratic Party,” said Al Vann, a former state assemblyman from Brooklyn. “She didn’t cry about it, she did all she could to deliver. Very unique person to be able to do that, I think.”
Even her would-be political opposition admire Montgomery’s tenacity. “It’s tougher to be in the minority, but that never dissuaded her from zealously representing her constituents,” said John Flanagan, the former Republican Senate majority leader who left office last year.
During a recent socially distanced, sit-down interview, Montgomery and a reporter spoke through face masks to safeguard against the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated her borough and derailed her ambitious plans for her last year in office. She described her longtime need to serve the people in her district, as well as a shift she felt these days – to step back and plan her own life, and get to the theater more.
Reflecting on her decades in Albany, Montgomery said her focus “was never the sexy, new shining thing.” Typically, she said, “everything else was of interest but this – whatever I was working on.” Still, she called her tenure rewarding and illuminating.
“I certainly felt responsibility in a very different way. It wasn’t so much the lobbyists and people with money. We never had the constituency with money,” she said. “One of the advantages that I always had, I spent so much time getting information from the source. We listened to young people, and worked with them.”
With her broad smile and often donning a bold necklace and dramatic, colorful hat or wrap, she’s been called one of the “deans” of Brooklyn politics, all the while maintaining a low profile in New York City’s hothouse political media.
The New York State Senate had long been Republican-held – until 2018, when the Democrats’ sweeping victories propelled them to only their third majority in the last five decades. That makes the victories Montgomery carved out on behalf of the poor all the more impressive, and under-appreciated, say those she’s mentored.
“She taught me to be true to myself and lead by my convictions,” said Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, a Brooklyn native known for prosecuting President Donald Trump’s now-shuttered charitable organization. She quipped that if asked today, she would proudly resort to being Montgomery’s staff member.
Montgomery has authored successful legislation to bar the shackling of women in prison during childbirth, and to expand criminal penalties for the genital mutilation of women. More recently, she’s pursued legislation extending support for youth aging out of foster care during the pandemic.
In her earlier days as a legislator in the 1990s, Montgomery fought for needle exchanges, enduring vitriol from her own constituents. And she has been a prominent supporter of YouthBuild, a renowned program providing construction jobs to young people from low-income communities.
She’s also frequently visited the state’s highest-security prisons, to encourage prisoners’ efforts to improve their lives and the systems around them.
“She empowered people in the prison population,” said Lawrence Bartley, whose successful campaign for parole from prison after 27 years was bolstered by Montgomery’s support. “She instilled another level of hope.”
Perhaps most significantly, Montgomery has helped secure funding for school-based health centers, lowering barriers for vulnerable students. She was also among the first elected leaders to hold hearings on ending the incarceration of 16- and 17-year-olds in adult jails and prisons such as the notorious Rikers Island.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York’s “Raise the Age” reform in 2017, lifting the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18.
“Velmanette builds the wagons, puts them on the road, and then everybody else jumps on them,” said Diane Savino, a state senator for Staten Island who often partnered with Montgomery on bills, sharing leadership of the Senate Children and Families committee.
Montgomery’s eclectic district spans from the Red Hook and Sunset Park waterfronts through downtown Brooklyn and across the heart of the borough’s Black community in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It includes residential neighborhoods she calls the “brownstone belt,” office towers, a professional basketball arena, and a concentration of public housing.
The race to replace her this year was described by City & State as a pure test of “the voters’ preferences for old school liberalism versus democratic socialists.” In June, the Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate, Jabari Brisport, won the primary vote against Montgomery’s chosen successor, State Assemblywomen Tremaine Wright. Brisport is widely expected to win the general election vote in November.
In an email sent by a spokesperson, Brisport emphasized one similarity with Montgomery, noting: “As a teacher, it meant a lot that Senator Montgomery fought so hard against the school to prison pipeline, with legislation like Solutions not Suspensions,” he said. “I can’t wait to continue that fight in the State Senate next year.”
Raised outside Houston in the 1940s and 1950s, Montgomery said her political awakening began in her college years at the University of Texas at Austin.
She described one telling scene: She and a group of white students got off a bus at a roadside diner. A burly white man behind the counter threw her out, explaining that the entrance she’d used was for “whites only.” In response, she and her classmates all left together, a gesture of solidarity that moved and inspired her.
Katie Davis, president of the Community Council for Medgar Evers College and a friend of Montgomery’s, said Black people growing up in the South in that era and trying to carve out a professional life had to be beyond strong to persevere. “They would remind you who you were and treat you like your education didn’t mean something,” said the Georgia native. “It really motivated some people – not everyone – but she was motivated,” Davis said of her friend.
Montgomery rarely speaks about her personal history in public – “I have little time, and that is not something I can luxuriate in” she said in an interview. But she described being “through with Texas,” and transferring to New York to finish college, then graduate school.
She eventually found a community in Brooklyn’s rising Black political scene, where former state lawmaker Vann recruited Montgomery and others into leadership roles in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1985, as she began her political career after more than a decade as a teacher, daycare director and community organizer, the era of mass incarceration was blowing up. Montgomery recalled just how cynical the locking up of Black and brown people had become: A corrections official once explained to her how his department calculated the number of prison cells they would need in the future. It was correlated with the number of children enrolled in 4th grade.
“At that point, you say there is something very unwholesome about this,” she said. “That’s how awful it was.”
Montgomery became the most reliable “no” vote on bills that lengthened prison sentences.
Today, Montgomery said she sees hope in the Black Lives Matter movement, but she is waiting to see who in the state senate will dedicate themselves to the hard work of lasting reform.
In making Black lives matter, she said, “the translation is the hard part.”