Of the candidates challenging incumbent state senators in Thursday’s primary, Jasmine Robinson has the least chance of prevailing. Her opponent, Sen. Diane Savino, a co-founder of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, enjoys a 30-to-one financial advantage, has deep support from labor and is so popular she has run unopposed the past two cycles. What little press attention Robinson has attracted focused on her harried effort to get on the September 13 ballot: Having discovered that some of her canvassers had submitted what appeared to be forged petition signatures, Robinson briefly withdrew from the race before returning to the contest. Robinson also made the wrong kind of headlines when she said she wanted to pull Savino’s hair.
Voters in the 23rd district, which covers the northern part of Staten Island and a sliver of southern Brooklyn, will decide who wins and loses on Thursday. But whatever the vote count, the lack of a real race in the 23rd deprived voters there, and elsewhere, of a debate on some of the issues that arose after the 2014 killing of Eric Garner on one of the district’s sidewalks.
Robinson, a legal secretary and first-time candidate, says she met Garner shortly before his death, when she was accosted on her way into a beauty supply store by a group of men hanging out on that same sidewalk. She says Garner interceded, saw her into the store, and escorted her out of the area when she was done shopping. It was Garner’s death at the hands of Daniel Pantaleo, Robinson says, that inspired her to become more politically active in the neighborhood. And it was at the memorial service for Garner’s daughter Erica earlier this year that Robinson says she decided to seek public office in hopes of finding a way for her community’s needs to be better met.
Savino’s campaign says she was a presence at memorials to Garner in the wake of the 2014 incident. After a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, Savino offered carefully worded remarks, per the Staten Island Advance, that expressed solidarity with the outraged without casting blame on the police officers involved in the death:
“First and foremost, we must remember that a man is dead, a man who was a father, son, a husband and a Staten Islander, which is sad in and of itself, especially if it was preventable. While many in our community, and the Garner family will unfortunately continue to grieve, as Staten Islanders we must learn from these tragic events, to avoid having another family searching for answers and a community searching for justice,” she said, adding: “Ultimately, we are a nation of laws, and as such, we need to respect the decision of the grand jury even if we do not agree with it. … It is equally important to recognize that many people in the city of New York feel as if they are not part of the process, and that is something we need to change.”
Soon thereafter, when protesters took to the Staten Island Expressway to protest the grand jury’s move, Savino was less measured when she denounced their tactics as dangerous. “Each one of these idiots should be arrested,” she said.
She appears to have said little since then about Pantaleo, who remains on the police force pending an internal disciplinary process that itself has been held up by a slow-moving federal investigation. A spokeswoman for Savino says the senator respects that civil-service process and has not wanted to interfere.
Savino’s legislative reaction to the Garner death was to join Assemblyman Matthew Titone in proposing a law to allow district attorneys to release information about grand jury proceedings; the secrecy of the process on Staten Island fed the furor over the decision not to indict.
The bill would have allowed a DA to “disclose the nature or substance of any grand jury testimony, evidence, or any decision, result or other matter attending a grand jury proceeding in the interest of justice based on a valid written request.”
When the current session of the legislature started in 2017, Titone again introduced the bill. Savino did not.
A spokeswoman for Savino says the senator ended her support for the original measure because she had been alerted by DAs and civil liberties groups about potential privacy concerns the disclosure bill would create, and that some of the policy changes sought by the bill had been achieved through other means. She could not provide specifics by press time.
The bill made clear that any DA who released such information would have to “redact the names of the grand jurors, the names of any witnesses appearing before the grand jury, any evidence that may imperil the health or safety of any grand juror or witness appearing before the grand jury, any evidence that may identify any grand juror or witness appearing before the grand jury, any information that could impact any current or ongoing investigation, and any other information in the interest of public safety.”
Titone is running for Richmond County surrogate this fall. With him out of the Assembly, and unless Savino, Robinson or someone else takes up the cause again, the primary push for state-level policy change in the wake of one of the city’s most harrowing police-civilian encounters could be an orphan.
Savino declined requests for an interview. For her part, Robinson says if she is elected, improving police-community relations will be a top goal–although she believes “in some areas, they are damaged beyond repair.” To many New Yorkers, the Garner incident might be fading from memory. But Robinson says, “It is still a galvanizing issue. I think the healing will start when those involved are punished.”