Crime statistics in New York are the highest they’ve been in years. The district attorney of Manhattan, which saw some of the biggest increases in some crime categories, has essentially shut the spigot of charging criminals. The big news Monday was a homeless man who without warning pushed a woman to her death in front of a speeding train. And the state bail law that passed in 2018 is still putting criminals back on the streets.
The leader of the Republican caucus in the state Senate, diminished from the majority it held for four decades until 2018, unveiled a multi-point plan to beef up crime-fighting and push back against radical prosecutors. Robert Ortt told the Yated in an interview that he intends on making this a focus of the election later this year.
It will be quite a lift. Republicans have controlled the Senate since the 1970s, even while the Democrats held a supermajority in the Assembly. Since Dean Skelos, the majority leader until 2013, was imprisoned for helping his adopted son get a job at a company that had business before the state, the GOP conference has distanced itself gradually from the Orthodox community.
Ortt, who represents the Western New York district of Tonawanda, became the leader in 2020, presiding over a diminished conference of just 20 legislators, compared to 43 on the Democratic side. The lopsided minority is about to become even more acute, with redistricting handing Democrats an opportunity to reduce the Republican shadow over the state even further. And their supermajority means that they don’t need any GOP votes for the maps.
Ortt is hoping that the issue of crime, which last year vaulted the party into full control of Nassau County, one of the wealthiest in the country, will push the GOP back into majority status, though he acknowledges it could take time. He showcased that victory at a press conference last Wednesday when he unwrapped his anti-crime legislation at an Albany event which also featured Bruce Blakeman, the new Nassau County executive.
Battling crime in the state is daunting. In just the few weeks of 2022, major crimes jumped by more than a third in New York City — with transit crimes soaring 65% and carjackings starting to resemble Newark in its frequency.
“New York has become carjack city,” one NYPD official told the New York Post. “Between the guns and the low-risk of stealing cars, we’ve seen this explosion in carjackings.” Carjackings have shot up a staggering 355% to a level not seen since 2010, including a whopping 4,400% jump in Manhattan North, where the DA has said he will not prosecute such crimes. In the Bronx and Brooklyn North, the number of carjackings jumped more than 400%.
Overall crime in New York City increased by 21% in November 2021 compared with the same time frame of a year before, erasing the crime reduction of the Bill de Blasio era. The number of major crime categories, including murder, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto, topped 100,000 for the first time since 2016.
Hate crimes, of which 60% targets Jews, nearly doubled in 2021, while the city has the highest demand for domestic violence services in the country, according to the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Ortt is offering up a panoply of ideas to combat the violence, including giving more support to law enforcement and ending cashless bail by restoring judicial discretion on bail. He and his conference also want to legislate that cop-killers, serial killers, child killers, and other dangerous murderers can never be released, including a rejection of “elder parole” and “fair and timely parole.”
I began the interview by telling Ortt that I was out of town and “not in my element,” so there might be some noise.
“I’m in Albany and I’m not in my element either,” he responded with a hearty laugh, “so we’re on the same wavelength.”
That means that Albany didn’t get to you yet.
I hope it never does, if you know what I mean.
In the past couple of years, New York has passed a law basically banning judges from holding criminals on bail. We had a year of “defund the police.” That was turned around in the past few months, but now you have Alvin Bragg, the new Manhattan district attorney, who has basically ripped up the entire criminal code. He says he will not charge anyone unless someone is killed.
You are proposing a raft of legislation to turn it around and restore crimefighting capability. I looked it over and it didn’t seem like anything new. It’s just basically turning back the clock to before 2018, undoing the bail laws and restoring funding for cops. Am I right?
No. And I would say two things to that. One is that it’s new in the sense that the Democrats, as you pointed out, have on several levels pushed policies and laws that I — and I think a lot of New Yorkers and people in law enforcement — would say is nothing short of dismantling the criminal justice system that was in place. Whether it’s district attorneys such as Alvin Bragg, whether it’s my colleagues in the Senate or Democratic majorities in the Assembly and the Senate, or our former governor — they have dismantled laws that were designed to keep dangerous people from reoffending, that kept a lot of judicial discretion which allowed judges to keep folks who may be habitual reoffenders or could be a danger to the community behind bars. All that was undone in the name of social justice.
What we’ve seen is that by having a focus on criminals as the victims, instead of the focus being on actual victims, has not surprisingly created more victims. So yes, we have to go back to 2018, not for the sake of just going back but we have to get back to a place where we recognize that those who wear the uniform and enforce the laws and those who are elected to prosecute criminals and offenders and people who victimize the public at large have an important role to play in the criminal justice system.
We can have a dialogue on how to make it fair and how to make sure that everybody gets a fair shot, and I don’t think anyone would ever say otherwise. But what we have right now is unfair to the vast majority of people walking around New York State. When you have a DA who was elected to prosecute and instead he’s prosecuting the prosecutors — with prosecutors like Alvin Bragg, you won’t need criminal defense lawyers. Because he is essentially putting out carte blanche acquittal. He’s not even exercising discretion — he is saying before these cases even come to him that this is how we are going to handle them. That we are going to reduce the sentences without any sort of taking into account the circumstances. That we are going to not prosecute these crimes without taking into account the circumstances.
No one is taking the victims into account. We’ve seen an increase in violent crime. We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes. And many of the things that lead to hate crime convictions or hate crime charges, such as defacing a religious building or throwing a brick through a window or making threats, even verbal threats — those things are non-bailable. People do those and they are back on the street the next day or the same day.
This is where our conference is saying, we need to get back to supporting our men and women in law enforcement. We need to get back to having prosecutors who are really there to prosecute.
I will also add that our conference has a bill sponsored by Senator Andrew Lanza from Staten Island that would specifically make hate crimes a bailable offense, so that there would be no way for someone to get out. If they were charged with a hate crime, then they would be held — either with bail set, or they could actually be held, period. Whereas right now, a lot of things that would lead to hate crimes are non-bailable and they are given desk appearance tickets.
And you are seeing more victims. We know there are more victims that have been created as a result of these laws.
In order to make policy, you first have to have a majority. We just saw how last week the Democratic majorities in the legislature voted down all four of the redistricting maps that were created by this supposedly nonpartisan commission. Now, they will draw their own maps that will whittle you down to as few seats as possible. This seems to have been your last chance to not be redistricted into a permanent minority. What’s the future of the Republican Party in New York State? How do you plan on staying relevant?
How do we stay relevant? One, by putting out an alternative, and that’s what we’ve been talking about this entire year. We have to offer an alternative plan, both policy and narrative, to the Democrats. If we are going to run by just being against what the Democrats do — that’s not going to be enough.
We also have to offer alternative solutions to the problems that I believe have been created by one-party control coming out of Albany, and, for that matter, in New York City, where the Democratic control it at all levels.
I think people, if they are going to vote for somebody, it’s not just what they think of the district or what they think of the town — they need a positive reason to come out and vote. You saw what happened on Long Island last year. A lot of Democrats voted for Republicans in Nassau County. A lot of Democrats voted for Republicans in Suffolk County. A lot of Democrats voted for Republicans across the state.
You had Anne Donnelly defeat a formerly popular Democratic state senator, Todd Kaminsky, on the single issue of criminal justice and increasing crime and public safety. That is why Anne Donnelly defeated Senator Todd Kaminsky — on that one issue. And that one issue sank the entire Nassau Democratic ticket, including the former county executive Laura Curran, and she said that as well.
So I think that being right on the issues is important. Obviously, the redistricting process has a lot of impacts. We don’t know yet exactly where it’s going to go. I suspect there’s a lot of football still to play, if you would, on that front. There’s no question that Democrats will do everything they can to gerrymander the maps and draw partisan lines. I’m well aware of that reality or that possibility. But I firmly believe that there is no map they can draw that is going to shield them from the record that they have the past several years.
We intend to compete across districts across the state to pick up seats. And I would tell you that simply breaking their supermajority and gaining seats in the Senate is the first step towards reasserting our relevancy.
I would also remind you and your readers that our conference today represents millions of New Yorkers, which includes independents and maybe even some Democrats, who are counting on us to make sure we have a two-party system so that we can have balance in this community organizing. That is what we’re trying to get back to.
On a side note, are you surprised that Cuomo’s redistricting plan was voted down?
I would tell you, I’m disappointed that it was voted down and rejected. But look, the voters approved this plan back in 2014. It was the voters who decided they wanted an independent and bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commission. They wanted to choose their elected officials. They didn’t want their elected officials to choose their voters.
I’m not surprised that the Democrats showed real disdain for what the voters wanted, by rejecting all those plans. We’ve seen that in a number of ballot propositions that went down this past election cycle, and yet we saw Democrats try to reinstitute it or pass legislation on aspects of the very things that voters rejected less than seven weeks ago. So I think the will of the voters, or at least the voters at large, is not high on my colleagues’ to-do list when it comes to exercising their partisan authority and trying to cement their power here by continuing to pass terrible policies like the ones we’ve talked about.
As long as they do that, I think it’s going to be very hard for them to shield all their members from the will of the voters come November of 2022.
But you asked if I was surprised. No, I wasn’t. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Senator, let me ask you a political question. A few years ago, when Dean Skelos was leader of the party, he made a concerted effort to reach out to the Orthodox community. People in the community knew Dean Skelos. He passed laws that were relevant to the community, on free yeshiva transportation and extending college tuition aid to yeshivos. I would say that John Flanagan, the previous leader, dropped the ball on this. While the average person in Boro Park knew Skelos by name, I don’t know if there is more than 1% of the community who will be able to recognize your name. Do you have any plans of campaigning in the community, proposing plans that that are specific to the Orthodox community?
One hundred percent. I will tell you, I believe firmly that the Republican Party and our agenda, both here in the state of New York and even writ large, is a policy and an agenda that the Orthodox community should, and I believe would, be willing to support.
To your point, we have to make those inroads, we have to make those efforts. Obviously, being from Western New York, I don’t represent New York City or Long Island or parts where there are larger Orthodox communities. But we have made efforts to go down in those areas, to have meetings, to form relationships.
This for me is part of a long term, or a somewhat long term, effort. This includes doing interviews with publications such as your own, where I know that at least this conversation will be read by folks who I’m trying to get to know my name, to get them to understand our positions, to get them to understand our policies.
It doesn’t happen overnight, as you said, but I firmly believe that if we are to regain relevancy, if we are to pick up speed, if we are to grow our conference, we cannot do that without engaging the Orthodox community, as well as a host of other minority groups in the state of New York which maybe historically we have not always had a close relationship with. And so that is absolutely a priority for me and for our conference.