By Andrew Vitelli
The man who represents New York’s 93rd Assembly District entered politics in 2009, with the economy at rock bottom and Americans’ trust in government in a dive that lasts until today. Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Democrat whose district spans from Harrison in the south to Westchester’s border with Putnam in the north and includes both North Castle and New Castle, has found that people’s faith in government to accomplish even the simplest task is close to zero.
“Unfortunately today, a lot of folks have such low expectations for government that even to get a phone call or email returned either surprises them or pleases them,” Buchwald, elected to the Assembly in 2012, said in an interview with the Inside Press at his Mount Kisco office. “My goal is not just to be responsive but also to help address the underlying issues that folks are contacting me about.”
Part of restoring trust, Buchwald says, is just being responsive to citizens’ concerns. He points to an Armonk woman who was having trouble with her Medicaid due to a computer glitch and a Harrison man who wanted more attention paid to the POW flag.
“There’s no better feeling in the world than to take a problem that a constituent felt was intractable before they contacted me and to use the authority of my office to solve that problem,” he says. “I truly take to heart the mantra, which I repeat all the time at my office, that I have 133,000 bosses.”
But Buchwald, a White Plains resident, understands restoring trust in government will require more than just constituent services. In recent years, New York State has been plagued by corruption, with many of Albany’s most powerful figures of yesteryear going to the big house for violating the public’s trust. Five years ago, Senator Vincent Leibell, whose district overlapped with parts of Buchwald’s current district, was convicted of felony corruption charges. Most recently, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption. Since his first year in office, Buchwald has been pushing for a constitutional amendment to strip government officials of their pensions if they are convicted of a felony relating to their role in government. A previous bill, which was passed in 2011, achieved this only for officials who took office after that point.
“There, unfortunately, are a handful of folks who over time haven’t lived up to their end of the oath of office that they took,” Buchwald explains. “And my view is that those corrupt officials should not be automatically entitled to their taxpayer-funded pension.”
Changing the state’s constitution is a tall task–it must pass both the Assembly and the Senate twice, in consecutive terms, before going before the voters. So far the two chambers have been unable to agree on the language. There’s been some opposition to the bill from organized labor out of fear that any changes to pension rules could set a dangerous precedent. “My view is the exact opposite,” Buchwald asserts. “My view is that as long as New Yorkers continue to read articles about corrupt officials sitting in jail collecting their state pensions, that is what erodes support for public pensions.”
Now in his fourth year in office Buchwald, one of Albany’s youngest lawmakers at 37 years old, holds a joint degree in law and public policy. Buchwald would seem ill-suited for today’s anger and braggadocio-filled politics; he often appears more comfortable explaining the nuance of his position than delivering soundbites, and even his criticism of his legislations’ opponents is measured and at times sympathetic. If there’s one thing he seems to disdain, it’s empty rhetoric and those who employ it.
Buchwald’s Road to Politics
Buchwald, who grew up in Larchmont, recalls being Mamaroneck High School’s senior class senator in 1996, the year he graduated. It would be nearly another decade and a half before he’d make another run at elected office, but Buchwald says his interest in public policy dates back to his childhood.
“I just thoroughly enjoyed reading the newspaper and observing the world around me,” Buchwald remembers. “And growing up in a family where your professional life is made most meaningful when you are serving the public at large or those in need of support. That’s something I took to heart from a young age.”
Buchwald comes from a family of legal minds; his mother, Naomi Reice Buchwald, is a federal judge in the Southern District of New York while his father, Don, is a former assistant United States attorney. David went to Yale as a physics major but by sophomore year knew a career in physics wasn’t in his future.
“I never found a particular branch of physics that I was interested in devoting my life to,” Buchwald says. “And that’s really what you need to do in order to go on to graduate school.”
Buchwald began actively moving towards public policy, first working for NERA, an economic consulting firm in White Plains, before returning to school. He studied public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, earning an MA and a law degree from Harvard Law School in a joint four-year program with the goal of becoming a practicing lawyer.
Buchwald came out of law school as a tax attorney, practicing at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Buchwald said it was after graduate school that he began getting involved in area non-profits and going to local Democratic Party meetings, campaigning on behalf of other candidates. Up to this point, Buchwald had not envisioned himself running for office, but warmed quickly to the idea when the opportunity arose. “It was very natural when some folks in White Plains approached me to run for our city’s Common Council,” Buchwald says. “I very gladly took up that challenge.”
Tumultuous Times in White Plains
Buchwald was one of three candidates, all Democrats, elected to the council in 2009, beating two Republicans in a city with more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. His first year turned out to be a tumultuous one for the city. Adam Bradley, the mayor at the time, was arrested on domestic violence charges in February 2010, fewer than two months after Buchwald had been sworn in. Bradley resigned a year later, though he was eventually exonerated in court. Buchwald said the city government was “left in limbo” in the year between Bradley’s arrest and his conviction (which was later overturned).
“I thought it was very important that White Plains turn the page,” Buchwald said. Tom Roach was appointed to fill the vacancy and remains the mayor today. While the fallout from Bradley’s arrest was, in Buchwald’s words, “not a challenge one could have expected from the outset of my tenure,” the city was also one of many dealing with the fallout of the global financial crisis.
“The challenge that every local government had at that time as we were going through the Great Recession was how to preserve high-quality services while not undermining the long-term fiscal health of the city,” Buchwald says. He also noted that the city increased the hours of the library during the heart of the recession after learning that library usage was up. Bike lanes were installed on many city streets. Perhaps most significantly, the city rezoned several of its office properties to allow mixed-use development and draw in a wider range of businesses.
“I always found [Buchwald] to be somebody that you could work together with on something and come out with a good outcome. I appreciate that kind of person,” Mayor Roach told Inside Armonk. “When you’re talking to somebody who is intelligent, who cares, who does the work, it’s always a pleasure, and David very much fits into all those categories.”
In 2012, Buchwald announced his run for the assembly. The 93rd Assembly District, with newly drawn borders, leaned strongly though not overwhelmingly Democratic. Buchwald was taking on incumbent Republican Robert Castelli, a former New York State Police Officer who had won a special election after the seat was vacated by Adam Bradley (who left the position for his ill-fated stint as White Plains mayor). Castelli was the first Republican in a generation to hold the seat in Albany and was re-elected in November 2010.
“I felt, on a number of levels, that there was a need for change in the district,” Buchwald recalls. “My predecessor, though a good man, was out of step with Westchester values and I thought I had a skill set that might appeal to voters.”
Castelli had been well-liked across the district, but Buchwald criticized the Republican for his vote against legalizing gay marriage and for voting against gun control legislation. Spurred in part by the increased turnout of a presidential election in a county where President Obama beat Mitt Romney by more than 20 points, Buchwald won with 53 percent of the vote in one of Westchester’s most closely-watched elections. “Between it being a redistricting year and a presidential year, both put me at a disadvantage,” Castelli told Inside Armonk, looking back at the election. “Had it been an off year, not a presidential year, and had it not been gerrymandered, I’m pretty that sure I would have won it.”
Buchwald ran unopposed for re-election in 2014, and announced last month that he will seek a third term. While the Republicans hadn’t settled on a candidate to oppose Buchwald as this edition went to press, Westchester GOP Chair Doug Colety said he was in the process of interviewing candidates and that the Republicans would definitely have an opponent for Buchwald this election.
Conventional thinking holds that, with Chappaqua resident Hillary Clinton leading the ticket as the Democratic presidential candidate (which looked almost certain as we went to press), any Republican running in the district will have an uphill battle. Colety, however, believes that with the right candidate and enough resources, anything is possible.
“Nobody knows what turnout is going to be,” Colety explains. “I think everything is in play.”
In the Assembly
Buchwald said he ran for the assembly in large part because the position, unlike the White Plains Common Council, allowed him to serve full-time in elected office. “The state assembly job is one that I thoroughly enjoy, and that’s both because of the work that I get to do as a legislator up in Albany but all the more because of the work I get to do here in the district,” says Buchwald. “At the heart of that is solving constituent issues.”
But while helping a constituent access Medicaid, or even cracking down on corrupt officials, may be seen as a clear positive, lawmaking is filled also with difficult votes. The state’s budget, passed this spring and signed by Governor Cuomo, included a gradual minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. Buchwald, who ran in part on raising the minimum wage from its rate at the time of $7.25 an hour (it’s now $9), supported the minimum wage hike, saying it will be a great help to many lower-income families.
“I think that, overall, it will be a net positive and most of all it will help many hard-working residents of New York State that should be encouraged based on the value of their labor,” Buchwald explains. “On some level, it will stimulate spending, because now more families will have more resources. But there’s also the argument that it could inhibit job growth.”
Among those making that argument is the Business Council of Westchester, which put out a press release detailing uneasiness within the county’s business community over the debated $15 wage floor. According to the council, nearly two-thirds of businesses surveyed oppose the plan, with 37 percent saying it would cause layoffs and 15 percent saying they’d be forced to shut their doors.
“When you say, ‘increase the minimum wage,’ it sounds great, but you have to look at the consequences,” said John Ravitz, the council’s Executive Vice President and COO. “It’s going to have a direct effect on businesses throughout the state.”
Buchwald said he had heard from opponents of the hike, but that the majority of his constituents supported it. He noted that the minimum wage jump would take place over six years in Westchester, and that budget officials will analyze the effects and can suspend scheduled hikes if need be.
“I’d say the feedback I’ve gotten has overall been quite positive,” Buchwald said. “Overall, it has yet to be seen what the net effect is going to be, though I believe it’s going to be positive because there will be more demand for goods and services produced by businesses in Westchester.”
Ravitz, for his part, said the Business Council has a strong relationship with the assemblyman and that Buchwald was also receptive to the group’s concerns.
“We’re not always going to agree,” Ravitz said. “We made sure that Assemblyman Buchwald and all the members of the assembly from Westchester knew our position on the minimum wage.”
Raising a Family in Westchester
On March 1, 2014, Buchwald married Lara Samet, a litigation attorney who had clerked for Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, David’s mother. “Lara and I hit it off right from the start,” Buchwald recalls. “She knew a lot more about me early on because she had essentially had lunch with my mom every day for a year. The more I learned about Lara, the more fascinated I was.”
A year later, David and Lara welcomed their daughter, Anna, who just celebrated her first birthday. Buchwald said he is motivated by having a daughter who will eventually attend public school in New York State.
“The fact that the state has stepped up and righted some of the past practices that shortchanged Westchester’s public schools I think is a tremendous accomplishment,” Buchwald said. He pointed specifically to increases in state aid to the Chappaqua and Byram Hills School Districts during the time he has spent in office. “For all of our children, we have to make sure that we have the best education possible in New York State.”
Though Buchwald is a White Plains resident, he says he loves visiting both Armonk and Chappaqua. He points to state funding used to repave Route 117 and Route 133 in Chappaqua, and to a new pedestrian crosswalk in Armonk. He has attended events in both communities, including the Armonk Lions Club Fol-De-Rol Ceremony and Frosty Day and the Chappaqua Rotary’s Community Day and Memorial Day Parade.
“Both Armonk and Chappaqua are little slices of Americana, and getting to be supportive of both communities is very, very easy, because the people in both places are down to earth and want to see what’s best for their neighbors,” he says. “My job is to help further that vision.”
Chappaqua and Armonk are both located near the middle of Buchwald’s 93rd Assembly District (his district office is just north of the hamlets, in Mount Kisco). While the territory he represents is diverse, the assemblyman believes that what his constituents have in common outweighs their differences.
“This is a fantastic slice of New York State to represent. I go from 40-story skyscrapers in White Plains to horse farms in Bedford and North Salem,” Buchwald says.
“Each community has its unique characteristics that make it special, but overall we have a shared vision of the need for investments in education, in our transportation infrastructure and in keeping taxes under control so that people and businesses can thrive here in Westchester.”
Andrew Vitelli is the editor of Inside Armonk magazine.