In a first, a former prisoner sits in the New York State Assembly | The mighty 790 KFGO
By Dan Fastenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) – As far as Eddie Gibbs knows, he is the first person elected to the New York State Legislature who has already served a prison sentence, but shortly before his inauguration on Thursday , he recalled wondering if he could ever shake the stigma of his manslaughter conviction more than 30 years ago.
Gibbs, 53, handily won the Democratic nominee in the Jan. 18 special election in the state’s 68th Assembly District to represent East Harlem, the New York neighborhood where he was raised by a single mother in public housing.
Gibbs said his past shapes his legislative priorities, including improving the lot of the disproportionately high number of public housing tenants in his district and facilitating the rehabilitation of those released from prison.
As a teenager in Upper Manhattan in the 1980s, selling illegal crack cocaine seemed like the most obvious way out of poverty, what he now calls a “terrible mistake.”
“You weren’t thinking about the repercussions then, you were just making money and being happy,” he said in an interview at the James Weldon Johnson Houses community center, the apartment towers run by the town where his mother still lives. “But I was also a target for a lot of people.”
When Gibbs was 17, he said a man attacked him in an elevator during an attempted robbery in which he was stabbed in the leg. The man forced him to open the safe in his family’s apartment, which contained little except for the gun with which Gibbs shot and killed the man.
Gibbs expresses remorse, but also points out that he killed in self-defense and turned himself in to the local police station. He spent around a year and a half in the notoriously violent prison complex at Rikers Island before pleading guilty to manslaughter following what he said was bad legal advice from a public defender. He was moved between several jails outside the city for about three years before being released on parole.
US Senate Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer was among prominent New York politicians to speak at Thursday’s inauguration.
“But did Eddie get mad?” Schumer said to. “No. He has such a good heart that he said, ‘I’ll do better for everyone.’
The New York Legislature has no documents to confirm Gibbs is the first elected representative to have been previously incarcerated, a spokeswoman said, but his new Democratic colleagues have welcomed him.
“We are proud of the diversity that exists in our conference,” President Carl Heastie said in a statement, “and we are confident that his unique perspective combined with his longstanding commitment to his community will be an asset to the House of people”.
Shortly after his release, Gibbs took acting lessons and performed under the name Good Buddy, hoping to counteract the idea that people should be afraid of someone convicted of a crime. violent crime. He ended up working as a driver for about a decade for famed criminal defense attorney Murray Richman, who encouraged him to enter politics.
After a previous unsuccessful challenge to the 68th District headquarters, Gibbs ended up becoming the Democratic Party’s district leader, a volunteer role.
Now, one of his top priorities is to pass legislation to remove some of the barriers young people leaving prison may face in obtaining state identification.
“When you get out of jail, you have this rap that you’re a bad guy, and I wanted the community to see me in a different light,” he said.
(Reporting by Daniel Fastenberg; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Leslie Adler)