By Dustin Brown
In the 18 years that have passed since she first won her seat in Albany, state Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) has grown accustomed to facing competition to retain her office when election season hits every two years.
But this year the challenge is coming from a different source than usual: the Green Party.
“This is the first time since 1988 that I haven’t had a Republican opponent,” Nolan said in a recent phone interview.
Her rival, Patrick Langhenry, is a 34-year-old attorney from Sunnyside who describes his candidacy more as a fight against the status quo in government than as a specific challenge to Nolan’s record in office.
“Someone needed to run against Catherine Nolan because there seemed to be no choice,” said Langhenry, who practices housing and environmental law.
The 37th Assembly District extends in an L-shape along the East River and Newtown Creek waterfronts, from Long Island City through Sunnyside, Maspeth and Ridgewood.
When Nolan won her first assembly race in 1984, she was 26 years old and one of the youngest women ever elected to the post.
Eighteen years later, she is still a full-time legislator but now chairs the Labor Committee while juggling the obligations of being mother to a 4-year-old son. Although she is among the ranking members of the Assembly, she said the values she brought to the office as a freshman lawmaker have remained with her through her tenure.
“I never did become a lawyer. I said there were too many lawyers in politics,” Nolan explained. “I was just going to be a people’s advocate, a people’s voice. I’ve tried to stay true to that.”
She cites as her greatest accomplishments her efforts in the arenas of labor, education and mass transportation. Nolan pushed through an $80 million project to renovate the once-crumbling concrete viaduct along the tracks of the No. 7 train, while also securing money for programs at LaGuardia Community College and the modernization of the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, among others.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have changed some of her views, she said, making her more open to new ideas like charter schools.
“I’m ready to look at some things in different ways,” she said. “After the Sept. 11 attacks and all the tragedy that that’s brought our city, we can’t be bound by the same partisanship or same way of thinking.”
From Langhenry’s viewpoint, a change of perspective is exactly what Albany needs. He is seeking to provide such a shakeup not only through his own candidacy but through that of Green Party gubernatorial contender Stanley Aronowitz, for whom he has been campaigning.
“I think he’s a great candidate. I just think he’s a perfect governor,” Langhenry said. “I think he far outclasses the other two candidates.”
Langhenry was inspired to run for office over the summer when an appeals court’s decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, in which the city is seeking parity in school funding with the rest of the state, declared that an eighth-grade education was adequate for someone to function as a citizen.
“I felt as if the Legislature should have immediately made a statement that this is an offense to the students who go to school in the city of New York. And since no one else was running against Cathy Nolan, I decided it would be a good idea,” he said. “It’s a good way to get out to the neighborhood and tell them about their rights.”
Fighting for the rights of each member of the community is a cornerstone of his platform.
“People ask me what do you do to improve the quality of life in the district,” Langhenry said. “It’s not cleaning streets. It’s to enforce citizens’ constitutional rights to better education levels so they have better paying jobs. That’s the best way to improve the quality of neighborhoods.”
The Green Party challenger wants to cut through the thick fog he said obscures what really goes on in the legislature.
“In New York state, no one knows for certain what the legislators think because their voices are shrouded by the machine and the two parties have decided that the best way to preserve themselves is to speak with a unified voice,” Langhenry said. “The problem with this method to protect themselves is that it diminishes individual and community voices.”
But for her part, Nolan said she believes she already does stand outside the crowd. She has been known to flout the leadership of the county Democrats, having refused to support the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) for Congress in 1998 when the incumbent Tom Manton, who chairs the borough Democratic organization, handpicked him after declining to run himself at the last moment.
“You can’t accuse me of being part of the Albany crowd, just by being who I am,” she said. “I’m different. I’m certainly not one of the boys, let’s put it that way.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.