Supporters of Sammy’s Law Remain Angry over Assembly Speaker’s Inaction on Speed Limit Reduction

Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio protested in front of Carl Heastie's office. (The Speaker was not there, but he is in the inset.) Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio protested in front of Carl Heastie's office. (The Speaker was not there, but he is in the inset.) Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It’s inexplicable.

Members of Families for Safe Streets — one of whom will start a hunger strike at the State Capitol on Tuesday — rallied on Monday outside of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office to demand he pass a bill that would allow New York City to set its own speed limits, and expressed confusion as to why the speaker had reportedly stalled the widely supported legislation.

“Every time we go to Albany, they tell us to our faces, ‘Yes, of course. we support Sammy’s Law, but now they don’t want to have to put their vote on record. We need to see their faces, which is why we are demanding that the Speaker bring this to a vote,” said Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio, who will join Families for Safe Streets founder Amy Cohen in a hunger strike in Albany on Tuesday.

She added that she can’t understand what is happening behind closed doors.

“Something internally is going on,” she said. “Someone is making phone calls. But we hear it’s that the Bronx assembly members who are holding this up. They should go on record.”

Mendieta-Cuapio was able to go inside Heastie’s office and present a letter demanding that he support Sammy’s Law.

Getting lawmakers to go on record has been a challenge. Streetsblog reporters spent two days last week asking all the members of the Assembly from the five boroughs to explain their position on the largely non-controversial bill that would not mandate any speed limit changes, but merely allow New York City to exert local control. Only a tiny fraction of lawmakers responded, and only those whose position in support of Sammy’s Law was already widely known.

“My boss won’t go against the speaker, and the speaker has clearly said this bill is not a priority for him,” said one staffer of an Assembly member from Brooklyn. The lawmaker joined others whose on-the-record comments claimed that road safety is a priority for them, but that there are other considerations before allowing New York City more control over those existing unsafe roadways.

So what is going on up the river in Albany?

A person familiar with the legislative process blamed Heastie for “putting his thumb on the scale” to tilt members away from backing the bill. Last month, Heastie brought up the bill during a call with all Assembly Democrats, a normal conference that allows him to take the temperature of his members. In this case, however, Heastie asked his members if they wanted to lower the speed limit, rather than asking them if they wanted to give New York City the power to regulate its speed limits — something that the City Council asked for in its “home rule” message to Albany.
“He brought it up in such a way that he was able to say, ‘We don’t have consensus,'” said the person with direct knowledge of the conference call. “Home rule is supposed to be sufficient … but in this case, Carl made a decision that he wanted to debate the merits of the bill. There is some opposition among members to this bill, but if Carl wanted to pass this bill, he could have framed this as just a conversation about New York City’s home rule, not whether or not the speed limit should be 20 miles per hour.

“Leadership put its thumb on the scale,” the insider said.

A contingent of Families for Safe Streets members in front of Heastie's office.
A contingent of Families for Safe Streets members in front of Heastie’s office.

Another problem, of course, is that a legislature, almost by definition, is an accountability avoidance machine. Unless Speaker Heastie brings the bill to a vote, a lawmaker need never express his or her actual position in public. The bill, for example, has close to 40 co-sponsors in the Assembly. But whether each one of those people is a true champion for it is very much a question.

“I strongly support the bill, and I’ve spoken up for it among our members, but somebody’s name being on a bill doesn’t guarantee they’re for the bill, just leave it at that,” Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Riverdale) told Streetsblog last week.

Assembly Member Chantel Jackson (D-Morrisania) is one of those sponsors, yet she also put her thumb on the scale with a Twitter poll that did not ask if the city should have the right to lower its speed limit, but if the city should lower the speed limit (which it doesn’t have the power to do yet anyway). Nonetheless, almost 6o percent of voters said, “Hell yeah.”

But that didn’t fully persuade the lawmaker (whose name, reminder, is on the bill as a co-sponsor).

“I haven’t officially made a stance on it,” she told Streetsblog. “I’m waiting on my constituents to give me their feedback. On Twitter, people voted more ‘yes,’ but those are not my constituents. On my Instagram, Facebook and in my DMs, people overwhelmingly saying ‘no.’ The speaker won’t bring it to the floor [and] I usually vote with my speaker.”

New Assembly Member Lester Chang (R-Brooklyn) hid behind the vague notion of “community” when explaining why he doesn’t yet support a bill that would give the community of New York City control over the speed limit.

“I want to express my unwavering commitment to ensuring the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in my district,” he said. “It is my firm belief that everyone should have the freedom to walk or cycle without fear of accidents or harm.”

Yet on the issue of giving his constituents that freedom — and the city the power to regulate traffic speeds at the community level, Chang added, “I believe in the power of community engagement and value the opinions and insights from my constituents. During the summer months, I will hear from constituents and listen to what they have to say about lowering the speed limit in our community.”

Interestingly, the Sunset Park/Bensonhurst district that Chang represents has experienced 1,403 reported crashes since the start of 2022, or roughly three crashes every single day, according to city statistics. Those crashes have injured 94 cyclists, 170 pedestrians and 328 motorists, and killed five people.

Assembly Member Emily Gallagher (D-Greenpoint) said that opponents of the bill have been able to suggest that supporters are just “fringe people who want to ban cars” or want to get in the way of “common-sense commuting.”

“It’s frustrating,” she added. “So much of the state legislative infrastructure is dedicated to normalizing and absolving drivers of harmful acts committed while driving.”

She called on activists to “do a better job” of making lower speed limits make sense to opponents.

That’s exactly what Patricia Morant-Fuller was trying to do on Monday morning in front of Heastie’s E. Gun Hill Road office.

“Opponents of this bill don’t think lower speed limits are important because they’ve never lost loved ones,” she told Streetsblog as she held a picture of her son, Au’drei Fuller, who was killed by a driver in Brooklyn. “They have never had that pain. They don’t know what it is. We go up to Albany and talk to them about Sammy’s Law and they listen and say they support us. But we’re just another person talking and lobbying them. And after they talk to us, they just push it aside. And they think 20 miles per hour is too slow.”

Speaker Heastie’s office did not respond to questions from Streetsblog last week or on Monday. The Assembly is in session until Friday.

— with Dave Colon, Kevin Duggan and Julianne Cuba