Former State Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn, 96, who had represented central Queens for nearly 30 years, died this past Thursday and is being remembered for her principled leadership on legislation concerning healthcare. “She was fearless and undeterred,” said Councilman Rory Lancman. “She and her husband were part of a generation that grew up on social justice issues and were very progressive.”
Mayersohn’s father, Abraham Fisher, was an immigrant from Poland and a believer in socialism for its views on organizing workers and defending the rights of minorities. She was born in the Bronx and married her husband Ronald in 1946. They moved to Electchester in 1954, shortly after the electricians’ union-affiliated apartment complex was completed. She worked as a union organizer; and as a mother, she took an active role in her sons’ school, PS 201, where she served as the PTA president. She later served on Community Board 8, as a Democratic District Leader, and as the Executive Director of the New York State Crime Victims Board.
Among her political protégés is Councilman Barry Grodenchik, who grew up across the street from Electchester at Pomonok Houses and attended PS 201. “She was progressive and pragmatic. People loved her for who she was. She was my mentor, hero, and friend,” he said.
That mentorship provided an early experience in politics for Lancman and Grodenchik. Mayersohn first ran for the State Assembly in 1982; she ran against incumbent David Cohen, an ally of Borough President Donald Manes, who, she felt, was not representing the community. The rare defeat of a sitting lawmaker quickly resulted in name recognition for Mayersohn. At the time, Lancman was a teenager with an interest in politics. “I got my start through her Democratic club. She assigned me with the tasks of organizing the annual picnic, mailings – the grunt work that makes a Democratic organization run,” he said. “She was generous with her time and did not see a young person as a competitor. She promoted and encouraged people with talent.”
In 2006, this one-time teenaged volunteer had a degree from Columbia Law School and joined Mayersohn as a colleague in the State Assembly.
Grodenchik began working for Mayersohn in 1987, and noted that on their first meeting, she insisted on being called Nettie. “She was a great lady and she had tremendous kavod for the Orthodox community,” he said. “Her campaign treasurer was Shimi Pelman.” From his experience at Mayersohn’s office, Grodenchik moved up to work for then-Governor Mario Cuomo and at Queens Borough Hall, before joining her as an Assembly colleague for one term in 2004. He was later elected to the City Council.
Grodenchik said that the best-known law that she authored was the Baby AIDS bill, which required hospitals to test every newborn for HIV and disclose the results to the parents or the child’s physicians. “Somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 babies test positive every year,” Mayersohn wrote in 1997 in the Fordham Law Journal. “Yet, we were not permitted to tell anyone – not the mother, the doctor, nor the guardian – that the baby had tested positive and was at risk for a deadly disease.”
Although her legislative record was solidly progressive, that bill was opposed by gay rights groups, feminist organizations, and privacy advocates. The bill passed in 1996 after three years of persistent effort by Mayersohn. “Thousands of children are walking the earth today because of Nettie’s bill,” Grodenchik said. “It saved lives.”
Mayersohn also authored the Victim Impact bill, which allowed for victims of crimes to appear in court at a parole hearing of the convicted individual and make a statement detailing the effects the crime had on their lives.
For most of her time in the State Assembly, her Chief of Staff was Michael Simanowitz, a native of Queens who began working for her shortly after graduating Queens College. Through this work, he developed the knowledge of the district’s communities, activists, and hot-button issues that earned him the party’s support to succeed her in 2011. He served in the State Assembly until his death in 2017. This district is presently represented by Daniel Rosenthal.
“She was a fierce advocate for every one of her constituents. Nettie fought tirelessly to ensure a better, more prosperous future for all,” Rosenthal said. “Her decades of activism and public service left an indelible mark on Queens, New York City, and the State.”
Scott Wolff also began his government career as a staffer for Mayersohn. “I had the great fortune of working for her for 12 years in the district office as Director of Constituent Affairs,” he wrote. “While she looked like a sweet grandma, she could be tenacious when necessary to get the results. The fruits of that career benefited so many people.”
Mayersohn is survived by her brother Morton Feldstein, her sons Judge Lee Mayersohn and Jeffrey Mayersohn, and her four grandchildren. She was buried in her old Assembly district at Mount Hebron Cemetery.
By Sergey Kadinsky