Jessica Scarcella-Spanton was 21 when she first served as executive director of the Democratic Party on Staten Island. Now, she’s serving as a freshman senator in the New York State Legislature, representing New York’s 23rd District, which covers the North and East Shores of Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn. As a mother of two and wife to a disabled combat veteran, she brings a unique and fresh perspective to the State Senate. On this episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna speaks with Senator Scarcella-Spanton about her road to the senate, how she approaches being a public servant and legislator, and what she’s proud of in her first year as an elected official.


  • Honorable Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, New York State Senator, Senate District 23
  • Robert Megna, President, Rockefeller Institute
  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Joel Tirado  00:01

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton was 21 when she first served as executive director of the Democratic Party on Staten Island. Now, she’s serving as a freshman senator in the New York State Legislature, representing New York’s 23rd District which covers the North and East Shores of Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn. As a mother of two and wife to a disabled combat veteran, she brings a unique and fresh perspective to the State Senate. On this episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna speaks with Senator Scarcella-Spanton about her road to the senate, how she approaches being a public servant and legislator, and what she’s proud of in her first year as an elected official. That conversation is up next.

    Bob Megna  01:11

    Hi, I’m Bob Megna president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. We’re here today to talk to Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, and this is the first in a series that we’re trying to do with relat. I know the Senator has been here for a while, but relatively new folks who have entered the legislature and give them a place and a forum to talk about what interests them what’s important in their district. And what’s important on the state agenda. And I think, oftentimes, we don’t hear enough from newly elected legislators, so we wanted to provide that place for them to talk about. So, Senator, it’s great that you’re here. And why don’t you talk a little about yourself and your background. And then we could jump into some questions. Maybe,

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  02:14

    of course, it’s great to be here. And thank you so much for having me on today. All my background, I am born and raised on Islander I started, I actually started back in college, I was going to school for nursing originally. And in 2008. Like many young people, I got the political bug. So I did an internship for the New York State Assembly. I worked for a local Assemblywoman and I just I was, especially in the assembly at that time, I was the only staffer in her all bidding office. So I was able to learn more than I think I ever would have been able to and like a higher up office or anything like that. She ended up hiring me as her legislative director. And one of the bills that I was really proud of proud of that we worked on was I’ve met all these families who had, you know, tragically suffered from the loss of having stillborn baby. And at the time in New York State, you were mandated to get a death certificate, but you couldn’t have any recognition of the birth. So we pushed for having a certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth and I was a very precocious young intern I was 19 years old. And I just really got to know these families well, and even then it was when social media was kind of on the cusp, so and I was utilizing social media at the time to find families from all over New York State to reach out to their own elected officials get them to sign on. I personally knocked on I think every single door myself in the LLB for all these members, and we got the bill from 22 sponsors to 140 148 out of 150 sponsors. So and it still didn’t pass. So it was a very interesting learning lesson. Yes. So it there was, you know, one or two people who weren’t supportive of it. And it didn’t pass that first year, but we kept pushing, you know, we made some amendments, and we were able to get it we were able to get past it got signed into law the year after she lost. So it was a very hard start in politics and government for me, but it left a really lasting impact that you meet so many wonderful people and you know what I love about this job is that you, you meet you can learn about so many different things. I didn’t know that I was gonna I was 19 I was young, and I didn’t know that the passion I have for families, children. Mothers, especially, was going to just be a thread that followed me throughout my entire career. So fast forward, she loses on sad, and I ended up working for the Democratic Already on Staten Island, I was the executive director. And there I was really, when you when you I was 21, when I started as the executive director of the party, and it’s wild to think about that, and like, I think about how many years I’ve been doing this now, but it was really, you know, I really credit that internship. And that’s why we have a massive intern program in my office now. Because I always tell everyone, I started as an intern and I you don’t know what you don’t know. Right. So when I started, I thought that I was going to do this for fun and go back to nursing eventually. But here I am. So yeah, I was, it was, it was a very interesting time.

    Bob Megna  05:41

    I hope you got a pen certificate for that. And inside thing for that first, believe it

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  05:46

    or not, I don’t have a pen certificate for that. And I really should get one, you should.

    Bob Megna  05:51

    For those who don’t know what a pen certificate is, it’s kind of a laminated copy of the legislation with a pen next to it that was supposedly used to, to sign the bill into law. So it’s really true, but whatever. No, I also started as a as a Senate fellow. So I understand the experience. And I think once you get hooked, it is something that you know, you you find yourself spending more and more time on. But now that you’ve been in office for a little bit more than a year. How would you, you know, describe your day? What are the kinds of aspects of life as an elected official that define what you’re doing?

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  06:41

    Of course, so you know, I always, I am very familiar with the needs of Staten Island in southern Brooklyn. Before I got elected, I worked for Senator Dianne Savino, who was my predecessor. She always wanted me to run for office. And I would tell her, I rather eat glass, thank you. I’m a background person. Then I got a job at the NCAA because I knew she was leaving, and I was bored to death. And I missed, I missed my job. So I decided to run. And I haven’t regretted it for a single second, since, you know, I’m a mom, my kids are 10 seven now. But when I decided to run, they were just turning eight, I actually announced on my daughter’s eighth birthday, and my son at the time was five. So it’s a it’s a really big difference. And one of the greatest things that I have is the ability to incorporate my family into a lot of what I do. So you know, depending on whether it’s an Albany day or a district day, you know, on the district days, I’m able to get them on the bus and you know, head over to my office, I spend actually believe it or not very little time in my office because I’m a big believer that you should be out in the community, you should be meeting people where they’re at. And you know, so I have gone to almost every school in the district, I meet with students, I meet with parents, we go to churches, to synagogues, to mosques, we go to all the nightshift facilities and our office host mobile offices across the entire district because one of the things that are really stuck with me was during the pandemic, nobody thought to reach out to their elected officials. And we were able to provide a tremendous amount of help whether it was an unemployment issue, a vaccine appointment, we actually started a registry in Senator sabinas office as people were calling, they couldn’t get an appointment. And I was you know, you would beg borrow and steal for a vaccine appointment. So I will call Romsey and be like, can I have, you know, five appointments, and I would tell my constituents, you know, there’s only you know, you’re going to have to go whenever I tell you and I would call project hospitality or, you know, Coney Island Hospital. So with that, we were able to get over 1000 people their vaccine appointment, I would be up sometimes with a laptop, an iPad, and my cell phone at, you know, one o’clock in the morning booking these appointments, because they will come and go. And, you know, so many people did not realize that their elected officials could be helpful. So, you know, we we had a really robust intern program. And we started calling into, you know, seniors, whoever was out eligible for the vaccine. And I’ve carried that with me to that experience with me to my office today. So we constantly have I think we have about 10 Mobile offices on each side of the bridge every single week. And, you know, I get I’m really proud of the team that we have as well. We have a an amazing team. And we spend a lot of time out and about in the community just talking to people because you have to you have to talk to people to get the ideas and get a real feel for what people care about. And then of course, when I’m up in Albany, and you know, it’s you know, how old are they As it’s it’s chaos, and we have so many different meetings, we’re always trying to make sure that we’re on top of all the legislative priorities of different advocacy groups, unions, our own legislation, bills that you know, our constituents are calling in about. So it’s a lot, but it’s very, very fulfilling. And it’s, it’s truly been, like the honor of my lifetime to do it on this side. And I joke, you know, as a staffer in my soul forever, I said, it’s actually a lot easier on this side, you know, when you have a good team, you’re showing up to things. I’m like, wow, I used to be up till three in the morning planning something like this. Now, I’m just showing up here shaking hands, so I can.

    Bob Megna  10:42

    It is interesting. You know, I think a lot of books are gonna get written about how people use the COVID experience to dictate then how they’re going to in the future. Right, yeah, they’re going to approach their job, how they’re going to do those things. I think it’s interesting. You, you said that, in your, in your first years now, you’ve already touched on this a little bit. But can you talk about things from now that you’re there in that elected spot what you’re most proud of,

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  11:18

    of course. So there’s a couple of things I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing for veterans, I chair, the veterans homeland security and military affairs committee. So you know, our veterans have, you know, they deserve so much. And we, you know, we really try to keep an eye on the things that are actually going to help them, you know, we have a monthly call with the Department of Veterans Services to see what they could be doing better. But I know this from my own experience, my husband is a disabled combat veteran. And it was very difficult to get him to go to the VA to seek help. And when we first moved back from Colorado, that’s where he was stationed. It was really difficult to navigate the website and find out, you know, what resources were available driving somebody to the VA, you know, is their housing resources, school, you know, school resources, whatever the case may be. So one of the bills that I’m working on, and we finally got a fiscal note for what the cause would be from DVS is to create a registry, that DBS would kind of run and operate, because what I’ve been frustrated by is learning about all the resources not just for veterans, but for families as well, because families are often very impacted by this. And the driver of you know, if a Veterans in need of help, the family is the one who really is pushing. And I’ve been frustrated, because I’ve learned about all these different resources that New York State has being on this side of the desk, as opposed to, you know, sitting on my laptop at home at my kitchen table trying to find stuff. And I’m working, I have legislation that would require DVS to have a registry of companies that are hiring veterans, so you know, working with the Department of Labor to give that information over to DVS. So that we have a better idea of what companies are looking to hire veterans, because a lot of companies are hiring veterans, and not just veterans, but military spouses as well. We are trying to work with the DMV so that they can give DBS that information. So a veteran returns home from from getting out of the military service, and they can get like a welcome packet, you know, welcome to New York. You know, these are the resources that are available to you, you should reach out to your local VA. So I just think that we can be doing a much better job. And you know, I’m going to continue pushing that registry. But that’s something that I’m really proud of is the work that we’re doing with veterans and making sure that they have everything they need, but especially their families, because I feel like that’s something that’s left out of the equation when we talk about this stuff.

    Bob Megna  14:02

    Thanks. You know, as I’ve been talking to you, I’ve been thinking because I spent a little bit of time in Albany last year. You know, the Senate now the leadership and a lot of the senior members and even the new members are women. Yeah. Which is kind of new to Albany. What’s it like to be part of that kind of situation? It was great.

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  14:30

    By the way it is. It’s It’s honestly, it’s so refreshing. And that was going to be the second part of what I said is that we are the first class of all female senators that in the history of New York State on the Democratic side, that has been elected. So there are six of us and we really have a very close friendship. You know, we all have different backgrounds, different experiences, some of us are moms, some of us, you know, are you know, just We come from so many walks of life. So we all really kind of lean into each other, we have a very good friendship. And you know, the leader is phenomenal at cultivating those relationships as well. But I have to say, you know, I’ve actually, believe it or not, I have only worked for I’ve worked on campaigns of men, but I’ve only worked for female elected officials, and there is something really special, and they understand the dynamic of what women want, right? Like, we want more childcare, we need more resources, you know, we need more flexibility I’m working with even Neely Rasik. In the assembly side, she’s a good friend of mine for many years. And speaking of what we’ve learned during COVID, is that, you know, a lot of what we do, we can do remotely, right? And just giving people those options, a hybrid option, I’m not saying full remote, but giving people a hybrid option, we’ll get more parents involved in this process. You know, we I saw I was at the MCI very briefly. So we saw it with anytime we did the hearings, you would have a much more robust involvement when there was a virtual option. So people who whether you’re disabled or you’re a parent, even myself, you know, all of a sudden, my I had little kids at home, I was able to join, you know, every single community board meeting and civic meeting, because it was on Zoom, my kids were in bed, but you know, you didn’t have to worry about that childcare. So we have a bill that would require New York state to provide hybrid work options, options for their employees. And we need to do that, because we see a public sector where they are hemorrhaging workforce. Part of the reason why I left the MTA, frankly, and decided that it was more advantageous to run for office was they were three days in two days home. And they said everybody’s coming back. And my department hemorrhaged workers, people were leaving left and right, they went to less secure jobs and tech companies. The guy that I started with, he left, he got a job at Lyft, I decided to run for office. And we both started on the same day. So they don’t take hiring recommendations from either.

    Bob Megna  17:13

    But you know, you raise an interesting point, I could, we can all get in trouble for this next thing. But, you know, Staten Island, people think of New York City as New York City, it’s not always easy to do a commute from different parts of the city, especially if you’re trying to get to different parts of Manhattan, or maybe even the Bronx or Brooklyn or Queens. And so I think people forget, sometimes that even a commute within the city can be a real difficult thing. It

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  17:44

    really is. And you know, again, like my experience, you know, if I was doing my job was in front of a computer, right. And, you know, if I had something like a sick kid home from school, or something, I had to like a doctor’s appointment I had to run to, it didn’t make sense to me that I couldn’t work from home that day, because it would take an hour to get there an hour to get back. And that’s two hours out of my workday, when, usually, frankly, if I’m home, and once the kids are on the bus, they’re on the bus by 730. By 731, my laptop’s open, you know. So I actually think it will give people peace of mind, it will make people be more productive. And you know, I just think that when you have a lot of female elected officials, they’re bringing that different perspective in right, what’s going to be best for the family unit, what’s going to be best for parents who are working for the kids who are impacted by this. So I see that and there’s so much, you know, there’s so much that these women are bringing to the table.

    Bob Megna  18:47

    So you’ve talked a little about this, but moving forward, what what are the things you’re kind of most excited about trying to push them?

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  18:57

    Of course, so, you know, I always say we have a lot of bills that are surrounded around about public public safety, right. You know, when you talk to people you knock on their door, they care about public safety, and they care about affordability. So I always go from the point of view, as far as my legislation goes, is that we need to make people feel safe. So we have legislation that would elevate the you know, elevate the assault of a retail worker to a class D felony. I was really proud. We worked with the Governor’s team to get it in the executive budget this year, affordability last year, we were able to secure additional money to keep the Verizon no discount the way that it has been. And I also this year joined a lawsuit to stop congestion pricing. Because to me, it’s really an unfair burden for both the Staten Island side of my district and the Coney Island side of my district. It’s just something that’s so unaffordable. And you know this, this idea that people are getting in their cars and driving to work because they’re being lazy or the car culture I know for myself and for most other Staten Island and southern Brooklyn errs, Brooklynites, rather, you know, sometimes it’s just the fastest way to get home to your family. And that’s what people want to do. And it’s not like we have the infrastructure in place. That’s so great. And you know, then it came congestion pricing, we don’t even have that infrastructure in place yet. So, you know, I did join the lawsuit, it was with the UFC with borough president Bo, for Sela and we have 18 other lawmakers from all different parts of New York State who have joined that as well. So you know, that’s something I always keep my my focus on is making sure people feel safe, and we keep money in their pocket. kind of excited about the property tax stuff as well. So that should be interesting. If that, you know, moves forward. I know there’s a lot more that we need to do and look at, but Staten Islanders and people living in Southern Brooklyn portion of my district will see their property taxes dramatically reduce, which I think is very fair. But some of the other stuff I’m very interested in is maternal health. So you know, I mentioned to you I was going to school for nursing. One of the things I actually was trying to do at that time, was I wanted to become a nurse to become a certified nurse midwife. In the rest of the modern world. That’s actually the midwifery model of care is what is proven to lower maternal mortality rates have safer outcomes. And you know, maternal health is something I’m really, really passionate about. And fun fact, there is only one midwifery program in the entire SUNY or CUNY system, and it’s at SUNY Downstate. The other programs are at Columbia. They’re at NYU. Staten Island’s had when I had my son, one midwife working in a hospital one. So I actually, you know, while I was working for Diane, I was going back for my prerequisites, but then COVID hit and everything kind of took a turn, but I do have my prerequisites finished nursing school, finally. And so CUNY doesn’t have a midwifery program. And I really think it should. So we were advocating to get money in the budget this year, and it is in our one house to create a midwifery program within the CUNY system. We work very closely with Borough President Moreno so who also is very passionate about this, because it maternal health, we should not have the outcomes that we have in a state like New York or a country like the United States, frankly, we need to start talking and I think we’ve done we’ve made great strides and you know, getting doulas into hospital rooms and making people aware of it’s very refreshing. I come to Albany, I’m like, wow, people know what a duel is. This is great. But the next thing I want to burn into everybody’s brains, the way that word is burned into everybody’s brain brains is midwifery. So we are trying really hard to start a midwifery program within the CUNY system, it will be the first midwifery program in the CUNY system. So we did get in our one house, and I will continue to bother everybody to hope we got it in the final budget.

    Bob Megna  23:22

    Well, it’s interesting, you mentioned that and and given your your background and studying nursing, you know, we do have a nursing shortage. Yeah, New York State. And I know at SUNY where I’m sitting now, you know, even some of the things like simulate, you know, simulation in nursing. And I know, the legislature took some action on that it, you know, things that would help increase the supply of nurses in New York State because, you know, after COVID That’s another thing that came out of COVID was the effect it had on the healthcare industry.

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  24:00

    Well, let me tell you a quick story of how ridiculous this is. We have a nursing shortage in New York State, right particular, particularly after COVID. It’s a huge problem. January 2020, my prerequisites were done, and I was ready to get into a nursing program. But the investments within CUNY are not high enough, or there they need to be significantly more in my opinion, we should have some kind of nursing corps, right, you know, recruiting people who want to go into the healthcare industries, because the seats are very, very limited. They don’t have a lot of programs for working people. Boro BMCC is one school I know of that has a program that’s at night and on the weekends, they have a very limited capacity for who they can accept. I think they accept like 30 or 40 people, you know, a year into that program College. Staten Island has an amazing nursing program. But again, nursing a lot of times is a career that people will go back to. And you know, it will be a secondary career. And we need more programs, I think within CUNY and SUNY that are tailored around working people, because most people I know, I couldn’t, I couldn’t I got into the college, Staten Island nursing program, right. I couldn’t do clinicals at 12. In the afternoon, I had a job full time job. And, you know, I make sure that as much every time this comes up, I bring it up to, you know, I talked with Nisa, who’s amazing. I talked with them all the time. It’s very difficult to recruit professors within these universities, but it’s also a lack of investment. So you know, that’s something that I constantly bring out both to the CUNY system to the SUNY system, with NIDA, and of course in conference.

    Bob Megna  25:46

    Thank you, Senator. Listen, Senator, thank you for all the time you spent with us. If anything you want to close with the important. Yeah,

    Jessica Scarcella-Spanton  25:57

    I’m just you know, I’m really proud of the work that we’re doing. I’m proud of the team that we have, you know, I got a message today from somebody that said, I’ve never dealt with an office that’s been more responsive. And to me, that is just all I ever need to hear. I always keep my mind focused on the fact that constituent services is first and foremost the most important piece of this job, making sure that the people of Staten Island southern Brooklyn have what they need in a time where they’re very desperate if they’re calling our office, whether it’s unemployment, you know, a housing issue. We want people to know that we’re there for them. And most importantly, I really enjoyed doing this with you today. So thank you.

    Bob Megna  26:36

    No, thank you, Senator.

    Joel Tirado  26:41

    Thanks again to Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton for joining us on policy outsider and sharing more about her experience as a public servant. Stay tuned with new episodes of policy outsider as we continue to interview recently elected legislators to provide more insight into how they approach serving their constituents and setting state policy. Policy outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state in the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst. That’s i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.