Assemblymember Brian Cunningham joins Policy Outsider for the latest in the “Freshmen Perspectives” series, which invites freshmen legislators in the New York State Senate and Assembly to share what they’re working on, what they’ve learned, and what they’re excited about tackling next. Cunningham (who stretches our definition of freshman as a winner of a special election before winning his first full term in 2022), shares insights into how he approaches legislating, the unique perspective one gets working in the State Legislature, and the important work still to be done in housing, the green energy economy, and AI.


  • Honorable Brian Cunningham, New York State Assemblymember, Assembly District 43
  • Bob Megna, President, Rockefeller Institute
  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Joel Tirado  00:05

    Welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Joel Tirado. On this episode, we continue our “Freshmen Perspectives” series, which invites freshmen legislators in the New York State Senate and Assembly to share what they’re working on, what they’ve learned, and what they’re excited about tackling next. This episode features Assemblymember Brian Cunningham of New York’s 43rd Assembly District speaking with Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna. That conversation, which was recorded on May 14, is up next.

    Bob Megna  00:59

    Hi, this is Bob Megna, from Rockefeller Institute of Government, and we’re happy today to be joined by Brian Cunningham. Brian is a New York State Assembly member from the 43rd district, which covers parts of Brooklyn, including Crown Heights and prospect Lefferts gardens. Assemblymember. Welcome to the show.

    Brian Cunningham  01:25

    Thank you so much for having me on, Bob. Looking forward to the conversation.

    Bob Megna  01:29

    No, it’s great. We’ve been doing a series where we’ve been trying to get freshmen legislators a chance to come on and they don’t always have a chance to to talk about their views and any lengthy process. So we want to give them that opportunity. And you know, we love having you here to talk a little bit about what you care about. Your you kind of violate our rule of freshman legislators, but only slightly,

    Brian Cunningham  02:00

    I’m gonna say I’m a super freshman, I got a head start in terms of being elected in the special election in March of 2022. But still, this is my first full term. So I still consider myself part of this new class.

    Bob Megna  02:13

    How did you come to the run in the special election? But tell us a little bit about yourself?

    Brian Cunningham  02:20

    Yeah, um, prior to running for the state legislator, I was someone who worked in the space of gun violence prevention. So I was a leader in nonprofit field, both at the Center for court innovation, looking at how do we innovate our criminal justice system, and also working specifically on the gun violent movements, but save our streets, Brooklyn, helping to reduce gun violence in Brooklyn about 72%. Prior to that, I worked in policy. So I worked the Obama White House, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, worked for the city council and also worked here in Albany, about 12 years ago. So it’s kind of like I think, the coming together of a career that was both in the public private sector, and also nonprofit space. And I’ve been at the end of policy and trying to help merge those two worlds. And I kind of look at the world for those three legged stools, and how do these things work better together systems?

    Bob Megna  03:11

    So running in a special election is kind of a unusual circumstance. How does that compare to now that you ran and won the full term? I mean, how was it pretty much the same process? How did it go? It’s

    Brian Cunningham  03:29

    interesting, because in 2017, people don’t remember this, but I ran for New York City Council on against a tenure income at the time, and built a really strong coalition of supporters and voters and flappers, Crown Heights and prospect Lefferts gardens. But one of the things that I never lost touch of even losing that election back a couple 100 votes, I’m in a very crowded primary was the power of coalition building and staying connected to those coalition’s so you know, for most people, when you start an election process, you gotta figure out where you’re gonna raise money from where your votes come from, we kind of had a head start there, too, in terms of understanding those communities, still working and serving those communities by way of the gun violence reduction, criminal justice reform. So I think was a natural progression for us, if you would, for us to naturally serve. We had a built in base of people that knew us and we’d lived here my entire life. So my neighbors knew me and they were elevated me to serve them in the state legislature.

    Bob Megna  04:21

    You know, I grew up in the Bronx, but I’ve lived upstate for a long time. So I think one of the things, you know, running for the City Council in New York is sometimes to people almost more important than the state legislature because the state legislature is kind of far away. Right. And,

    Brian Cunningham  04:44

    I mean, I be when I ran for city council, obviously, there’s that tendency for proximity to home and being closer to the local issues. I think one of the things I really appreciate about being a state legislator is the wide panoptic lens gives me a look at things from Buffalo to Brooklyn. and seeing how the things that we do in Brooklyn impact upstate and how things upstate sometimes are blind to us, because we live in a microcosm if you would of the five boroughs. So, for me, it’s been a really good education on how public policy impacts different parts of the state. And I think our state, when you look at it, take a step back is a good representation of our country. In terms of all the various groups, both farmland and urban, suburban rural, on it, I’ve been very grateful for an opportunity to connect with so my colleagues both in the city and state, and I’m just excited about serving for the next two years. So

    Bob Megna  05:31

    given that, what are the things you have been happy to work on? What’s the stuff you’re most proud of so far?

    Brian Cunningham  05:38

    Yeah, you know, the three things that sent it to me that I’ve been most proud of one is saving SUNY, downstate one of our public hospitals. In our district. As many people know, earlier this year, the governor and the Chancellor have submitted a proposal that essentially would make downstate more of a urgent care center than any hospital. This is really important because if people know the history downstate they know this was one the only state one hospital in the city of New York. In two, it’s a place where the MRI was invented. So it’s a unusual Hospital and the fact that it has both a teaching component that graduates 1/3 students of color, and it’s also a hospital, it serves a underserved community. So for me, it was a really big deal. The second big thing I would say is coming up next week, which is passing one of my seven bills, which is Melanie’s law. Behind me, we passed about six. So far, we’re excited about Melanie’s law because of its connection, again, that interconnection of the state to the Hudson Valley where a young woman was murdered tragically, and we believe that this bill is going to close a loophole for so many domestic violence survivors to live on and make sure they have an order of protection or protect them. So you know, legislatively, that’s been one thing institutionally saving the hospital. And the last thing is, you know, we look at the big role, so to speak, we brought him over $10 million to district 43 In the last two and a half years. So again, these are just things that we’ve been really, really excited about doing so far. And looking forward to doing more of it.

    Bob Megna  06:59

    You know, I’m looking at the pens, certificates behind you. And it’s not often add a freshman legislator gets a lot of bills. Yeah, how how do you feel you’ve been able to do that and have more on the way? Yeah,

    Brian Cunningham  07:15

    I mean, one, I’m excited that some of them aren’t even up yet. That’s the other part in terms of the past six that are assigned to law, and seven that are on the docket for the rest of this session. So we’ll open up push that number a little further. What’s been exciting about it for me and how I approach public policy is both, even though we are the majority supermajority in both houses trying to find common sense legislation that is bipartisan in nature. And also, you know, when you look at legislation is two ways of looking at it, from my perspective, that people will cut trees and pass really big bills. And people will prune branches, which is our style of legislation where we are trying to make government more effective, more efficient, by just pruning the branches and doing things that are going to be sensible, smart, and effective, and it’s going to impact people’s quality of life. So I think both that approach of working across the aisle even with folks that we don’t necessarily need the votes, the vote count, but I think when you’re passing legislation certainly helps when bills have widespread support. And I think we’ll be able to build our broad coalition’s among our colleagues, both in the assembly and in the Senate. So we’re very excited about what that looks like for us over the next couple of years and building this wall. On to be really, really forward on tends to be kids.

    Bob Megna  08:27

    Assembly member, I think I can tell you that if you keep doing the small things to trees will come. Right. Yeah,

    Brian Cunningham  08:34

    yes, yes, that’s part of my brother in law is bringing some theory that if you do the pruning and do the hard work in the offseason, then you get the results you want in the harvest time. So

    Bob Megna  08:45

    given that, what are the things you’re most excited about moving forward? Not just this session? But yes, you see your career unfolding? What what excites you?

    Brian Cunningham  08:57

    I think what excites me is the opportunity to continue to find, particularly when I think about my district, I think about housing is a huge thing. And you know, as some people have read, I have a bill called the faith based affordable housing bill that will essentially increase the amount of housing use and faith based partners that have unused land is exciting to me, because we know that housing is a crisis, not just in Brooklyn, but all across the state of New York and all throughout the country. So we’re excited about that. I think about the revolutionary technology, both through energy efficiency and making our economy more green. But also think about the promise and challenges of AI. Right. So I think when we look at those things, those are some things that I’m excited to tackle because they’re big things. They’re hard things to do. But I think if we do a little bit of it every session and try to understand the issues more in depth, we can actually come to a place where we can improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, and actually put New York not just being the first in the nation to pass legislation, but best in the nation and passing legislation.

    Bob Megna  09:55

    You know, you talked a little I’m sitting here at SUNY, right so you talked to little bit about the downstate issue and I know how complicated that issue is. And but I think it’s always important. I think historically, it’s been difficult to talk to folks about health care. And so we’re going to change health care. Yeah, without proving that we’re going to make it better. Yeah. How was that? What’s your process when you when you think about that a little bit? Yes.

    Brian Cunningham  10:32

    I’m glad you asked that question. I’m actually heading to Washington DC. On this week, when session gobbles out to talk to some of our federal partners, both the New York delegation as well as the administration, one of the biggest challenges we’re seeing in healthcare is one of the biggest promises and you said, health care has changed since 2008. Like I mentioned, I worked for the Obama administration. And one of the biggest things the President used a lot of as collateral, and if you remember, was universal health care, Obamacare. And one of the things that move the needle on was it moved from a health care system that was responsive to a wellness care model where people were a part of a network with a primary care physician, so moving people out of ers, and part of that as medicine has changed. For people who don’t undergo procedures, typically, you’d spend more nights in a hospital three or five days. And that’s how the hospitals to build again, services. Now people go in on today, and they’re out in probably an hour or two. And I think that change is something that communities of color, and rural communities have still not caught up to. Because the idea that we can get people well quicker, is something that we need to reconcile the fact that there have been historic disinvestment in health care systems in rural America and urban America, that we start to catch up on suburban America, so doing a lot better. The other piece that I’m going to talk to the federal government about specifically, though, is how we build in terms of the Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates. So if every procedure is done at a safety net hospital, what typically happens is you find that there are 30%, less money coming into those hospitals. So they only pay for 70% of procedure. So you have hospitals that are going deeper in debt, because they’re not being fully paid or compensated for the service they’re performing. And the cost of living is rising, the cost of these prescriptions, and the cost of the equipment is All rise. And so that’s something that we’re going to have to reconcile both from a federal city and state perspective. And that’s gonna take a lot of work and intentionality on working with partners. Yeah,

    Bob Megna  12:29

    no assembly member, you raise a lot of good points. I mean, a place like Dan stage probably 80% Medicaid patients.

    Brian Cunningham  12:38

    Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, you think about this, the community they serve, some people are underinsured. Some people have no insurance and some of the big ticket items, such as some of the cancer treatments, and being things that would get people typically pay for the hospitals aren’t coming into the go into the hospitals in the city where people typically work, or feel comfortable commuting to because of their their marketing strategies, and because their reputation. So we have a whole trajectory to change in terms of how we look at health care in this country. And certainly, downstate being in my backyard, as well as Kings County. It’s something that I can’t ignore when I live four blocks away from the hospital.

    Bob Megna  13:14

    Great, thank you. Listen, it’s been a pleasure to have you. Are there any topics we’ve missed that you’d like to bring up? You know, you have your pens behind you, which I think is great. What other topics are on your mind right now?

    Brian Cunningham  13:31

    I mean, I think, again, the big things are housing, obviously, faith based portable housing, energy. And I think, you know, we have a couple of bills that are gonna help energy companies and an AI is something we’re gonna dive a lot into over the summer, and go to a few conferences to figure out how this thing actually works, particularly how it protects artists. So we’re looking forward to robust learning growing, and I’m also being in community and hearing directly to my constituents. What’s the impact them?

    Bob Megna  13:57

    Yeah, I think I spent a little hiatus downtown Albany last year. And and the housing issue really did, you know, come to the surface. Clearly people care about it. The governor cares about it. The legislature cares about it. But it is a complicated issue. And and then you have the city, it’s the suburbs and upstate hat. Yeah. You know, it sounds like you have some ideas about at least your area. Yeah,

    Brian Cunningham  14:29

    I mean, I look at my area, but certainly I spent a lot of time in Albany six months of the year, right. So looking at the two churches and anchor the apartment where I stay and those churches being dilapidated, and those pastors and faith leaders being open to creating housing there. But I think more importantly, is winning talked about the housing issues. We’re talking about infrastructure, whether that’s talking about building, high speed rail that connects buffalo to Brooklyn. We’re talking about health care and making sure that people don’t drive in rural America or rural New York 30 to see 60 miles to the closest hospital? Are you talking about places like Long Island, whether they are transit oriented, and whether it is enough infrastructure for water, and all those things? So I think we’re really having a larger infrastructure conversation again, going to DC this week. So I talked to the administration about some of their bill back better money and how that money is hidden states, and how are we going to use that money in a state level, to make sure that we fix the infrastructural challenges we have, and it begins to continue to build the housing we need, and also pull people from renters to owners and into the middle class. Now,

    Bob Megna  15:33

    I think that’s great, you know, as I think a lifetime budget person, I always think now, especially men, you have an opportunity with the federal money, and the remaining to really have an impact on infrastructure in a positive way. Absolutely.

    Brian Cunningham  15:54

    And those are things that I think when it benefits of being a state legislator, as you know, is you have a job that costs you all between six months and a year. It’s also a challenge for your family constituents back home. But the next six months theoretically, is an opportunity for us to partner with groups like Rockefeller and other organizations that have this institutional knowledge and figure out the how, and get to smarter public policy. So we come back in January, we’re coming back with a list of policy recommendations that we vetted and are able to implement through hearings into public discussions, and hopefully legislate and get books and pens. Hopefully, I don’t take all the pens to Governor but certainly want some more that are smart and help our constituents. Hey,

    Bob Megna  16:37

    listen, people get to Governor gets to sign those bills, right. So it’s not a bad thing for her either. So yeah. Listen, assembly person, thank you. And by the way, if any ideas you have that you want to talk to Rockefeller, about, we’re here. One of the things we like to do is engage with the legislature. But I want to thank you for doing this and good luck in the rest of session.

    Brian Cunningham  17:05

    Thank you so much looking forward to our future conversations.

    Joel Tirado  17:12

    Thanks again to Assemblymember Brian Cunningham for joining us on the show. If you liked this episode, please rate, subscribe, and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts and transcripts are available on our website. I’m Joel Tirado; until next time. 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 and 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 Spotify, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.