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Day 3: These Hunger Strikers aren’t Paid Lobbyists — But Albany Can’t Tell the Difference

ALBANY — “They are putting every barrier in our way to not have to face us directly and  look us in the eye and then make an unconscionable decision. This is Albany at its worst,” said Amy Cohen. 

Families for Safe Streets volunteers Amy Cohen and Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio are in the middle of a hunger struck to get the Assembly to act. Photo: Families for Safe Streets

ALBANY — On day three of a hunger strike protesting the Assembly’s inaction on Sammy’s Law, a pair of mothers were labeled as “lobbyists” and given an ultimatum that could have had them kicked out of the Capitol building before seeing through their nourishment-free mission.

Families for Safe Streets volunteers Amy Cohen and Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio, who are not paid lobbyists and who each lost a son to reckless drivers, were told that if they accepted a lawmaker's invitation to rally support inside the Assembly Chamber for the “no-nonsense” bill to let New York City to set its own speed limits they would be at risk of getting booted from the building after. 

They were forced to stay outside the chamber.

“I don’t get paid, I do this because I don't want anyone else to experience this. It’s outrageous that we couldn't be recognized,” said Cohen, whose 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed just steps from his Brooklyn home in 2013, and for whom the bill is named after.

East Gun Hill Road is one of the most dangerous 25-mile-per-hour streets.

Assembly Member Bobby Carroll (D-Park Slope), a co-sponsor of the bill, invited the duo onto the floor as his constituents, but then advised against it after being told that it might result in the pair getting kicked out of the Capitol with just 24 hours before the end of the legislative session on June 9.

Lobbyists, by the rules, can't appear on the Assembly floor — and even though the volunteers are not lobbyists under state law, their actions in Albany this week might be seen by legislative overseers as lobbying.

But Cohen said she was shocked by such conditions since she was invited onto the floor with no issues in 2014 when she and other advocates first pressured the state to lower the city’s speed limit from the then-30 miles per hour to 25. 

“They are putting every barrier in our way to not have to face us directly and  look us in the eye and then make an unconscionable decision. This is Albany at its worst,” she said. 

So back out into the hallway they went, where they’ve set up camping chairs and hung up photos of many of the children, husbands, wives, and friends, killed in traffic violence. Three days into the hunger strike, Mendieta-Cuapio says she’s starting to feel a little weak and has a headache, but that the pain pales in comparison to when her 5-year-old son Bryan was killed in 2006. 

"This is nothing compared to the loss of your child. This is something that we really need to do,” said Mendieta-Cuapio. 

Hunger strikes in Albany do not happen often, but are not unheard of. Assembly Member Latrice Walker (D-Brownsville) stopped eating for days for the second year in a row this past April to protest bail reform rollbacks. 

“That’s the only hunger strike that comes to mind in terms of the legislature. I’m impressed, I’m concerned for them,” said the now-retired Assembly Member Dick Gottfried (D-Upper West Side), who carried Sammy’s Law in the lower chamber until his retirement last year. “The opposition of so many of my colleagues is pretty frustrating.” (The bill is now being carried by Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from the Upper West Side.)

But despite the support of many Assembly members, plus Gov. Hochul, Mayor Adams, the City Council and the state Senate — which passed its version of "Sammy's Law" with little dissent on Tuesday — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has so far remained silent on the issue and refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Hochul on Wednesday expressed her sympathy for the mothers but declined to condemn Heastie (D-Bronx), who has not returned multiple requests for comment.

As Streetsblog reported on Thursday, all politics is local: one of the most-dangerous 25-mile-per-hour streets in the city is East Gun Hill Road — the same stretch where Heastie has his Bronx office.

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