ABOVE: Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas discusses a “green” Northern Boulevard while on the campaign trail.
BY BENJAMIN FANG
Jessica González-Rojas made history last year when she was elected as the first person of color, and specifically the first Latina, to represent the 34th Assembly District, which includes Jackson Heights, Woodside and East Elmhurst.
Having lived in the district for 22 years, González-Rojas noted that 62 percent of the district is made up of immigrants, and 88 percent are people of color.
“I’m deeply humbled to represent a community that is reflective of my own experiences,” she said. “I’m excited to be an advocate and represent this district.”
Weeks into her first session as a state lawmaker, González-Rojas said she has several legislative priorities, including health care, criminal justice, education and transportation.
Before being elected to the Assembly, González-Rojas was a health care advocate for 13 years, serving as the former executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. She was also an adjunct professor at both CUNY City College and NYU Wagner School of Public Service.
González-Rojas noted that though her district doesn’t have institutions like a library, a hospital, a community center or a senior center, the area is rich in small businesses, especially restaurants. She noted that the industry has been “decimated” by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the many rules and regulations they face.
“As someone who doesn’t cook, I’m a frequent patron of the many diverse restaurants in the district,” she said. “It’s something that makes our neighborhood rich and diverse, yet they are struggling.”
Over the summer, the legislator said, the State Liquor Authority targeted many immigrant small businesses and restaurants in her district for violating COVID protocols. Some businesses were fined tens of thousands of dollars, which she said is enough to put them out of business.
“I’m a proponent of creating more business-friendly rules and education before they begin the fining process,” González-Rojas said. “There needs to be a much more just process that focuses on education.”
On the legislative side, the Queens lawmaker was a co-sponsor of the COVID-19 Emergency Protect Our Small Business Act, a bill that was passed by the legislature last month. The legislation protects restaurants from eviction and foreclosure, restricts third-party delivery fees, freezes unemployment insurance rates and establishes a partial-unemployment system.
González-Rojas said she’s also exploring the idea of a commercial rent control model for businesses. She noted that rent for storefronts have “gone through the roof,” even in her district.
“As someone who is shopping around for a new district office, I would love to have a storefront,” she said. “But the rent is out of reach for so many folks.”
In addition to supporting small businesses like restaurants and local retail, González-Rojas said she is also supportive of street vendors, the “smallest of small businesses.”
“We’re a neighborhood that really thrives on the diversity of businesses that we have,” she said. “They’re part of the ecosystem.”
The lawmaker said while she supports thriving small businesses, she also cares about worker justice, and will advocate to ensure workers are paid adequately and get the health care they need. She’s a proponent of the New York Health Act, which would enact the state’s version of a single-payer health care system.
“I think that would help a lot of businesses to not have to worry about health care plans, and making sure their staff gets the care that they need,” González-Rojas added. “I see that as a priority.”