This Assemblyman protects the quality of life for Islanders on a daily basis—work he’s trained for all his life
by JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos By Robert Nuzzie
When state Assemblyman Michael Cusick was just 6 years old, his life’s path seemed clear.
As a young boy, he worked alongside family member son former Assemblywoman Betty Connelly’s first campaign for New York State Assembly. Connelly—a neighbor who lived just two blocks away—would go on to become the first female elected official representing Staten Island.
“I guess you could say politics is in my blood,” Cusick said from his Albany office. “My family was very active in the community…in politics. Growing up, I was always ‘in the mix,’ so to say—going to events with my father when he ran for civil court judge and working on Betty Connelly’s first campaign.”
Born in Staten Island and raised in the borough’s Westerleigh section, Cusick said that his career path was evident from the start. “I knew at a young age that I wanted to be in public service,” he said.
By the time he was in school, Cusick’s career began to take shape.
“I think I started my political career getting elected in second grade to class president,” he quipped, noting that he served as class president at Blessed Sacrament School all the way from grades 2 through 8. “I got the bug that early.”
A graduate of both Monsignor Farrell High School and Villanova University, Cusick jumped headfirst into public service as soon as he got out of college in 1991. His first job was as a special assistant to the president of the New York City Council as the office representative for the borough of Staten Island.
He then went to work as chief of staff for former Assemblyman Eric Vitaliano, and also sat on the board of several community organizations, including the CYO and the Boy Scouts of America.
Soon, Cusick was director of constituent services for U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, helping Islanders on the federal level. “Then there was an open seat for Assembly,” he recalled. “I ran, and was lucky enough to win.” That was almost 14 years ago.”
Cusick describes his role in the State Assembly as something of a balancing act. “It’s a balance of protecting the quality of life of Staten Islanders and legislating to do that,” he said. “Much of this job is constituent service—the other half is the legislative part, and I take both very seriously. I’ve always been focused on bills and legislation to help Staten Islanders as well as residents in the state of New York.”
In the Assembly, Cusick deals with everything from fighting Staten Island’s devastating opioid problem to developing practical solutions for various quality of life issues, to securing funding for schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.
On the opioid front, Cusick has teamed with State Senator Andrew Lanza to develop the I-STOP legislation, an effort to curb doctor-shopping among people looking for prescription medications.
“Now it’s the law of the land,” Cusick said of the real-time drug prescription monitoring program that requires medical professionals and pharmacists to report and track prescriptions of controlled substances. “It’s a monitoring system that allows doctors to check that patients aren’t going to other doctors for prescriptions. Legislation like that helps save people’s lives.”
In addition, Cusick sponsored a law that thwarts insurance companies’ “fail first” approach to drug rehabilitation. The law essentially streamlines the process of getting insurance in order to go to rehab and allows people to stay in treatment while any appeals process takes place within the insurance company.
“These are ways we can really affect people’s lives,” Cusick said. “That’s the rewarding part of the job.”
In 2006, the legislator authored a law that counters protestors at funeral services through the creation of a 100-foot “buffer-zone.” The law was enacted in response to protests that were taking place at military funerals across the U.S. The issue was first brought to his attention by a Staten Islander who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and met Cusick on the Assembly floor during West Point Day in Albany. He stayed in touch with the young soldier through his two service tours in Afghanistan and beyond.
“We were able to put into law balancing the family’s right to mourn and the public’s right to free speech,” he said. “We were able to get a significant piece of legislation passed.”
Five years later, in 2011, subsequent bills were passed to strengthen the law. The first increased the buffer zone to 300 feet around a religious service, funeral, burial, or memorial service, while the second mandated the implementation of a permit process for such demonstrations.
As Staten Island grows and changes, Cusick and his legislative colleagues work to keep a careful watch on standard infrastructure issues such as development, roads, traffic, and transportation, while at the same time maintaining an excitement about positive changes in the community.
“Having been born and raised here, I’ve seen the borough grow…and continue to grow,” he said. “It’s exciting in the sense that, being a hometown boy, I’m always out there screaming from the rooftops how great Staten Island is. It’s a place I am very proud of,” adding that his mother still lives in his childhood home.
“When you have growth, there is a lot of work to be done on the government level to protect quality of life. Any traffic, transportation, roads, and infrastructure needs that arise—the borough president, city council, and state legislature can work together to work out solutions.”
“There is a concern,” he added “and it’s mixed with excitement.”
When it comes to the borough’s delegation of elected officials, Cusick said that party politics takes a backseat.
“When you are a member of the Staten Island delegation, there is no Democrat or Republican; we’re Staten Islanders,” he said. “We need to work together. These are not Democratic or Republican issues, these are borough issues. Heroin, Hurricane Sandy…these are issues where there are no political lines.”
Unlike many in Washington D.C., Cusick said Island officials view themselves as part of a team. “I think it comes from growing up in politics and government,” he said. “I’ve always put Staten Island needs first.”
While Cusick has split his time between his hometown (he and wife, Yasmin, and their cat, Max, now reside in Richmond) and Albany for nearly 19 years, being home is definitely his first choice.
“It’s just more enjoyable to be here,” said Cusick. But the time in Albany is well worth it he explained, especially when tangible results are achieved for borough families. “Whether it’s a toll discount or providing insurance coverage to families…or funds for rehab, schools, pre-K, hospitals—when you’re able to get funding in the budget or provide a law, that’s the reward for any travel and sacrifice.”
When he’s not traveling, in his office, or on the Assembly floor, Cusick is a sports fan (he roots for the New York Mets) and has a passion for running. (“A lot of my hobbies are sports oriented,” he said.) He was captain of the cross country team at Monsignor Farrell High School, continued running while attending Villanova, and hasn’t lost the passion for it yet, but is also an avid basketball player, participating in both a regular Tuesday and Friday night game.
“Fitness is very important,” he continued. “One of my top programs that I am very proud of is the Total Fitness Challenge.”
Created in 2008 to encourage Staten Island students from pre-K through eighth grade to read and exercise during summer break, the Challenge essentially combines a summer reading program with fitness, and asks students to log 30 minutes a day of reading and a physical activity.
“I said, let’s combine the two—it’s about the mind and the body. It’s about balance,” Cusick said. “If you balance correctly, you have a long, fulfilling life. Now we have to show young people how to include exercise in that formula.”
The Total Fitness Challenge relies on the honor system, with thousands of kids logging activities based on a point system and getting parents to sign off on their record keeping.
“We want the kids to challenge themselves and push their brothers, sisters, and neighbors to do it, too,” Cusick said. “It’s part of my responsibility as an elected representative, and a critical quality of life issue. Learn to take care of yourself now, do it through the years, and the payoffs are remarkable.”
In addition to the health rewards of being physically fit, there are financial advantages, Cusick explained. “When the young people who become adults are healthier than those before them, it saves millions in health-care costs.”
Most recently, Cusick was able to secure funding for a $5 million MTA feasibility study to examine a West Shore Light Rail, an initiative the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation has been anxious to see happen. The plan calls for a West Shore rail line running from Richmond Valley to Elm Park and over the Bayonne Bridge, connecting Staten Island commuters with New Jersey Transit. One of the proposed stops will be at the West Shore Plaza shopping center on South Avenue…just one of the many newly bustling areas on or near the West Shore that will be additionally boosted by the rail line.
Assembly Member Michael Cusick
1911 Richmond Avenue #110
718-370-1384 / assembly.state.ny.us