Levittown Democrat Kevin Thomas was never supposed to win. The 34-year-old appeared in the 6th Senate District last November against 15-term holder Kemp Hannon. Still, he won it, with just 50.6% of the vote in a squeaker that solidified the Democrats’ majority in the state Senate and bolstered their presence in the Long Island delegation to six of the nine seats.
Even Hanno didn’t seem to see Thomas as a threat. Although Hanno had over $ 400,000 in his campaign war chest, until October he had spent little more than Thomas, according to media reports.
But the $ 100,000 Thomas raised was clearly enough. He knocked on thousands of doors and pushed his candidacy through social media to become the first South Asian member of the Senate.
He is now its resident expert in consumer protection, an issue close to his heart. Fresh out of Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University in 2008, Thomas went to work for the New York Legal Assistance Group. “We provided a free lawyer or law student for people sued for consumer debt, like credit card debt or student loans,” he explained.
Thomas worked for the organization for almost a decade. While there, he was appointed to the New York State Advisory Board of the United States Civil Rights Commission. “One of the things we did,” he said, “was investigate the NYPD and their excessive police use of“ broken windows ”- the practice of disrupting serious crime by actively investigating crimes, such as jumping turnstiles or smoking marijuana.
According to Thomas, the broken window policy is also “a process in which many children go through the criminal justice pipeline – in particular, children of color.”
Thomas never wanted to be a politician. “But that was the Trump administration, and they were just dismantling consumer protection,” he said. For example, “The Department of Education just closed the offices that protected student borrowers. . . [and] they were reversing their application for predatory payday loans, ”he added.
When Thomas saw the Department of Education side with student loan companies and opposed student borrowers, he said, “I decided to go into politics.”
He initially wanted to run for the seat of the 2nd Congressional District held by veteran representative Peter King, a Republican from Seaford, but instead chose to challenge Hanno.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has named Thomas chairman of the consumer protection committee, and he has already sponsored a number of consumer protection measures. “There is a bill regulating these student loan services,” he said. This would require lenders to obtain licenses from the state’s Department of Financial Services and amend several sections of existing banking law that cover student loans.
Student debt in New York state stands at more than $ 82 billion, according to the bill. And “nobody tells them, ‘Hey, you can’t defraud borrowers,'” Thomas said.
His second bill arose out of the recent federal government shutdown, in which federal workers missed two paychecks. “It meant they were already behind on their bills,” he said. When Thomas realized that borrowers may have missed student loan payments, he decided to draft legislation that would place a moratorium on reporting any defaults that occurred during the shutdown.
The bill would give borrowers a 90-day grace period to update their accounts. After that, lenders could send negative reports again when warranted. The onus would be on borrowers to prove they were state residents as well as federal employees on leave, Thomas said.
Thomas is also concerned about social media providers who collect users’ personal data and sell it. “It’s another industry that is not regulated,” he said. “And there is so much private information compared to ten years ago. I want to be sure. . . we have no other situation where all of our data is available and people can manipulate it to make us do whatever they want.
Thomas said he hopes to establish a minimum threshold of security, similar to privacy laws that prevent banks from disclosing personal information.
Balance is the word he uses in both of these scenarios to describe the desired outcome. “I’m not against companies making money,” he said, but not at the expense of the individual consumer.
The new Democratic majority meant the reintroduction of measures Republicans let die in previous sessions, including voting reforms, the child victims law and the reproductive health law, Thomas said. “The leadership has pushed these bills forward to show that we are serious,” he said, calling the bills “simple.”
The setback has been rapid and brutal, especially with regard to the law on reproductive health. “People believe that a woman in labor, if she tells her doctor to abort the baby, the doctor will abort the baby,” he said.
According to Thomas, the main provision of the law would move abortion from the penal code to the health law. He would also add a provision present in Roe v. Wade but so far absent from abortion law in New York. “Late abortions – after 24 weeks – are allowed when the health of the mother is threatened or the fetus is not viable,” he said. “And these represent less than 1% of all abortions.”
Although senators’ jobs are considered part-time, Thomas says he regularly works 12-hour days or more. “I have to be everywhere if I want to serve my constituents,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to be the kind of lawmaker voters only see during an election period.
His wife, Rincy, a pharmacist, makes his job possible, he said: “I couldn’t do it without her.” The couple have a 12-week-old daughter, Layla, and her father, the first-year senator, clearly has a full plate.