One-on-one with Sarah Anker | TBR News Media
Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) is at the forefront of several county-level initiatives. In an exclusive interview with Anker, she spoke about her positions on public campaign finance, the North Shore Rail Trail, coastal erosion and more.
For those who don’t know you, can you describe your background?
I am a mother of three children and a resident of Mount Sinai for 25 years. I’ve lived in Middle Island and Coram, and I’m very familiar with that area and my legislative constituency. I’ve worked at different advertising agencies, done freelance contracting work, and some local Patchogue stores. Then I left for a few years to raise my children.
When my youngest was born, the New York State Department of Health released a cancer map showing that our area had a high incidence of cancer, especially breast cancer, and my grandmother had just die of breast cancer. I decided to start a non-profit organization, the Community Health and Environment Coalition, around 2003. And that was basically to get the state to come and do an investigation, to tell us what we need to know, why we we had those numbers and where those numbers came from.
Eventually they came back into the community and did some testing, but unfortunately they left more questions than answers. We continue to investigate and try to understand the causes of cancer.
I got a job as chief of staff for [Councilwoman] Connie Kepert [D-Middle Island] to the town of Brookhaven. She lured me in and they got a $4.5 million grant for solar programs. Working with Connie, we started the programs, and then I was promoted to responsible for creating a Department of Energy at the City of Brookhaven. I left this position to run for this position.
I ran for office and was elected seven times. I’m limited in time, so I can’t run anymore. I’m a Democrat but fairly conservative — moderate and in between. I find the common denominator and focus on that. I don’t go too far left or too far right, and I’m here to represent my constituents and to calm the storm when there are problems. My top priority is public safety and the safety of my residents. I did this for my children and my family. I am doing it now for my constituents.
How did your most recent project, the North Shore Rail Trail, come to fruition?
This one was very difficult. I had to overcome major obstacles and challenges along the way.
The three main challenges were to get the county executive on board. The first was unfavorable; the current one, Steve Bellone [D], supported him. I also had to get the energy people from LIPA on board. I had worked with them extensively while managing the City of Brookhaven’s energy program and we had a good working relationship.
It worked because they were open to the idea of LIPA having this as a wonderful PR project. The third was to get the community on board. The ability to see this through the fact that there had been deaths linked to people trying to bike, jog or run along our local highways. Because all of these concerns and challenges were in place, it was time to move on.
I hope, and I stress this, that people should use common sense and take responsibility for their safety when crossing intersections. But it does provide a safe place for people to recreate.
Can you tell us about the work you do with coastal erosion?
Erosion is a huge problem. I was meeting some constituents and was on Culross Drive in Rocky Point and as I walked towards a house I noticed their neighbor’s house had fallen off the cliff – literally it was down the cliff. It was 10 or 11 years ago.
I have noticed that many constituents in my area belong to beach associations. Miller Place, Sound Beach, Rocky Point – these are private beach communities, so they are not eligible for federal funding. I use the resources we have to educate them on certain seagrass beds, different brick structures, just give them ideas to try to fix it.
Unfortunately, if someone does it and that person doesn’t and that person doesn’t, it creates problems for the people who do. So I’m trying to see if we can get everyone on board to solve the erosion problem. We will do what we can.
Public campaign finance is an ongoing dispute between the County Executive and the Legislative Assembly. Can you elaborate on your position on the public campaign finance program that was repealed last week?
I support campaign finance reform. I support him. This is a program that was launched last year. We put money into it and it’s a shame we couldn’t try it. We do pilot programs all the time and I wish they could have at least done that.
It was a project that former president, Rob Calarco [D-Patchogue], had pleaded for. He worked there for a long time. I respect him and the amount of effort he put into it. I would have preferred to at least give it a try and see where it went.
If it didn’t work well or had any issues or problems, we could always have changed it. I voted for another way to fund campaigns. Any big organization that has a lot of money can create very, very empowering campaigns for any individual – and I’ve personally been there.
What is it about the communities you represent that makes them so distinct and unique?
I think we have a lot of people who understand how important it is to take an active role in their community. We have many people involved in projects, events and activities that continue to inspire people around them. Like the butterfly effect or a ripple in a stream, it continues and I see it in my community.
Right now, in this complicated political climate, we need to understand that we all have something in common and that we can all contribute to solving problems and achieving our goals by working together collaboratively. I’ve seen this and I’m doing this, and I think – whether it’s unique or not – this is something big happening in our district.
We get what we put into our community. And right now, people who have contributed and made our community better, I’m truly honored and privileged to work with those people.
Whether it’s Bobby Woods of the North Shore Youth Council or Bea Ruberto of the Sound Beach Civic Association, you really see who the real heroes are within your community when you work with them. And I feel so honored to have the opportunity to be a part of what they’re trying to create, which is a place we can call home.