Iran in 1979 was a time of great uncertainty for its people.
In the wake of a popular revolt that overthrew the American-installed shah, exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from Paris to assume power as head of state and began consolidating his grip on the country.
Newly elected State Sen. Anna Kaplan was 13 years old and living in Iran at the time. She remembered the schools closing, shootings that took place during the day and the strict curfews that kept people off the streets at night.
Among the chief victims of the changeover was the country’s sizable Jewish population, of which Kaplan was a member, and who as part of Khomeini’s strategy to undercut more liberal elements of Iranian society, was targeted for state-sponsored discrimination because of perceived links to Israel.
Within the first tumultuous months of the revolution, Kaplan was among the hundreds of Iranian Jewish children to flee to the U.S. as refugees. On an especially cold April night, Kaplan recalled arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and was bused over with four other girls to live with a couple in Crown Heights.
Rather than feeling scared or alone, however, Kaplan said she felt excited to start her new life here.
A new beginning
“This is the land of opportunity, where anyone can make their dreams come true,” Kaplan said. “But if you told me back then that I would now be a New York state senator, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Kaplan, 52, recently began her first term representing the 7th Senate District, which includes large areas of Elmont and Franklin Square. Kaplan defeated incumbent Elaine Philips in November by a 10,000-vote margin, and a large number of those votes came from high minority-majority areas such as Elmont and Westbury, according to unofficial records from the Nassau County Board of Elections. The data also revealed that more than 80 percent of those who voted in Elmont did so for Kaplan.
Kaplan had served as a council member for the Town of North Hempstead before her election. She equated the transition to state senator as going from “taking care of small kids with small problems to now taking care of big kids with bigger problems.” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, said Kaplan was ready and said that he was glad to have her as a partner in the Senate.
“Just this past week, she sponsored and passed landmark gun control legislation to close a dangerous loophole,” Kaminsky said. “I have no doubt that she and I will continue to fight together in Albany for Long Islanders.”
Getting things done
The gun law, which passed 62-1 on Jan. 29, requires part-time state residents to adhere to a background check before acquiring a gun license here. The legislation included Kaminsky’s proposal to prevent arming teachers in schools, as well as passage of the “red flag law,” which allows family members and local officials to seek a court order requiring potentially dangerous individuals to relinquish their firearms.
Kaplan said she introduced the bill after she had met with a number of residents, including students, who said they wanted more “common-sense” gun laws to protect their schools and communities. It was one of the key issues that Kaplan ran on.
“These things were brought up last year, but they never made it to the floor and were left to die,” Kaplan said. “And a lot of legislation has died in the Senate, so I want to pass the [the bills] that have been held up for way too long.”
Another of these “overdue” pieces of legislation that became law was the Reproductive Health Act, which Kaplan had advocated for since the beginning of her campaign last year. The law brings the state in line with the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision by decriminalizing abortion and supporting a woman’s reproductive health rights. Kaplan said that while the issue had been a hotly debated in the past, it was clear that a majority of her constituents wanted the health act to pass, so she supported the measure.
Kaplan was also named the chairwoman of the Senate’s Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business Committee. She said she hopes to craft legislation that would help local business owners by streaming-lining the state’s Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises Program. Kaplan said that many women and people of color have often complained about and have been turned off by the state’s application for the enterprise program, which hurts New York’s business climate.
As she delves deeper into her work in Albany, Kaplan continues to host public forums with local residents throughout the 7th District. Kaplan said, however, that she also enjoys less formal meetings with residents, such as when she took part in a tea party at the Elmont Memorial Library in December. As the children gathered to learn about tea party traditions, Kaplan’s conversations with their parents helped her learn about the community’s needs.
“I think both State Sen. Anna Kaplan and Sen. Kevin Thomas should be more involved in the community, unlike the past state senators who appeared to be more about photo ops,” Franklin Square community advocate Carl Gerrato said. “They should hold town meetings regularly so they hear directly from the community.”
Kaplan, Kaminsky and State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages are scheduled to host a town hall at the Elmont Memorial Library on Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. Nassau County and Town of Hempstead representative will be on hand to meet with residents.
“This job is all about making yourself available and meeting with someone to let them know that no problem is too small and that you’re there for them,” Kaplan said.