“Excuse the furniture. It’s about 100 years old,” says Assemblyman Joe Lentol as I take a seat in his district office. “A janitor at the old Greenpoint Savings Bank gave me this furniture,” he recalls. When Joe first took office in 1972 representing the 50th District, Assembly members were not provided with district offices. However, he was able to find a space for his local office on Lorimer St., but he still had to scrounge for office furniture and took advantage of the bank’s move.
Even before his first term in 1972, Joe already had a history in the Assembly. “This is truly my family’s business,” he says in reference to his grandfather and father that preceded him as representatives in the New York State Assembly. His grandfather emigrated from Italy and initially became a barber, but he always “liked politics,” said Joe. He ran and won a State Assembly position under the Democratic Party and focused on labor issues. After serving out one term, Lentol’s grandfather encouraged his eldest son Harris to run for the position, but rather his son Edward, Joe’s father, seemed a better fit because of his law degree and Harris’ disinterest in politics. Edward served as Assemblyman until 1963 and later became a State Senator and finally a judge in 1973.
Joe’s entry into politics ran parallel to his father’s experience. His father had initially hoped that his oldest son Edward would run for the State Assembly, but Edward had neither the desire nor inclination for the job and instead became a policeman. The responsibility then fell onto either Joe or his twin brother, both of whom left Brooklyn to attend the University of Dayton in Ohio. Joe’s brother became an accountant and stayed in Ohio; Joe, like his father, earned his law degree and always envisioned returning to the Greenpoint-Williamsburg area, making him the natural candidate to follow his father.
His own run in the Assembly began with a tough election in 1972 at the age of 29. He was able to secure the seat by the slight margin of 400 votes. Though he was an Assistant District Attorney in Kings County prior to his win, he still lacked a bit of confidence in his new role or as he said “empty barrels make the most noise.” Joe spent his first year learning the position and the issues of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Fort Greene neighborhoods that he now served.
At the time, the major issue in Greenpoint was the environmental and industrial waste in the area. “When I first took over, everyone wanted to dump everything here,” he said. The community and residents have only recently gained enough leverage to address the environmental and health issues that have resulted. Recently, Exxon Mobile’s sponsorship of various events within the Greenpoint community has caused a divide among residents. Joe falls under the group that sees this as a positive for the neighborhood, “I think it is a good thing, for a community group to take [Exxon Mobile’s] money to do good. It’s good that Exxon is recognizing and taking responsibility.”
During his first years, an issue Joe had to tackle was the drugs entering the neighborhoods of north Brooklyn. In response, Governor Nelson Rockefeller passed a harsh set of laws that became known as the Rockefeller drug laws, where selling 2 ounces of narcotics could result in a minimum of 15 years in prison. Joe voted against the laws since saw the issue of drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one and should be dealt as such. Joe still holds this stance. His recent bill on child sex abuse increases penalties for offenders and also requires treatment as a term for release.
In person, Joe takes a very thoughtful approach to every question, quietly weighing the issues and his own opinions on each topic. His highly reflective character is one that is not often seen during is public attendance in the various community groups and events his is involved with. Despite his self-described introverted nature, he has succeeded in continuing the legacy of his family and in representing his hometown district. Joe has surpassed his father in terms of years served and his become the longest-serving Assemblyman in Brooklyn.