Levittown Democrat Kevin Thomas was never supposed to win. The 34-year-old was running in the 6th Senate District last November against 15-term incumbent Kemp Hannon. Yet win he did, with just 50.6 percent of the vote in a squeaker that solidified the Democrats’ majority in the State Senate and boosted their presence in Long Island’s delegation to six of nine seats.
Even Hannon didn’t appear to see Thomas as a threat. Although Hannon had more than $400,000 in his campaign war chest, as late as October he had spent only slightly more than Thomas, according to media reports.
But the $100,000 that Thomas raised was clearly enough. He knocked on thousands of doors and pushed his candidacy via social media to become the Senate’s first South Asian member.
Now he is its resident expert on consumer protection, an issue he cares deeply about. Fresh out of Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley law school in 2008, Thomas went to work for the New York Legal Assistance Group. “We provided a free attorney or law student for people that got sued over consumer debt, like credit card debt or student loans,” he explained.
Thomas worked for the organization for close to a decade. While there, he was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ New York State Advisory Committee. “One of the things we did,” he said, “was investigate the NYPD and their overuse of ‘broken windows’ policing” — the practice of disrupting serious crime by actively investigating misdemeanors, like jumping turnstiles or smoking marijuana.
According to Thomas, the broken windows policy is also “a process where a lot of kids are going through the criminal justice pipeline — specifically, kids of color.”
Thomas never wanted to be a politician. “But it was the Trump administration, and they were just dismantling protection for consumers,” he said. For example, “The Department of Education, they’re just closing down the offices that were protecting student loan borrowers . . . [and] they were backtracking on their enforcement of predatory payday lending,” he added.
When Thomas saw the Department of Education side with the companies providing student loans and opposing student borrowers, he said, “I decided to jump into politics.”
He initially wanted to run for the seat in the 2nd Congressional District held by veteran Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Seaford, but opted instead to challenge Hannon.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins appointed Thomas chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee, and he has already sponsored a number of consumer protection measures. “One bill regulates these student loan services,” he said. It would require lenders to obtain licenses from the state Department of Financial Services, and amend several sections of existing banking law that cover student loans.
Student debt in New York state amounts to more than $82 billion, according to the bill. And “no one is out there telling them, ‘Hey, you cannot defraud borrowers,’” Thomas said.
His second bill grew out of the recent shutdown of the federal government, during which federal workers missed two paychecks. “That meant they were already behind on their bills,” he said. When Thomas realized that borrowers might have missed student loan payments, he decided to craft legislation that would place a moratorium on reporting any delinquencies that occurred during the shutdown.
The bill would give borrowers a 90-day grace period to bring their accounts up to date. After that, lenders could again send negative reports where warranted. The onus would be on borrowers to prove that they were state residents as well as furloughed federal employees, Thomas explained.
Thomas is also concerned about social media providers that harvest users’ personal data and sell it. “That’s another industry that’s not regulated,” he said. “And there’s so much private information out there compared to a decade ago. I want to make sure . . . we don’t have another situation where all our data is out there and people can manipulate it to make us do what they want.”
Thomas said he hoped to establish a minimum threshold of security, similar to the privacy laws that prevent banks from releasing personal information.
Balance is the word he uses in both of these scenarios to describe his desired outcome. “I’m not opposed to companies making money,” he said, but not at the expense of the individual consumer.
In the majority
The new Democratic majority has meant the reintroduction of measures that Republicans let die in previous sessions, including voting reforms, the Child Victims Act and the Reproductive Health Act, Thomas said. “The leadership has pushed these bills forward to show we mean business,” he said, calling the bills “no-brainers.”
Pushback has been swift and harsh, especially with regard to the Reproductive Health Act. “People are believing 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 act’s main provision would shift abortion from the criminal code to health law. It would also add one provision present in Roe v. Wade but missing until now from New York abortion law. “Late-term abortions — after 24 weeks — are permitted when the health of the mother is threatened or if the fetus isn’t viable,” he said. “And those amount to less than 1 percent of all abortions.”
Although senators’ jobs are considered part-time, Thomas says he routinely puts in 12-hour days or longer. “I need to be everywhere if I’m going to serve my constituents,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to be the kind of legislator that constituents only see at election time.
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 freshman senator, clearly has a very full plate.