Food Is Not a Prop for Senator Jessica Ramos. It’s a Platform.

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Last spring, when long lines at food pantries first began to form in Queens — where the coronavirus struck harder than almost anywhere else in the country — Jessica Ramos, a New York state senator, knew whom to call to feed her neighbors.

It wasn’t the thousands of family-run restaurants that define her district, whose biryani and enchiladas she so proudly promotes on Twitter, or even its street vendors, whose right to work she often steps in to defend. It wasn’t even the hospitality unions she worked for in her 20s.

It was Maureen Torrey, a farmer in the Western New York village of Elba, who had vocally opposed one of Ms. Ramos’s most consequential bills to date — the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a law some of her colleagues in Albany are still working to repeal.

The 2019 bill, which passed in her first year in office, gave New York farmworkers the right to unemployment benefits and overtime pay, an expensive shift in an industry where 72-hour work weeks can be the norm, said Ms. Torrey, whose family produces vegetables and milk on more than 10,000 acres.

Ms. Torrey has since had to scale back her work force and retool the farm’s economics. Yet she didn’t hesitate to send a truckload of free food down to Queens for 12 straight weeks last year.

“She is really such a foodie,” Mr. Rigie said. So much so that she was featured in a New York magazine food column called “Grub Street Diet.”(Her recounting of everything she ate over four days was more exciting than most people’s entire culinary year.)

Mr. Rigie’s organization is often directly at odds with Ms. Ramos on thorny issues facing the industry — she supports legalizing street vending across the state, and eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped employees — but he still counts himself a fan. “I love Jessica,” he said.

Part of the reason is their shared appreciation for restaurants, but also how quickly she came to their aid. “When the pandemic hit, she was really just out there on the front lines fighting for people in the food industry,” Mr. Rigie said.

Last fall, she helped organize protests against confusing state coronavirus rules that have closed restaurants or required them to pay steep fines. “It was a shakedown,” said Ms. Ramos, who contended that inspectors were deliberately picking on smaller businesses that couldn’t fight them in court.

In February, she sharply urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to allow vaccinations for food workers who had never stopped going to work. (“Get out of your billionaire bubble, sir,” she tweeted.)

In an email response to The New York Times, Rich Azzopardi, the governor’s senior adviser, rejected her claim that Mr. Cuomo is out of touch: “That type of false, threadbare, and calorie-free rhetoric is eye rolling in normal times, but even worse during a pandemic — though I suppose punching up and hoping the media notices is an easy way to lift your profile.”

It was not the first time she tangled with Mr. Cuomo over food workers’ rights. In 2019, the governor delayed passage of the bipartisan bill she spearheaded to legalize the e-bikes used by delivery workers. A recent article in The New Yorker reported that “according to insiders, the underlying reason was the Governor’s hostility toward Ramos, a rising star in state politics.”

Mr. Muñoz, who owns a Queens restaurant called Mojitos, said one of Ms. Ramos’s most notable traits as both a person and a politician is being equitable. “She wants everyone to have a plate of food on their table,” Mr. Muñoz said.

Activism was instilled in Ms. Ramos by her parents, she said, who emphasized the importance of organized labor and taking care of those with less. They also taught her to respect farmers like her grandparents. “I always grew up hearing about the campesinos,” she said, using a Spanish word that roughly means small farmer or farmworker.

By grade school, she was reciting 50-year-old speeches by Colombian political activists. She was also cooking dinner — her parents had divorced, and her mother worked long hours as a seamstress — inspired by Julia Child’s cooking shows.

Her father would take her along to political meetings and to restaurants. She loved both. “Growing up, it felt like my dad knew every restaurant owner,” Ms. Ramos said. “For me, Sundays were extremely special because my friends and family would go out to a bakery or restaurant.”

Ms. Ramos now likes to show many of those same places to her two young sons, colleagues, lobbying groups and food writers, using her favorite haunts for Colombian hot dogs or Tibetan momos as a way to lure dollars and attention to her district.

One food crawl for friends at City Hall — where she worked in communications until she began running for office in 2017 — figured prominently in an official proclamation that Mayor Bill de Blasio gave her when she left the job.

“Jessica will sometimes offer a few gently expressed ideas on food, where to get it, where the best places are, and why what you are eating isn’t up to her standard,” he wrote. “Our advice: If you are going to hang with Jessica be sure to bring your arepa A-game.”





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