University at Albany
Lou Tobacco, BA '94 (left, seated second from front) enjoys lunch with a group of University at Albany undergradutes after visiting a Rockefeller College classroom as part of the College's Alumni in the Classroom program.

Following His Inner Compass

Q & A with Lou Tobacco, BA '94
Director of Surgical Business Development, Staten Island University Hospital
Former New York State Assemblyman, 62nd Assembly District, 2007–2012

In early 2012, Staten Island's popular and affable representative from the 62nd Assembly District, Lou Tobacco, announced he would not seek re-election. It was simply a "priority-first, family decision," said Tobacco. He wanted to spend more time at home with his wife Jennifer and four young children, Madison, Christian, Ella and Luke. Leaving office didn't mean leaving public service, though.

Assemblyman Lou Tobacco addresses the
New York State Assembly

Today, Lou speaks with his former colleagues "on both sides of the aisle almost on a daily basis" and, as an active member of the Tottenville Civic Association on Staten Island's South Shore, he's very much involved in his community. This local son's contributions are deeply appreciated, particularly as Staten Islanders struggle to recover and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. "In an event like Sandy, people look for leadership and direction. My experience has taught me how to set goals, organize people, delegate and execute a task. Those skills came in very handy over the last few months," said Tobacco.

How are your family, friends, and neighbors in Staten Island doing after Hurricane Sandy?

Lou: We had minimal damage — some shingles down and our gate was broken, but two blocks down and two blocks over from us, a whole community was wiped away. When you see the destruction and devastation in the affected areas, you ask yourself — was it really four months ago or was it four days ago? God bless the citizens of Staten Island. Although I was in government, I have to say it was the private citizens of Staten Island who really were the first responders and who were there for one another. They organized themselves in a very professional manner. I'm very proud of my community. Staten Islanders are used to helping people. They're very generous. It's going to take time for people to get their lives back together. It's not going to be a quick fix.

How did you get interested in politics and running for public office?

Lou: It truly goes back to my scouting experience. That's where I got my compass, so to speak. I'm an Eagle Scout. I was always involved with leadership initiatives as a young child. When I was around 11 or 12, I had to write a letter to a local elected official. I wrote Congressman Guy Molinari from Staten Island. He actually responded to my letter by calling me into his office. The rest is history. I spent my summers interning for him and then campaigning with him when he ran for Staten Island borough president. After graduation, he gave me a job in Borough Hall as assistant director of contract oversight.

What aspect of your public service are you most proud of?

Lou: One thing I'm really proud of during my 5 years, 10 months in the New York State Assembly is my crusade against smoking. I have a program called Tobacco Against Tobacco. I will continue to go into the schools and speak to children in grades as early as kindergarten about the dangers of smoking. It's something I'm very passionate about.

You like to speak to students. What advice do you give them?

Lou: I recently spoke at a leadership conference at Syracuse University and I urged all the students to take advantage of any form of internship they can. Not only is it important to gain that experience, but conversely it's important to find out if it's something you don't like and don't want. In my junior year at UAlbany, I had the chance to intern for Assemblyman Robert Straniere from Staten Island through the New York State Assembly Internship Program. That experience brought me closer to my eventual goal of becoming an elected official. It helped me to see myself in that environment and in that capacity. I tell students that one needs to lead by example, not just direction. One needs to do every type of job and task that he or she would direct or require others to do. You have to roll your sleeves up, get in there and get your hands dirty. Whenever I speak to graduating classes I say, 'I wish you all fail and I hope you all know failure early on in your career. And may you get up, brush yourself off, step back, reassess and get right back in there. What makes a good leader is failure.' I lost my first race for Assembly when I was 24 years old. We gave it everything. We ran to win, although in the back of my mind I knew I wasn't going to be taking down a popular 18-year incumbent. But I still ran that campaign to win. In the end I lost, but I came back and I learned from the experience. You reassess and come back stronger. You persevere.