By Hope Ferguson
The first thing you notice about Sam Roberts ’12, the newly appointed commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Assistance and Disability, is his impressive height. Next is his warm smile. Roberts left his elected position in the state Legislature as representative of the 128th Assembly District in June, after his selection as commissioner by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and ratification by the state Senate. Roberts now oversees a budget of $5.4 billion and manages 2,000 employees across the state.
As a journeyman tool-and-die maker for General Motors Corp., whose union parents raised him on the east side of Syracuse, this appointment is an unexpected ascendency in a career that has occupied corporate, union, community service and
“I was blessed to have both parents growing up,” Roberts reminisces. Both worked – his mother at the General Electric Co. and his father at the Carrier Corp. – and both were in unions. Because unionists traditionally have supported Democratic causes, early in his career Roberts found himself drawn to Democratic politics and grassroots community work.
He traces that community involvement back to the time he ran a martial arts program for young people in Syracuse. Roberts is an accomplished martial arts competitor, who holds an 8th Degree Black Belt in American Shotokan Karate and who ranked No. 1 in New York and New Jersey, in the top 10 in the United States and Canada, and was the winner of the World Championships, prior to retirement from competition. In 1981, funding for his martial arts program was cut, along with several other programs serving the community. He and others went before the city council members “trying to get answers,” but funding was not restored. “Because of this, I became further involved in the community and community politics,” Roberts recalls. It wasn’t about power, but about wanting “to be in a position of decision making in the community.”
While Roberts was building his career at GM, he also was getting a foothold in the political landscape of the Syracuse region. He joined GM in 1979, and, despite “layoffs, retrenchment and discrimination,” he eventually completed his journeyman apprenticeship in 11 years. A bit later, he was appointed to the Onondaga County 17th Ward Committee. He then set his sights on the Onondaga County Legislature.
From 1990 to 1999, Roberts served as Onondaga County legislator for the 19th district, while simultaneously working
for GM, where his official biography notes he was “a proud member of the United Auto Workers Union.” During his
time at GM, he was elected recording secretary of UAW Local 465 and chairman of
Local 854’s Education and Civil Rights committees.
While at GM and simultaneously holding public office was satisfying, at one
point Roberts felt he had a decision to make. “Do I stay with politics or GM?” he asked himself. “Well, GM won out,”
at least for the next 11 years. In 2009, he retired after 30 years at the automotive company.
In 2010, he returned to public service, running a maverick campaign for the 128th New York State Assembly District, which had never elected a person of color. Against great odds (he was not endorsed by the local Democratic Committee for the primary) he went on to win the general election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
At the state Assembly, he served on a variety of standing committees: Aging, Labor, Libraries and Education Technology, Small Business, Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development and the Committee on Transportation. Roberts also was chairman of the Task Force on University-Industry Cooperation and was a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
Lonnie E. Johnson, the assemblyman’s former deputy chief of staff, describes Roberts as being “a teaching boss. He’s very fair, and he doesn’t get pumped on the title.”
Roberts says that he is proud to have been nominated by Cuomo and to be part of his administration. It is apparent from his conversation that the welfare of the state’s neediest residents is an issue very close to Roberts’ heart. When the conversation turns to the new job, his voice grows passionate.
His conscience was stirred, he said, when he was in the Onondaga County Legislature, and the proposed budget included $30,000 in cuts, some to agencies and programs that served the county’s neediest. He recalls citizens in wheelchairs and on crutches coming to the hearing to appeal for a respite in the cuts. “There were people who were really in need and that set the tone for me,” he says.
“I am a fiscal conservative as much as I can be; I understand the responsibility. But we still have to help people who need our help. You can’t have people on the street. I tell people this: What’s the difference between us and them? It could be the difference of two paychecks.”
For many years, Roberts didn’t consider getting his bachelor’s degree. He had completed an apprenticeship program with the tool-and-die union, earned an associate degree through Onondaga Community College, and received labor studies certificates from Cornell University. He was working, volunteering, parenting and didn’t believe that he had the time. That changed when he attended a meeting with Empire State College’s founding president, James W. Hall.
“He was talking about labor programs and what the college offered: credit by evaluation, transfer credit, flexibility, and I thought, that sounds like me. So, I set up an appointment with Elma Boyko, a mentor at the Syracuse location, talked with her and jumped on board. I studied between GM, the county legislature and traveling.
But I would take a course when I could; it was challenging yet comfortable.”
SUNY General Education Requirements were introduced shortly after he enrolled, so he found himself taking additional courses, including foreign language and arts. It took him 10 years, but in 2012, he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in Business, Management and Economics. The degree, he felt, made his skills more diversified and more marketable and added expertise in business to his labor background.
Roberts was very happy with the education he received at Empire State College’s Syracuse location, especially praising former Dean Nikki Shrimpton, who is now serving as the college’s dean of undergraduate studies. Roberts took some courses with Shrimpton on the environment, and she also took over as his mentor when Boyko retired. Of Shrimpton he says, “She was a great help, a great advisor. I just want to thank her.”
Shrimpton recalls Roberts as a student with vast accomplishments and drive. “As we worked together to develop his PLA (prior learning assessment) requests, I realized that Sam is an extremely accomplished individual and has impressive expertise in several areas beyond politics. I found that I acquired new learning myself through mentoring him. Sam was very motivated to complete his degree and although it took a while, with the competing demands on his time, he never waivered in his commitment to that goal.”
Now that he is overseeing a major state agency, he is thankful for the preparation he received at the college. It allowed him to combine prior learning with general education courses and business courses to become a more well-rounded leader and prepare him for his newest career challenge, where his attention and focus have broadened significantly.
“Now, I am looking forward to serving folks across our great state!”