How a newly political nurses' union got the mayor it wanted

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Jill Furillo. (Gloria Pazmino)
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New York State's nurses union has historically been a low-key, apolitical group that steered clear of most controversy.

But last year, a newly elected board at the New York State Nurses Assocation hired an activist from California, catapulting the group into the mayoral race and the fight to keep two Brooklyn hospitals open.

Jill Furillo, 62, NYSNA's new executive director, stands just around five feet tall, has a mild-mannered style and soft voice, not exactly the typical profile of a combative labor leader. Now, after last night's election, she stands as one of labor's big winners.

Under Furillo's leadership, the group made its first-ever political endorsement, backing Bill de Blasio, at a time when he trailed badly in the polls. The 37,000-member NYSNA became a leading advocate for keeping Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Medical Center open, a cause that de Blasio enthusiastically embraced.

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"It is like a perfect storm," Furillo said in an email to Capital explaining why NYSNA broke with its own tradition and backed de Blasio. "Threatened closing of hospitals in Brooklyn that are essential to communities with a combined population of 250,000 and a candidate, Bill de Blasio committed to stopping those closings."

De Blasio, Furillo said, "is like one of us."

At a recent rally to save Interfaith, de Blasio introduced her as “one of the heroes, one of the most powerful voices for the people who serve us every day.”

Furillo, who grew up in Los Angeles, joined the labor movement as an organizer when she was only 19 while studying to become a nurse at LICH, and went on to become an ER nurse at hospitals around the city.

Furilllo left hospital work more than two decades when she joined the California Nurses Association as its government relations director. She helped create landmark legislation when California passed the country's first law setting safe nurse-to-patient ratios.

In 2012, the newly-elected NYSNA board recruited her "to change the direction of the association," Furillo said. "As a group we pledged to each other we would put every penny and every resource into fighting against the corporatization of health care, that we're gonna put people before profits, and protect the right of registered nurses to be the patient advocate."