Daniel L. Feldman

Excerpt #2 from Tales from the Sausage Factory: Compromise, Tolerance, and Symbolism

In General, New York State Government, New York State Politics, NYC Politics, Policy on October 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

The legislature — avenue for compromise:

The legislative process actually improves participants’ behavior in some respects. Since legislators must negotiate to win enactment of bills, they learn to consider viewpoints quite different than their own. Some of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish constituents vehemently objected to my refusal to support legislation that I thought was unconstitutional, banning pornography. Fred Schmidt, probably the most conservative Democratic member of our House, and among the most conservative of either party, sat next to me for twelve years. Responding to his own very conservative and mostly Roman Catholic constituents, Fred had a bill prohibiting the public display of racy magazines that I thought I could revise into constitutionally acceptable form. I could, I did, and the Schmidt-Feldman bill became law, of course with conservative Republican sponsorship in the Senate.

Legislative coalitions often open minds to the reality that people can differ dramatically on what kind of society we should have (within some limits – I don’t think any of us were totalitarians) and still respect the intelligence and integrity with which they hold their views.

The legislator as “social glue”

I came to understand another aspect of my role in the seemingly endless string of evenings and weekends dropping in on meetings: the East 22nd Street Block Association (or any of dozens of other block associations); the Sheepshead Bay Kiwanis Club; the Plumb Beach Civic Association; the St. Edmund’s Home School Association; the Beth El Synagogue Men’s Club; the Midwood Development Corporation; the Meyer Levin Post of the Jewish War Veterans; the P.S. 195 Parent-Teacher Association, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My presence brought the State to them. Even more, it conferred the imprimatur of the State, the dignity of the State, on them and legitimized their work. By visiting the various organizations, I served the function of a sort of social glue: I cemented all these groups into the polity, into the political fabric that makes up the State. This dignity, this acceptance, was for them a significant psychological reward for their past efforts and incentive for their future efforts on behalf of their communities.

Perception is reality

From time to time my constituents saw me on television. When they told me they saw me I’d ask, “What was I saying?” More often than not, they’d reply, “I don’t know. But I saw you!” This enhanced and strengthened my ability to confer dignity and inclusion into the greater world [by their association with me]. Since they could see that I held citizenship in TV-land, not only was I part of the State, I was important enough to join in the world of Jay Leno, Derek Jeter,  Roseanne, Mickey Mouse, the President, and Oprah Winfrey. Anyone who lives in that little box shares in the world of the people who really matter [in their view], so that my corporeal presence in their own actual living rooms or shabby meeting halls gave them a bridge to that “important” world.

Many, many people understood this function better than I did. After I rewrote Fred Schmidt’s bill into the Schmidt-Feldman law, the publisher of Screw magazine, Al Goldstein, debated me on a local New York City TV station. Wearing a t-shirt imprinted with pictures of tiny sperm, he scoffed at our legislation, which he maintained – incorrectly – would suppress the display of his tee shirt. He challenged my ethical and legislative priorities, along the lines of “instead of fighting violence and poverty, you’re trying to suppress freedom of speech!” After the show, as we were unclipping our microphones, he leaned over and assured me that we had written a sound and sensible piece of legislation, “but I couldn’t say so – that wouldn’t make good TV.” Though I hadn’t known it, I had participated in a fictional debate, but its political value to him and to me, and perhaps even its educational value to the audience, would have been no greater had he been sincere.

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