Daniel L. Feldman

“Defensive operations” in the 1969 Lindsay campaign

In NYC Politics on March 4, 2011 at 1:39 pm

The Lindsay campaign managers assigned us the task of “defensive operations.” They explained that the Procaccino campaign knew, as we did, which areas of the City would give heavy support to Procaccino and which to Lindsay. Therefore, we had to defend ourselves against likely tactics of the Procaccino forces – the old-line regular Democratic clubs who could be assumed to know every trick – of speeding the vote in their areas and slowing it in ours. That is, some percentage of putative voters would give up and go home if they saw long lines at their voting places, meaning that they would have to wait a long time if they were to vote. So fast voting, keeping lines short, or slow voting, keeping lines long, would affect the results.

How? Well, each voter has to sign the registration book, so that the poll inspector can compare the voter’s signature with the signature on record to prevent identity fraud. For complete assurance, the inspector is supposed to cover the old signature so anyone attempting forgery will not be able to try to copy the existing signature. In practice, very few inspectors actually bothered; such a procedure would indeed slow the voting process considerably, and anyhow the inspectors knew a good many of the voters personally.

Other tactics relied less on legalism. Voting machines included interior lights, so they trailed cords with plugs in wall sockets. Union rules, apparently, permitted only a licensed electrician to plug in the machines. Should the plug “accidentally” be kicked out, voters could have a long wait for an electrician to arrive, and no voting would be permitted until the electrician restored power. A more recent tactic simply required someone’s contact lens (no soft lenses in those days, only hard ones) to fall onto the floor. Lots of people could occupy themselves looking for it, causing a reasonably substantial disruption.

At that time, the New York State Attorney General designated “Special Deputy Attorneys General” for Election Day, authorized to enforce the law at polling places to preclude violations of law, such as campaigning within one hundred feet of the polls and so forth. For my first assignment required me to find telephone number for each young lawyer at each of the major Manhattan law firms – Sullivan & Cromwell, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and dozens more – call each one, and ask if he (there were very few women in those positions then) would perform this public service. If so, I would record the attorney’s name, I would forward the name to the Attorney General’s office, the attorney would make his way to the appropriate person in that Office, and would be sworn in for the forthcoming Election Day role.

The thing is, these “DAGs” were supposed to be neutral, non-partisan, fair and even-handed. Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, however, had endorsed his fellow liberal Republican again in 1969, as he had in 1965. Unlike Nelson Rockefeller, who had also endorsed Lindsay in the Republican primary although by 1969 had come to dislike him, and endorsed John Marchi when he defeated Lindsay in that primary [our faithful reader, Howard Graubard, caught a misleading implication in the earlier version of this post], Lefkowitz appears to have remained sympathetic to the Mayor.  So when the Lindsay campaign recruited the DAGs on behalf of the Attorney General, their presumptively “neutral” status really could have come under question. It got worse from there, though.

The DAGs we recruited were also asked to attend a briefing session, where their responsibilities would be explained. The Commissioner – after hours and on his own time, of course – explained to the assembled multitude of Ivy League-bred young attorneys that in their forthcoming new one-day role as Special Deputy Attorneys General they would stand in the polling place and demand compliance with the Election Law as they interpreted it. But, he added, do not be concerned about anyone in the polling place “giving you trouble.” “Most of you guys are wearing ties, and most of you guys are wearing jackets. After you leave here, there will be another briefing session. That will be for the guys who will be there to back you up. They are not going to be wearing ties, and they are not going to be wearing jackets. They are Sanitation police.” More precisely, they were “provisional” employees of the police unit of the Sanitation Department, who did not yet enjoy civil service status.

These attorneys were doubtless aware that the interpretation of statutes often requires discretion. For example, one might weigh the impact of local custom in this matter of interpreting the rule requiring the inspector to cover the old signature on the sign-in book. Young attorneys from white-shoe law firms were likely to favor Lindsay anyway, and the human tendency to justify what we want to do would likely tilt such interpretation in our direction. One campaign worker’s definition of “slowing the vote” is another’s definition of proper enforcement; likewise with “speeding the vote.”

In those pre-Watergate days, we may not have been as sensitive to impropriety as we should have been. Even so, relieved as we were that Lindsay won the election, three volunteers with whom I had worked most closely – Ned Foss, Barbara Bolton, and Patsy McCook – felt enough qualms about our role that we could not quite bring ourselves to join in the victory celebration on Election night. A few days later we had our own quiet dinner at a fondue restaurant called Buena Mesa, with several different kinds of wine. We followed that with some less quiet dancing interrupted from time to time by the ingestion of Black Russians. Some hours later when they decided to get another bite to eat, I suddenly discovered an urgent need to return to my dorm room at College. For the next twenty-four hours I got up from my bed only to make obeisance to the porcelain god. The most amazing thing I learned that year was that the three of them went to work the next morning, an admission I made to Ned at dinner a few months ago, and more than forty years later.

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  1. I believe that while Rocky endorsed Lindsay in the 1969 GOP Primary, he endorsed primary winner John marchi in the general.

    The late Bob Muir (who was part of the 1969 Lindsay campaign)later taught me the science of vote slowing; now I know where he learned it

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