Daniel L. Feldman

A brief return to the Bronx

In NYC Politics on March 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I was born in the Bronx, but we moved to Rockaway when I was nine months old. My one and only foray into Bronx politics took even less time.

Several Columbia College students, including me, found our 1969 introductory American politics course surprisingly boring. As it happened, though, Teachers College, also part of Columbia University, offered a similar course, and our College told us that it would serve as a sufficient substitute, so we substituted it.

Norman Adler taught the course. Although only a few years older than we were, he had already served as a speechwriter for the former mayor of New York City, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., and brought a lot of his real-life government and political experience into the class, along with a great sense of humor and wonderful stories. He made learning easy and fun – a great teacher.

When former Bronx Assembly Member Robert Abrams was elected Bronx Borough President in 1969, he left a vacancy for the remaining year of his Assembly term. Governor Rockefeller scheduled a special election. Adler decided to run.

Norman and his wife Madeleine lived in an apartment on the Grand Concourse, the once-elegant great north-south boulevard through the west Bronx, by then a middle-class haven for elderly Jewish rent-controlled tenants and a smaller newer group of rising Puerto Rican working families. When we arrived on that cold night — I think it was in March – he and Madeleine equipped the seven or eight of us volunteers with refreshments (coffee and doughnuts, as I recall), then clipboards, lists of registered Democratic voters, and instructions to collect signatures. In time, I would collect a LOT of signatures to put candidates on the ballot, including myself. This was my introduction to the art.

In those days, you needed to be 21 to vote, or to witness a petition signature. Furthermore, a valid witness had to live in the district in which the candidate was running. I looked old enough but I wasn’t; anyway, I did not reside in the district.  So, I was paired with an older resident who would sign the witness blank on each page. [Jerry Skurnik reminded me of the residence requirement; the earlier version of this posting left it out.] We were assigned to another nearby building on the Grand Concourse. We would somehow get through the lobby door (ring a tenant’s bell or wait to follow behind an entering resident), take the elevator to the top floor, and begin to work our way down. I would knock on the registered Democrat’s door, explain that their neighbor, Norman Adler, needed their signature to get on the ballot for the special election, and if it was helpful, would explain that he was a nice young man with a Ph.D., had government experience, and had been my college teacher. We collected a fair number of signatures from the building.

A couple of years later, my friend Victoria Free (now, Victoria Free Presser) captured the feeling of collecting those signatures the best way I’ve ever seen, as follows:

We press the bell and wait. Our hoped-for end

Is signatures: the sign that those within

Are with us. Standing silently, I mend

My ‘pitch’, check notes. Which argument will win?

Support or slamming doors? And who will care?

If I ‘reform’ a district, will the nation

Feel the change?

Those with no vocation

Choose politics, they say, and bring their flair

For words and idle dreams to futile chores.

That thought has crossed my mind… but standing here,

Facing the peephole, waiting at strange doors

For minds to open, swallowing down my fear,

I am a soldier, fighting local wars,

A salesman, and an actress speaking lines…

No glory, gold or glamour; but she signs.

My partner and I had gotten a respectable number of signatures from our building, but the rule of thumb in New York City has always been that a candidate needs at least three times the legal minimum, or else the opposition – usually the “regulars” – will launch enough successful legal challenges to each signature to reduce your number below the minimum, and your candidate’s name will not get on the ballot. The Adler campaign did not collect enough signatures. Alan Hochberg, a regular Democrat, won the special election and went on to serve several undistinguished terms in the Assembly, until 1976, when he was convicted of attempting to bribe a potential opponent to refrain from running.  By that time, the reformers had accumulated enough support in the 81st Assembly District to give victory in the next special election, to fill Hochberg’s suddenly vacated seat, to a reform Democrat, Eliot Engel.

Norman Adler, however, went on to a very distinguished career. He helped Mel Miller get elected to the Assembly from Brooklyn later that very year (more on that in a later blog), himself moved to Miller’s district in Brooklyn, became political director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees at that union’s peak of power under the presidency of Victor Gotbaum, and served as Miller’s top assistant when Miller became Speaker in 1987. He helped me at some key points throughout those years. Later, he founded a very successful lobbying firm, and brought Miller in as a lobbying partner when Mel was convicted of a felony and therefore had to resign his Speakership, although the conviction was later reversed on appeal.

Norman’s wonderful wife, Madeleine, went on to an equally distinguished career as president of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, although by then she was married to yet another good friend of mine, Fred Lane – another distinguished scholar, now retired from Baruch College of the City University of New York.

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