Daniel L. Feldman

Morgenthau campaign – petitions signatures from Cayuga County to Court and Montague

In New York State Politics on April 1, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Quite by accident, in our quest for upstate petition signatures for Morgenthau, John Meininger and I stumbled on a little bit of history. In Cayuga County we stopped for dinner one night in a bar in Auburn, a city with a current population of about 28,000.  It couldn’t have been much different then. As we were eating, we overheard a conversation at a nearby table. The context of the conversation made it clear that the speakers controlled the support of the regular Democratic organization in that Assembly district. They agreed with each other, vehemently, that they would be opposing – and defeating – their incumbent Assembly Member, fellow Democrat George Michaels, in the upcoming primary.

Only later did I learn the reason for their vehemence: Michaels, elected by a strongly conservative mostly Roman Catholic constituency, in a crisis of conscience had cast the deciding vote to legalize abortion in New York State days earlier. As he explained his vote he said, “I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill – I ask that my vote be changed from ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’”  Decades later, after a short article I had published recognized his action as a rare profile in courage, the then-elderly Michaels wrote to me that my article was the first such recognition he had received for his selfless act. After he died, a few short years later in 1992, others offered similar commendation.

We got enough upstate signatures to get Morgenthau on the ballot, and came home.

For the next couple of weeks, the campaign assigned me the corner of Court and Montague Streets in Brooklyn Heights, where I could find a lot more Democrats.  There, because of the high density of the Democratic population, we did not even need voter registration lists. The high proportion of registered Democrats among passers-by meant we could produce “street” petitions with sufficiently “high quality” signatures – signatures that would survive scrutiny by the regular Democratic organizations.

Even this had its challenges, however. Typical New Yorkers would not necessarily take kindly to be being interrupted in their high-speed pedestrian mode toward whatever goals they pursued, and might say, usually untruthfully, that they were registered Communists, not Democrats, if they bothered to respond at all. To the non-responders, I would occasionally vent my frustration, as they passed, by adding to my pitch, “. . . because we are offering twenty-five dollars today, to . . .” I don’t remember anyone gullible enough even to pause more than momentarily.

I do remember one friendly New Yorker, though, who liked Morgenthau, but offered advice for me to forward to the candidate. He urged me to tell Mr. Morgenthau that the expression on his face when enduring a television interview should be distinguishable from that more to be expected from one undergoing a proctological examination.

Actually, the voter had identified a real problem. Although in person Morgenthau had an easy charm and an excellent sense of humor, he came across extremely stiff on television. This did not make a good impression on most voters.

Even a relatively low percentage of signers, though, on a busy Brooklyn street, would net us a good catch of signatures by the end of the day. Morgenthau would have gotten on the ballot.

But his poll numbers stayed poor, and well before the convention, he recognized that he would lose the primary, if he stayed in it, to the frontrunner, the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg.

Those who remember the remainder of that year’s gubernatorial campaign will recognize the severity of this indictment of Bob Morgenthau’s 1970 candidacy. Arthur Goldberg, another wonderful man in person, ran one of the worst campaigns in New York history. Leading Rockefeller in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, ultimately Goldberg lost with 40 percent of the vote to Rockefeller’s 52.5 percent – a worse showing than Morgenthau’s in 1962. I remember people joking that if Goldberg had campaigned another two weeks, “Rockefeller would have taken Canada.” But Goldberg would have clobbered Morgenthau in the primary.

I could really pick ’em.

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