Daniel L. Feldman

Liz Holtzman for State Committeewoman in Brooklyn

In NYC Politics on April 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Some weeks after the Morgenthau campaign ended, I got a phone call from Liz Holtzman. She had left the Lindsay Administration when the new term began in January, 1970, for a job at Paul Weiss Rifkin Wharton & Garrison, the powerhouse law firm on Park Avenue with strong Democratic leanings which boasted such partners and counsel at various times as Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Goldberg, Ramsay Clark, and Ted Sorensen.

Liz asked me to help out in her campaign for a post actually called “State Committeewoman” for the 44th Assembly District. Democratic party voters, in primary elections, vote for one male and one female member of the Democratic State Committee – the same Committee that had refused to give Morgenthau twenty-five percent of its vote so that he could get on the primary ballot for governor without petitioning. In Brooklyn, the State Committee members also serve as Democratic district leaders for their respective Assembly districts, although other counties structure the district leader roles differently. In Manhattan, for example, with its unusual political density – five thousand aspiring politicians per square inch – each Assembly district has several subparts, each subpart with its pair of district leaders. Even Queens has two pair of district leaders for each Assembly district. In Brooklyn, though, this meant that Liz would be running for two jobs, State Committee and female district leader.

Her opponent, Estelle Hyatt, was the incumbent – the sitting State Committeewoman, and the candidate of the Hesterberg political organization, which it was said had dominated politics in the Flatbush-Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn for a century. One of the Hesterbergs had been Brooklyn Borough President in the 1930s.  Hyatt followed the tradition that the real Democratic party “leader” was the male Committee member/ District Leader, as did virtually every other female district leader. Liz had no intention of so doing.

It was clear to me some months earlier when I first met Holtzman that she was a person on her way up. I had immediately taken a powerful liking to her, perhaps because of some combination of her obvious intelligence, attractive appearance, and strong and quirky personality.  (When I told her that I had been accepted to Harvard Law School, she immediately responded “Congratulations. I hated it.”) So I signed on.

She ran the campaign out of her parents’ basement on Ditmus Avenue, a nice upper-middle class neighborhood in the middle of Brooklyn.  The “staff” consisted entirely of her family and personal friends from Radcliffe, Harvard Law School, Wachtell Lipton (the law firm she first went to after law school), the Mayor’s Office, and possibly Paul Weiss (I don’t quite remember).  Irena Klepfisz, now a distinguished professor and poet at Barnard College, would wander around singing the Tony Hiller/ Peter Simons popular song of the period “United We Stand.”  Liz’s mother, Filia, a professor of Russian literature at Hunter College, hovered constantly, making sure everyone was well fed. I had my own key to the basement, and slept over occasionally.  Bernie Nussbaum, a partner at Wachtell and later Counsel to President Clinton, helped raise funds.  Her twin brother Robert, a very gregarious and charming neurosurgeon, helped keep spirits high.

Liz did not stop campaigning. In this then mostly-Jewish neighborhood, the elderly voters at the subway stops, supermarkets and movie lines reacted very favorably to her self-introduction as a graduate of Harvard Law School with experience in government working for the mayor.  I was in charge of Election Day operations, making sure we had people outside each polling place handing out literature and people inside each polling place as poll watchers, to avoid improprieties by the other side. Of course this had meant weeks of preparation, recruiting, training, and assigning the troops. Joe McDonald, later a very prominent tax attorney, handled election law questions for us.  (This time our side emphatically did not commit any improprieties.)

Mel Miller, a local attorney running for the Assembly, headed the reform ticket for that Assembly district that included Liz. Their candidate for State Committeeman lost to a Hesterberg. Mel and Liz both won, but Liz ran ahead of Mel.

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