Daniel L. Feldman

A very successful congressional campaign

In National Politics, NYC Politics on May 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm

George McGovern won the Wisconsin primary with thirty percent of the vote, beginning the momentum that would lead to his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. Lindsay got seven percent, and dropped out of the race.

Back at law school, I got two telephone calls asking for my help in Brooklyn Democratic congressional primaries to be decided that June 20th. Al Lowenstein called to ask for my help in his race in the downtown Brooklyn/ Brooklyn Heights district against John Rooney, a conservative pro-Vietnam War hawk who had served since 1944 and was friends with J. Edgar Hoover.   Liz Holtzman called to ask me to help her run in the Flatbush-Midwood-Sheepshead Bay district against Emanuel Celler, the “dean” of the House, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, a liberal icon instrumental in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, who had served since 1922. I calculated thusly: Al would get volunteers and financial support from all over the country. Further, he was running against an outright conservative Democratic in a year when anti-war votes were propelling the McGovern forces to victory in Democratic primaries, so he would surely defeat Rooney. Poor Liz, running against the legendary Emanuel Celler, would definitely face massive defeat. At least if I helped her, she might get twenty percent of the vote, and avoid some degree of humiliation. So I went with Liz.

Liz assigned me the 43rd Assembly District, covering the Flatbush section, north of Brooklyn College, in the heart of Brooklyn. I had to recruit the volunteers to canvass the buildings, persuading voters first to sign designating petitions to get her on the ballot, and then persuading them to commit to voting for her. Telephone canvassers would call those voters the “foot” canvassers missed, working to get as complete a list of possible of those voters likely to support Liz. On primary day, volunteers would “pull” those favorable voters, again in person if possible and otherwise by vote, to get them out to vote. Other volunteers would stand outside the polling places leafleting approaching voters. Still others would drive to the polls favorable voters who were elderly or disabled.

Liz herself campaigned tirelessly, meeting voters at every subway stop, movie theatre line, supermarket, and bingo hall. Soon I saw that Liz would do better than I had expected, although (I thought) still nowhere near well enough to win. Celler had fought against the Equal Rights Amendment, and Liz, an obviously brilliant and hard-working woman, perfectly embodied the argument for the ERA. Also, Celler was 88 years old.  One of the telephone canvassers in the campaign office on Flatbush Avenue, after telling the voter on the other end of the line that Celler was 84, swallowed hard when the voter said, “I’m 84 years old!” The canvasser felt much better when the voter continued, “and if Celler feels like I do, he shouldn’t be in Congress.” We all felt much better after hearing the story.

The race included a third candidate, Bob O’Donnell. Led by Mike Churchill, Liz’s campaign manager, we undertook the massive effort necessary to try to knock him off the ballot, by showing that too many of his petition signatures failed to meet the legal requirements. If we succeeded, we thought, Liz would get the anti-Celler votes that O’Donnell would otherwise draw.  We failed. Post-election analysis showed that O’Donnell’s few thousand votes, had he been off the ballot, would have gone to Celler, not Holtzman. Holtzman beat Celler by about six hundred votes.

With all of Holtzman’s talent and drive, three factors beyond her control or our control enabled her to win. Our failure in the O’Donnell effort was one. Another was the Lowenstein campaign: the Democratic machine figured the odds just as I had. Assuming Holtzman had no chance, they put all their effort into Rooney’s campaign. Any support they could provide, such as “volunteers” from the Brooklyn Local 1814 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, all helped Rooney.  Celler himself called Holtzman “a toothpick trying to topple the Washington Monument,” so neither he nor the Brooklyn machine headed by Meade Esposito thought he needed any help.

Third, with Ed Muskie’s weakness, the regular organization knew better than to have him head up their slate, because voters rejecting Muskie might reject the organization candidates listed on the same palm cards (brief “cheat sheets” the local captains would hand their usually loyal voters) or other pieces of campaign literature jointly issued by the presidential and local candidates. But the regulars could not stomach McGovern, because his political support came from all the people usually opposed to the regulars. Also, at this point they still had hopes of defeating McGovern at the Democratic national convention. So their candidates running to be delegates to the convention listed themselves as “uncommitted.” The top of Holtzman’s slate of candidates, the delegate candidates associated with the reform movement, listed their choice for president as George McGovern. The record shows that while McGovern lost overwhelmingly to Richard Nixon in November 1972, he did quite well in the Democratic primaries.

I am proud to say that although Celler beat Holtzman in all the other Assembly districts in her congressional race, she won by a big enough margin in the 43rd – my responsibility – to overcome the deficits elsewhere. I had been working every day for Liz in Brooklyn, but many nights back in my own Queens neighborhood for McGovern (about which more later). Late at night on June 20th, driving back from polling places in Queens, I heard the radio announcement that Liz had beaten Celler. I almost jumped through the roof of my car in joy and amazement. I still could hardly believe it.

[PS — Thank you, Howard Graubard, for a factual correction from an earlier version.]

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