Daniel L. Feldman

Feldman for City Council

In NYC Politics on June 3, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I was raising money. Harvard Law School admits over five hundred students each year. Each of my classmates received a letter from me explaining that I needed help to pay for my campaign. I raised a total of about three thousand dollars for the race, from three hundred contributors, most of them my classmates. Thus, my average contributor gave me ten dollars. Even in 1973 dollars, this was very little with which to run a campaign.

My father, a fine artist and interior designer with strong, intelligent, liberal, and humane views about national political issues, had no experience or real interest in local politics. He and I designed my campaign literature, which we produced for the cost of photocopying it. It had a hideous picture of me in the middle, with a slogan sure to turn off the middle-class voters I needed. It said something like “subsidies for poor people instead of high-rise low-income housing.” A political professional I got to know in later years called it by far the single worst piece of campaign literature he ever saw.

My opponent, Walter Ward, had been the City Council member for about eight years. He owned a billboard company. Every fifty feet, it seemed, another billboard announced “Action, Not Promises. Re-elect Walter Ward.” His billboard company had made him a lot of money. The council district included the Rockaway peninsula, New York City’s southernmost neighborhoods on a fourteen mile beach, with a diverse collection of non-diverse neighborhoods strung along it: now Jewish, now Italian, now an all-black housing project for which Lindsay got blamed, now Irish, my own Belle Harbor neighborhood with its mixture of Irish and Jewish, and at the west end, the all-Irish Breezy Point, Roxbury, and Rockaway Point; Broad Channel, a small island between Rockaway and the Queens mainland with Irish, Italians, and Germans, no Jews and certainly no blacks; Howard Beach, the Italian and Jewish neighborhood where Walter lived and had been Democratic district leader for twenty years; and neighborhoods to the north of Howard Beach though still in southern Queens, including the heavily German Ridgewood and Glendale, and the more mixed – Italian, Irish, and German — Woodhaven and Ozone Park.

When John Lindsay tried to build low-income housing in Forest Hills, a leafy neighborhood in northern Queens, he sparked one of the major controversies that would inflict fatal wounds on his political future. Few people knew that he first proposed the project for Howard Beach. John Gotti had not yet become Howard Beach’s most famous Mafia figure, and I don’t know whether he or some other Howard Beach mobster made the call, but someone sufficiently credible informed City Hall that no one would be hurt if the project were built in Howard Beach. However, also no one would live there, because it would be blown up before anyone could move in. The Mafia did not wish to take credit for keeping low-income housing out of Howard Beach. Walter got the credit. He lived in “new” Howard Beach, on the west side of Cross Bay Boulevard, in the Lindenwood middle-income housing project, heavily Jewish, with thousands of voters. He didn’t have building captains: he had floor captains. Irish-American Walter Ward would beat me in Jewish Lindenwood by a margin of nine to one.

A girlfriend of mine came with me to campaign, and saw Walter. “Oh,” she breathed, “he looks just like Gregory Peck!” This did not encourage me. But when the six-foot four Walter started to speak, the magic wore off.  Not only was Walter not an idea man, he was not really a complete-sentence man, and his Queens accent could make even native Queens-ites wince. “You should have heard him before he took elocution lessons,” my mother said. Walter would walk your dog for you, everyone said. If you complained about a pothole, Walter would get it fixed. But Rockaway residents felt it had become a “dumping ground” for welfare client housing and shoddy nursing homes under Lindsay. They blamed Lindsay, but it seemed to me that Walter could bear some of the blame; it happened on his watch too. Norman Adler, my college teacher and friend, said that if he lived in Walter’s district he’d run against him or move.  Eventually I would do both.

The Democratic primary vote – the only meaningful contest in this race – would take place on June 3. Incidentally, this year, 1973, would be the last time that would happen. The State Legislature set the primary date for September for 1974 and all subsequent years, helping office-holders by timing the peak of their opponents’ efforts for August, the month more than any other when voters leave town for vacation, and then September’s beginning of school, Labor Day, and the Jewish new year holidays.

But in 1973 the campaign year and the academic year still coincided. My friend and Harvard Law School classmate Arthur Kokot had spent a lot of time in Queens on my behalf in the fall. My turn for distance learning came in the spring semester. This time, my old college roommate, Victor Hertz, came out to manage my campaign. Considering that Victor knew nothing about managing campaigns, he did a really great job. However, he was best known for barking at me, “I’m scheduling you for a nap,” whenever it became too obvious that I had run myself down with 18-hour days of campaign work, which was often.

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