Daniel L. Feldman

The mechanics of a shoe-string City Council primary campaign

In NYC Politics on June 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm

With as little money as my campaign had, we had to rely on “people power.”

The children of my neighbors from Beach 138th Street, where I grew up, made my campaign posters with oak tag and magic markers. Three families did most of the work, but each of those families had a lot of kids – Kelly, Powers,  and LaGamba – and they did a lot of work, making hundreds and hundreds of posters, maybe a couple of thousand.

Another group of campaign assistants came from the other end of the Rockaway peninsula – Enid Stubin and her friends. After my first year of college I had attempted to bring culture to the deprived students of Far Rockaway, leading a reading and discussion group for Columbia’s Citizenship Council out there. I soon learned that Enid, a fourteen-year-old, was already vastly more literate than I was. Enid lived in the Bayswater section of Far Rockaway, a couple of blocks from Far Rockaway High School, from which I had also graduated.  She and her friends added my shock troops, as did my friends and my brother’s friends from Belle Harbor.

I had to rely on many friends from outside the district as well – friends I had gotten to know working for Liz, or Al, or Lindsay, or from school. The night before the primary at least four of them — Jonathan Folkman, John Dopkeen, Roger Lerner, Roy Chernis – slept on the floor at Enid’s house, to be ready for their polling place assignments at six a.m., when the polls would open. Enid remembers her Polish immigrant father acceptingly and graciously greeting all these well-groomed and poised young men with his heavily-accented “Good morning” to each, although he summarily judged politicians: “Dey are all li-airs and chit-airs.” I thought that judgment excessively harsh at the time. I am no longer quite so sure.

Walter’s previous opponents had gotten about ten percent of the vote, which is what the political professionals told me I’d get. I planned to win. The regulars, of course, liked to play it safe, and throw insurgents off the ballot by challenging their petitions.

The petition requirement posed the first big test of my candidacy. For my name to be on the Democratic primary ballot in June, by a deadline six weeks or so earlier my campaign had to collect enough petition signatures to qualify. In those days the law required 1500 valid Democratic petition signatures from residents of the Council district. The regulars had all their block captains, who would get signatures from voters they knew to be registered Democrats from the door-to-door lists. We had to collect most of ours from the “street” – supermarkets, movie lines, and the like – because the efficient regular machines would get the door-to-door names first, and a signature on two competing petitions would be deemed invalid.

So until the petition deadline, when I went out campaigning, at least one volunteer would accompany me to collect petition signatures. One of my faithful campaigners, Marion Cohen, repeated “Dan Feldman for City Council” so many hundreds of times that she eventually stumbled and said “Dan Council for City Feldman!” We developed a fantasy in which my record on the Council would be so stellar that in decades to come the public would come to call the post the “City Feldman.”

We came in with four thousand signatures. When I went up to the Queens Board of Elections to sign in as a candidate, one of the regular workhorses told me they had spent three weeks going over my petitions, trying to knock me out. “Where did you learn to do petitions like that?” he asked. I told him that I had worked in Holtzman’s campaign against Celler. “That was a crime!” he screamed at me.

Rockaway Independent Democrats, the reform club that my mother had helped to create in the 1950s, now supported my candidacy. RID held its meetings in a shabby rented two-room suite heart of Far Rockaway, near the intersection of Mott and Central Avenues. Sonny Tanzman, the sister of the late great folksinger Phil Ochs, still lived in their family home in Far Rockaway and participated in the club. Norman Silverman, a high school teacher with one of the all-time record New York accents, worked hard for the club. Jean McGoldrick, a lovely young neighbor of mine from Neponsit, a neighborhood slightly west of Belle Harbor and a little ritzier, became a stalwart.

Neponsit at various times also boasted comedian Sam Levinson, actor and director Sylvester Stallone, and Mafia chief Carlo Gambino. Some of my parents’ friends hosted a fundraiser there for me. Sam Levinson came, and fixed me up with his daughter Emily! Although it did not raise much money, it gave a tremendous boost to my spirits in that the two politicians I most admired, Liz Holtzman and Al Lowenstein, both came to support me.

All New York City officials face election the same year, so in addition to City Council candidates, aspirants for mayor, comptroller, and City Council President were running as well. Our reform club really liked a reform candidate for comptroller, Tony Olivieri, who had given us an earnest and endearing presentation. But the next week another candidate, Harrison “Jay” Goldin, came and explained that if we backed him, he would run a truly joint campaign with us: the campaign flyers, paid for by him, would tout both our campaigns. I would give his campaign local credibility; his far richer coffers would underwrite the effort. He set a time and place for our meeting to plan the combined campaign: it was a Thursday morning at 11 a.m.; I no longer remember the location. My cash-strapped campaign and our equally cash-strapped club could not resist.  We endorsed Goldin.

Needless to say, he never showed up at the designated time and place. Years later, I learned that he had made the same offer to various other local candidates, with the same results.

Apparent help came from another source. Ira Brophy, a soldier in Al Unger’s organization (referenced earlier as one of the less attractive elements of the later Lindsay years) showed up at the club, offering experienced professional help, gratis. After including him in our top-level strategy sessions for some weeks, we found that my schedule and other information seemed to be available to our opposition. I defended Ira. Victor, my campaign manager, felt that I was overcompensating for what was probably my instinctive negative reaction to Ira’s extraordinarily unattractive and thuggish appearance. Memorably, he noted, “that face does not reflect inner beauty.”  I never knew for sure that Ira was guilty, but at Victor’s insistence, we expelled him. While years later Ira seems to have provided loyal service to Jerry Nadler, one of my favorite members of Congress, Victor was probably right.

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