Daniel L. Feldman

Queens politics 1973

In NYC Politics on June 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Queens politics in the early 1970s had a different tone than what I later encountered in Brooklyn. In 1972, when I started organizing, the City Council had not decided the ultimate boundary lines for the district in which I would run in 1973. A number of the political leaders I had recruited for People for a Better Queens would fall outside those lines. Rose Halpern had been elected Democratic district leader from Laurelton, a community in the southeastern corner of mainland Queens (where the Rockaway peninsula – not on the mainland — shares a border with Nassau County would be the absolute most southeastern corner). Rose had built her political position from her base as a leader of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s charitable organization. So after the Council set the boundaries lines of the district in which I would be running, I felt comfortable asking her for advice.

I thought I needed advice because I had uneasy feelings about a potentially helpful volunteer. In the early course of my campaign, a man introduced himself to me as Billy Brando. Perhaps having perused my mimeographed campaign flyer, he noted, cordially but bluntly and accurately, that my campaign seemed to lack public relations talent. He asked for a meeting, at which he showed me his portfolio, including advertisements and campaign leaflets he had designed for Frank Rizzo’s successful mayoral campaign in Philadelphia and State Senator Anthony Imperiale’s unsuccessful but strong showing in the mayoral race he ran in Newark. I strongly disapproved of the right-wing candidates he had supported, but he assured me that he would have no problem working with someone as liberal as myself. Also – and this was very important, since I had no money – he would work for free.

Naturally, I asked why. He explained that he thought I had a good political future. If I won with his help, he was confident that I would be sufficiently impressed with his talent that I would want to put him on my staff.

This seemed reasonably plausible, but something bothered me. I could not identify what it was. That’s why I called Rose Halpern. She responded immediately: “We all have our friends in the Families, but you really don’t want to get involved with THAT Family.”

Of course, that ended any interest I had in Billy Brando. But the first part of her comment was more chilling. If Rose Halpern, the Hadassah lady, was telling me that “we all have our friends in the Families,” what in heck was going on in Queens politics? Twelve years later, very few besides relatives visited Queens County Leader and Borough President Donald Manes in prison in the days before his suicide, but one of those few was Michael Callahan, said to be a money-launderer for the Mafia. In 1986 Nick Pileggi quoted Ron Goldstock, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force chief in those days, as concluding that the relationship between the mob and government was “practically open.”    Pileggi’s article in New York Magazine probably overstated the mob’s role in some places, but not in Queens.

My day-to-day experience campaigning had less dramatic and sometimes more amusing overtones. German-Americans, many of them first-generation, still dominated the Glendale and Ridgewood neighborhoods at that time. Campaigning at their neighborhood Oktoberfest involved, as least as far as I was concerned, imbibing some of the good German beer available there. When I knocked on the door of every registered Democrat in the neighborhood, as I did in every neighborhood in the district, more than one voter looked at my leaflet and commented, in a heavy German accent, “’Feldman.’ Vould be better if zere ver two ‘n’s.” They knew and I knew that “Feldmann” would more likely be a real German, not an American Jew. But I got about forty percent of the vote there, while I got less than ten percent in Jewish Lindenwood, Walter’s stronghold.

In fact, I did better in some of the non-Jewish parts of Howard Beach, too. Lindenwood and “New Howard Beach” stand to the west of the main thoroughfare that runs from the Broad Channel side of the Cross Bay Bridge from Rockaway all the way through Howard Beach up to Ozone Park, where it changes its name to Woodhaven Boulevard and eventually runs into Queens Boulevard. While Lindenwood was then overwhelmingly Jewish, Jews and Italians supplied roughly equal parts of the population of “New Howard Beach,” in fairly expensive homes, at that time paid for out of good union wages, or higher-level mob earnings, or – here and there – some legitimate professional practices. But the residents of “Old Howard Beach,” which stands to the east of Cross Bay Boulevard, an Irish, German, and Italian neighborhood, made do on lower incomes, in cheap houses. Many of them felt that Walter ignored their needs, at least as compared with those of his neighbors on the west side of the Boulevard. Betty Braton, in those days a rebellious Old Howard Beach neighborhood activist, gave me some quiet support. I got about forty percent of the vote there too. Betty later served as chair of Community Board 10 and a local political powerhouse for decades, and in that role helped me not at all in my race for Congress 25 years later, which included her district.

Certainly the coincidence of the Jewish holiday of Purim with St. Patrick’s Day in 1973 made for enjoyable campaigning. That night I hit all the Irish bars in Rockaway as well as the Jewish celebrations at the White Shul in Far Rockaway and other Orthodox Jewish establishments. Jewish tradition requires heavy drinking on Purim; St. Patrick’s Day celebrations may involve alcohol as well. Fortunately, I had a volunteer driver.

Some campaign experiences were quite eye-opening. In those days a heavy vote in Rockaway came from residents of the white middle-income Mitchell-Lama “Dayton Beach” and “Dayton Towers” high-rise apartment buildings completed in the late 1960s across the street from the beach along Shorefront Parkway from the Beach 80s through the Beach 90s. As I rang their doorbells, they often vilified the black residents who had moved into Rockaway’s low-income housing projects a few years later and “ruined” Rockaway. Their racist attitudes disgusted me, and tempted to me to explain to them that my neighbors in Belle Harbor and Neponsit thought that the construction of their buildings had ruined Rockaway first (a temptation I resisted).

But then I campaigned in the Somerville basin, a Rockaway community of small, inexpensive single-family houses, by then virtually all black. Some of them told me that if the City built a low-income high-rise in their neighborhood, they would blow it up. They had recently fled high-crime neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and were adamant. Their attitudes made me consider the attitudes of the whites in a somewhat different light.

 

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