Daniel L. Feldman

“Leadership is more than potholes – it’s sewers”

In NYC Politics on July 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Democratic primaries for City Council nominations rarely turn on significant ideological issues. This race was no exception. Walter got potholes fixed. However, he had not been able to ward off (sorry) the larger forces of neighborhood decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with increased crime and poverty. While we might have been thought unfair to hold this against him, the benefits of his incumbency surely outweighed the burdens. Our district was situated in southeastern Queens, the part of New York City most subject to flooding because the roads – and everything else – were built mostly on top of sand. The district always needed more sewers. Thus, our internal campaign slogan, intended literally, metaphorically, and sarcastically all at the same time, was “Leadership is more than potholes – it’s sewers.”

In a local race like this one, voters want assurance from people they know that a candidate will be good for the neighborhood. The support of local community leaders thus becomes crucial.

The Cross Bay Bridge takes motorists north from the middle of Rockaway to an island called Broad Channel. Cross Bay Boulevard becomes a causeway north from Broad Channel to Howard Beach, the first community in mainland Queens. Broad Channel, now a prosperous and attractive community sharing an island with the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve, has changed a lot since that 1973 City Council race.

In those days, the Broad Channel community vastly exceeded the Dayton houses or most other Rockaway communities in racism and right-wing reaction. I explained to outsiders that they had voted only reluctantly for George Wallace in 1968, since they considered him rather too liberal. My mother, who had some experience with the denizens of the regular Democratic organization, considered Broad Channel’s local community leader, Henry Waichaitis, to be an anti-Semite as well as a racist.

Back when I attended Junior High School 180 in the early 1960s, the “bad kids” usually came from Broad Channel. Junior High School 180 pioneered in the kind of school violence that many New York City residents attributed to black students in later years, but in our school it came from the Broad Channel kids. The Jewish kids from my neighborhood, Belle Harbor, sometimes served as victims, but since I was a cafeteria arm-wrestling champion, they gave me some respect, and I got to know some of them. Jimmy Whalen, for example, went straight into the Navy out of eighth or ninth grade. I’m not sure which, but he had been left back enough to have reached the age of 18 while still in junior high school. Others who dropped out before high school joined the military too, which in those days demanded far less education than it does now. Some, though, went straight into organized crime, having already apprenticed in the disorganized variety. While, as noted in earlier blog postings, some higher-level mob figures bought houses in Howard Beach, the lower ranks had more representation in Broad Channel.

Waichaitis had no problem delivering Broad Channel’s four hundred or so Democratic primary votes to Walter Ward, not because Walter necessarily shared their views, but he was Irish-American, not black or Jewish, and he said nothing to upset them.

Of course, most Broad Channel residents must have been good people, as are people everywhere. The good people preeminently included Dan Tubridy, a Broad Channel kid my own age, who at this point owned a bar called Dingy Dan’s on a run-down street in Seaside, an Irish-American community near Rockaway’s Playland amusement park on Beach 98th Street. I don’t remember how we first met, but we quickly became friends. Dan was then an up-and-coming community leader in Broad Channel, with political aspirations of his own. Big, smart, gregarious, with a big red beard, he made a strong impression. He also had a lot of relatives in Broad Channel. That year, I won twenty-five votes from Broad Channel – all of them probably named Tubridy. Twenty-five years later, when I ran for Congress in a congressional district that also included Broad Channel, I won ninety percent of Broad Channel’s five hundred Democratic primary votes in a four-way race, again thanks to Dan Tubridy – and that time, no more than fifty of them could have been named Tubridy.

But in the 1973 City Council race, the regular Democratic club had co-opted most of the other community leaders. Betty Braton, the Old Howard Beach rebel I wrote about in a previous blog, and Dan Tubridy were rare exceptions.

The regular Democratic club leader, Seymour (“Sy”) Sheldon, who had been my mother’s ally in fighting the old-guard regulars like Milton Jacobowitz and J. Lewis Fox in the 1950s and early 1960s, had long since taken over the regular organization himself and now fought the new wave of reformers. Gerdi Lipschutz, “his” female leader, also a friend of my mother’s, gave me no support either, although years later, when both she and I served in the Assembly, she greeted me very warmly. After she retired from politics, she even tried to help in my congressional race.

The professionals were wrong. I got a lot more than ten percent of the vote. But I was wrong too: I did not win. I had underestimated the power of incumbency. I just barely beat Walter on the Rockaway peninsula. I received about 5015 votes there; he got a little closer to 5000. All those personal favors Walter had done over the years had served him well. He had often called himself “the Councilman from Rockaway,” and I later learned that he was shocked, and even hurt, by losing Rockaway, even by such a small margin. But in Howard Beach, he beat me by something like 5000 to 1000, including his ten-to-one margin in the Lindenwood section. In the far north of the district – Glendale, Ridgewood, Ozone Park, Woodhaven – he got about sixty percent of the vote to my forty percent. Over all, I got thirty-five percent of the vote.

It was time for me to get a job.


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