Daniel L. Feldman

Re-Run

In NYC Politics on July 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I lost the primary on June 3. My bar review course started on June 4. It served as some kind of therapy for me, but little or none of the material actually entered my brain. I took the bar exam in July, still in shock from my loss.

I also needed a job. Most of my law school classmates had interviewed in their second year of law school, while I was “practicing politics,” to nail down summer internships at law firms that summer, when I was working for McGovern and laying the groundwork for my Council race. Now, as I pounded the pavements, law firm after law firm told me that had no positions left to offer. At least forty turned me down. Not only had I lost my race, I owed tuition debts and no one would hire me. After a depressing and frightening four months, though, two fine law firms, among the last I sought out, Reavis McGrath and Olwine Connelly offered me jobs. I chose Olwine, an offshoot of a better-known firm called Cravath Swaine & Moore. Bruce Pindyck, the son of my favorite junior high school English teacher, had been a senior at Columbia when I was a freshman and had been something of a mentor to me. Olwine had hired Bruce as an associate after his graduation from Columbia Law School, and he had urged them to hire me.

Meanwhile, some other things had happened. The courts found that the City Council had drawn the districts for the 1973 campaign in violation of the Voting Rights Act, and required a new election under redrawn district lines.  In late August, the doctors found that my mother had late stage melanoma, which had metastasized widely.

I started at Olwine on October 22, 1973. On October 23, my brother found my mother’s body in our car in our garage, where she had run the engine, filling the air with deadly exhaust fumes, after downing an equally fatal quantity of pills. Her suicide note explained that she loved us all, and having watched two of her brothers die agonizingly from cancer, wanted to spare herself and us all that agony.

Some weeks later, after I had recovered some degree of stability, I learned that on that same day, October 23, Frank Brasco, the member of Congress serving my district – including most of the Council district in which I had run – had been indicted for bribery.

Over the next few months I “enjoyed” a commute by the A train of over an hour and a half each way to Olwine, at 49th Street and Park Avenue. In December I learned that I had failed the bar exam. Fortunately, the law firm didn’t care, and simply required me to take it again.

The law firm assigned me primarily to one partner – brilliant, but a beast. (I later learned that some people I like and respect, who did not know him as a boss, liked him very much.) A big guy with a growly voice, his “critique” of a memo you had just completed under time pressure after 48 hours of work, without sleep, was to tear it in half, throw it at you, and yell “what the f— is this?!!” Occasionally, as he berated me, I contemplated using the heel of my right hand to administer a very sharp and likely fatal blow to his Adam’s apple. To the extent that she could, a kindly senior associate at the firm advised me on methods to avoid his wrath. She later became a partner, then the first female judge, and then the first female chief judge, on the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest state court. My friendship with Judith Kaye was the nicest result of my work at Olwine. All the other partners for whom I did occasional work treated me well and showed themselves to be fine gentlemen: John Logan O’Donnell himself, Bill Sondericker, Charlie McCaughey.

Shortly after returning to work at Olwine, I took a phone call from a fellow a year behind me at Harvard Law School. As fellow law students with strong interests in politics, he and I had chatted a few times in earlier years. Now he explained that he was thinking of running for a seat in the New York State Assembly in this, his third year. In that I had run for office in New York City in my third year and lost, did I think that such a candidacy could be successful? I asked him for the particulars. He would run for an open seat, about to be vacated by Assembly Member Steven Solarz, who was then running for Congress. I thought, and told him, that he would have a much better chance at an open seat than I had faced running against a well-entrenched incumbent. He did run, and won. More about Chuck Schumer in later posts.

At the same time, I prepared to build on the base I had established in my Council race to run for Congress. But a problem emerged: James Scheuer, a very wealthy member of Congress, had lost a primary to Jonathan Bingham in 1972 when the two Democratic members of Congress were thrown into the same Bronx district by reapportionment. Now, he planned to spend as much of his money as it took to succeed Frank Brasco in my district.

Knowing of my interest, his campaign representative, Ted Venetoulis, asked me to lunch. At that lunch he offered me as much of Scheuer’s money as I needed to drop out of the congressional race and run for Council again. Horrified, I turned him down. Later, Venetoulis ran for Baltimore County Executive as a reformer, and won.

After a few weeks, my friends persuaded me that Scheuer’s money would make him the only effective competition to Leonard Yoswein, the former Assembly Member from Canarsie, more recently Mayor Beame’s Commissioner of Rent and Housing Maintenance, who had the Brooklyn Democratic organization’s support for the seat. [Thanks to Jerry Skurnik and Howard Graubard for catching my initial error in identifying Yoswein as an Assembly member at the time. I based my correction on Nick Pileggi, The Men Around Beame – That Old Hack Magic, New York Magazine, 3/25/74, 35, at 43.]  So I got back into the Council race anyway. Maybe I should have taken Scheuer’s money.

Steve Berger, Scheuer’s campaign manager, met with me to discuss joint campaign efforts. He explained his view of his candidate. His precise words, which I still remember, were: “he’s a piece of shit. It’s my job to perfume him, package him, and sell him.” Scheuer paid Berger an exorbitant salary for this service, and Berger earned it. Needless to say, he ran a joint campaign with mine just about as much as Jay Goldin had the previous year – that is to say, not in the least. With virtually unlimited funds, Berger would have Scheuer’s mailings in every voter’s mailbox virtually every day. Scheuer ended up defeating Yoswein handily.

At this point I had some hope for my Council race, though. Fred Schmidt had represented Woodhaven the Assembly through 1972, when he lost a race for the State Senate to Republican Martin Knorr. But Fred, an extremely conservative Democrat, remained immensely popular in Woodhaven and nearby areas. Rampant speculation had Fred running against Walter in the 1974 City Council primary. This gave me great hope. Fred could sweep the vote north of Howard Beach, and might even take votes from Walter in Old Howard Beach. I could concentrate on Rockaway, my base, where I expected to improve considerably on my vote the first time out, leaving Walter only his Howard Beach stronghold. With 35 percent of the vote last time, I would be a real contender in a three-way race.

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