Daniel L. Feldman

Defeat, Again

In NYC Politics on July 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I was still commuting to 49th and Park by subway every day. This time, though, I had a great new weapon: my brother Andrew, who had been overseas the previous year. He was a great salesman, and beat all records collecting petition signatures for me. Since the Legislature had set the primary date for September this year, petitioning started in early June.

But as we focused our petition efforts on Rockaway, our area of greatest strength, we noticed an ominous absence: where were Fred Schmidt’s petitions? Increasingly nervous, finally I called him. “Dan,” he said, “I’m not running to elect you. I can count. I have a better chance running for the Assembly up in my area, against Vito Battista.” In those years, Republican-Conservative Vito Battista represented a district including part of Fred’s Woodhaven neighborhood and a conservative Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived. Battista was a powerhouse, known throughout the City as a colorful right-winger.   But Schmidt called the race correctly: he defeated Battista in a narrow victory.

If were less prey to self-delusion, I probably would have, and should have, dropped out of the race at that point. I stayed in the race because 1) I convinced myself that moving from 35 percent to 51 percent should be possible: I now had time to convince some of those who had not voted for me last time, perhaps because they had not had enough exposure to me or to my campaign; 2) so many volunteers and contributors had helped me that I felt I would be letting them down by quitting; and 3) all of us, including myself, had invested so much time and effort that now, when it looked like we would once again succeed in getting enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, I might be walking away from a chance to win.

I took myself and my campaign very seriously. In retrospect, I was probably somewhat ridiculous. I would drag myself up and down the stairs of four-story walkups in Queens for eight or ten hours at a stretch on broiling days with temperatures in the 90s. I must have contracted a slight stomach virus on one such occasion, because I developed heat prostration and passed out. A volunteer drove me home. In weak tones, I directed the campaign folks around me to instruct my committee on vacancies to replace me with my brother as the candidate, if I died. I actually thought that was a possibility. My full recovery a day later was somewhat embarrassing.

We raised a little more money this time – it eventually came to about $7000, as I recall, this time including some contributions from some fellow associates I had gotten to know at the law firm, and even two or three partners, and somewhat bigger contributions from my former law school classmates, who were now earning money. Of course, including the value of Walter’s advertising space, he probably spent the equivalent of five or six times that figure, although he reported much less. But this time we had enough to buy advertising on the sides of the Green Line buses, the main provider of public transportation within the twelve-mile length of the Rockaway Peninsula. This gave our supporters a psychological boost, because those posters would stay up. Tearing down the opposition’s posters made for a traditional, if not truly significant, aspect of most New York City street campaigns in Democratic primaries. (The New York City ordinance making it illegal to put up posters on street lamp poles, trees, or other such objects, Section 10-119 of the Administrative Code, had not yet been adopted, not that it deterred most candidates since its adoption.) [Thanks to John Sabini for this correction and update.] Tearing down the opposition’s posters – usually put up illegally on telephone polls anyway – made for a traditional, if not truly significant, aspect of most New York City street campaigns in Democratic primaries. Walter had many of his campaign posters on his outdoor advertising company billboards, though. We couldn’t touch those: they were on private property, and were usually too high up. But now his street troops couldn’t tear down our Green Bus Line posters either. That was nice.

With the primary in September this time, until June I combined my first-year associate hours with campaign responsibilities. Those times that I had to work 48 hours straight at the law firm to prepare a memorandum of law for one of the partners, I had to shirk my campaign work. But the firm gave me a leave of absence to allow me to campaign full-time from early July through the September primary date.

Once again, I trudged through the Dayton high-rises, the Bayswater single families, the Woodhaven walk-ups, and all the other places where registered Democratic voters could be found. Every weekday morning at six a.m. I could be found at a different subway stop entrance, greeting voters and handing them my campaign flyers. Every night I attended the meeting of some community group or other, and then came back to campaign headquarters to plan the next move. Saturday mornings I attended various synagogue services; Sunday mornings I stood outside churches and greeted parishioners as they left mass.

On Primary Day, I visited each polling place, thanking my volunteers for handing out leaflets to each voters and trying to persuade them to vote for me. During the hours before the results came in, my brother and Jean McGoldrick, who had become my campaign manager this time, made sure to keep me distracted with whatever tasks they could impose. Otherwise, I would have suffered even worse from nerves.

The polls closed at 9 p.m. At about 11, we heard rumors of despondency among Ward’s people, which astonished and thrilled us. For some reason, the returns from Rockaway came in first. But when my poll watchers came back with the same reports that scared Ward’s folks, I immediately knew that I had lost again. I would beat Walter in Rockaway, as I had last time, but not by enough to make up for his huge margins in Howard Beach and his smaller margins in the other northern neighborhoods. I had indeed improved on my 1973 performance, winning about forty percent of the vote in 1974, but to win I needed sixteen percent over my previous try, not five percent more. In my concession speech to my volunteers, I quoted Adlai Stevenson’s version of Lincoln’s line, “it hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.”

Three years of substantial sacrifice and hard work had come to nothing. In a two-year period, my mother had died, I failed the bar exam twice, and I lost two campaigns. My friend from junior high school, Mike Batkin, came to stay with me for a week to cheer me up. Mike had excellent credentials as a cheerer-upper, and did make me feel better. He had lost a leg in fighting in Vietnam, married and divorced the same woman twice, and his business, a coin dealership, went broke, but he never lost his optimism and good spirits.

A year or so later, I compared the voting returns from 1973 to 1974 by neighborhood and ethnicity, using regression analysis. With the help of a statistician, I found that the improvement in my performance within an election district varied almost direct with the percentage of Italian-Americans in that district. That is, in statistical terms, Italian-American ethnicity explained my winning a greater percentage of the vote in a given election district in 1974 than in 1973 more than any other factor. Walter’s Irish-American ethnicity and my Jewish ethnicity probably accounted for less movement within those groups. But even among Germans, Poles, blacks (who mostly favored me), and Italians, the only group whose vote for me increased markedly were the latter. I have no idea if this finding interests anyone.

I returned to the law firm. The practice of law, at least at Olwine Connelly, had surprised me. My ambitions had been purely in government and politics. I had not expected to find any aspect of law practice enjoyable. But in fact I found it intellectually interesting. Nonetheless, this was not what I wanted to do. My professional life now consisted of helping various sets of rich people battle other sets of rich people over money. I had no motivation to do this. I distinctly remember thinking that I would rather work for the most junior member of the New York State Legislature than continue as a Park Avenue lawyer. Actually, I suppose I could have offered my services to Schumer, who had just won his primary for the Democratic nomination for Assembly from Brooklyn’s 45th District.

Instead, about a month after I returned, I got a phone call from Liz Holtzman, asking me if I wanted to run her congressional district office (neighborhood office) in Brooklyn. The associated salary would be twenty-five percent less than Olwine Connelly was paying me, and the economic prospects for future were not remotely comparable. It took me a split second to say yes.

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