Daniel L. Feldman

Running a congressional district office

In General on July 24, 2011 at 6:45 pm

My attitude required me overcome any obstacle, no matter how great, when Liz Holtzman assigned me a task. I have no recollection of why, but I remember running through a rail yard in Long Island to some office of the telephone company after I learned that only there could I get a copy of a particular telephone book we needed urgently for some reason. Liz is slight and about five feet tall. I found her much more intimidating than the law firm partner. I could hand Liz a memo with 100 components: she would instantaneously, laser-like, focus on the one error I had made, and scream at me for it. Because I was so demanding of myself, I was especially vulnerable to her criticism: my own perfectionism multiplied the impact of hers. But I also saw her – literally – scream at herself for errors. However much she drove me crazy, I understood that her intensity came from a commitment to serve the public well, which she did. Nonetheless, my predecessor in the job of running the office had gone through an entire bottle of Maalox each week he worked there, and I quickly understood why.

I learned something about myself as a supervisor. Constituents would come to us with all the usual problems: garbage was not being picked up regularly, Social Security check didn’t come or the amount wasn’t right, the schoolchildren needed a crossing guard at another intersection. Our caseworkers helped constituents with these problems, and my responsibilities included supervising the caseworkers. I had something of a personal relationship outside the office with one of them, because I had dated her sister briefly. One afternoon she went to lunch with a new caseworker. The two were “missing in action” for over two hours, making me wonder whether anything terrible had happened to them. Crime was on the rise in New York in those days; I was worried. When they finally ambled back into the office, I explained to the more senior caseworker why this was unacceptable. She seemed to accept my reproach, but some hours later scolded me for having expressed so much anger. Puzzled, I noted that I prided myself on never raising my voice, and had not done so. “No,” she said. “But your face turned purple and steam came out of your ears.” After that, I decided I might as well yell.

I also had to handle community problems. Mayor Beame’s administration, facing increasingly serious budget problems, wanted to close the 70th Precinct station house. Many community leaders protested to us. Liz needed to be in Washington. I met personally with Mayor Beame and somehow persuaded him to let it be. Ocean Parkway, the big and beautiful thoroughfare designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, running through Kensington, Parkville and Midwood, separating Sheepshead Bay from Gravesend, Coney Island from Brighton Beach, and terminating at the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk there, connects to Manhattan at the other end through the Prospect Expressway, the Gowanus Parkway, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. By 1973 it needed more than repaving. The roadbed under the surface no longer supported the paving, so new potholes would immediately succeed repaired ones. Somehow, it fell to me to coordinate the New York City, New York State, and federal highway agencies and bureaus involved in its restoration. This gigantic project took many years, but at its inception it took much of my first year as Holtzman’s Executive Assistant.

The Lubavitch Hassidic community was growing rapidly, and our congressional district included its home in Crown Heights. Yehuda Krinsky served as its government relations expert and liaison to our office. (After the passing of the great messianic “Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1994, Krinsky took the leadership of the movement, except for a minority of eccentrics who thought Schneerson was actually the messiah.) In the mid-1970s, Krinsky called me regularly asking if I’d seen the latest issue of the Federal Register, the publication that lists new proposed federal regulations – and, more to Krinsky’s interest, new federal grants. Most people, including myself, regard the Federal Register as far too boring to read. No one read it more assiduously than Krinsky. When one of the Lubavitch community organizations was actually well qualified for such a grant, we wrote letters in support, with some success. Thus, when the Rebbe held a big “farbrengen,” a gathering of hundreds, maybe a few thousand people to celebrate some religious milestone, Krinsky invited me, not Liz, to sit at the dais. They would have had to seat Holtzman, as a woman, in some special far-away section. Krinsky was far too astute to make such an error. This way, they honored her by honoring me. I still have the photograph of myself at the event, in a sea of long beards.

In the summer of 1976, my job transformed into that of a full-time investigator, as we stumbled across the evidence of what became known as the Summer Food Program Scandal of 1976. With my assistant Ibby Lang I essentially took on a nationwide consortium of politically-connected crooks who were stealing 85 percent of the funds Congress had intended to be used to feed hungry schoolchildren. This required longer hours even than the combination of Olwine Connelly and my second Council race. That summer, I regularly worked 100 hours a week, requiring all-nighters followed by another 18 hours of work, with perhaps 5 hours of sleep before another 18-hour day. I found that an early-morning jog of three miles would help me keep going after the no-sleep nights. The Summer Food Program investigation makes a good story, but I’ve told it before, in Reforming Government (New York: William Morrow & Co. 1981), so I won’t tell it again.

By this time, my salary had risen back to what it had been when I left the law firm. In early 1977, with the Summer Food Program investigation over, my responsibilities reverted for the most part to the more quotidian tasks of running the office.  Despite the tremendous amount of effort it had required, I found that I liked the muckraking role better than the standard administrative work. So I could not help but be intrigued when Assemblyman Charles Schumer called with an interesting offer. He said, “I saw what you did for Holtzman. How would you like a ‘hunting license,’ to work full-time going after waste, mismanagement and corruption in New York City government? I have a new subcommittee to chair, and you could be its counsel.” Once again, the offer included a 25 percent pay cut. How could I refuse?

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