Daniel L. Feldman

Meade Esposito

In NYC Politics on August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I had gotten to know Herb Lupka to some extent. Liz Holtzman seemed to have a visceral distrust of most regular Democrats and was one of the very few Brooklyn Democrats who never made peace with Meade Esposito, their countywide leader. But Liz liked Lupka. This gave me some threshold comfort with him, and nothing about him set off any red flags in my perceptual apparatus either. I picked up no hint that he would try to corrupt me in any way. When he informed me that I would be the Club’s choice, I was immensely relieved. I knew this would greatly increase my chances of victory.

A few days later, though, he let me know that as the regular Democratic candidate, protocol obliged him to take me to meet Meade, “our” county leader. Now I worried. What deal with the devil would I be asked to sign?

On a broiling hot June mid-afternoon, we drove up to Democratic County headquarters at 16 Court Street, the official seat of Meade’s reign. As always, I appeared in a suit and tie. Even at the end of my political life eighteen years later I was formal and stiff compared with the typical politician. I’m sure I was much worse in those early days.

Meade greeted Herb warmly, and me cordially. He paid little attention to me, though. I noticed the cartoon posted on his wall. A young bull says to a much older bull, “Let’s run down the hill and f–k a cow.” The old bull replies, “No. We’ll walk down the hill and f—k ‘em all!”

Meade talked with Herb at some length, although, so far as I could tell, not about anything very important. Finally, Meade turned to me.  “Feldman. I got some advice for you,” said in that famous gravelly voice. Uh-oh, I thought. Here it comes. What would he want? A pause. He reflects. “I think you should unbutton your collar and loosen your tie.”

Okay. Shortly you will read about the rather eventful next three months. But now we flash forward to September, after I’ve won the Democratic primary. Herb says, “Now you are the official Democratic candidate for the Assembly. We have to go pay another courtesy call on Meade.” Now I worried somewhat less. I was as good as elected, in my overwhelmingly Democratic district. What could Meade demand of me? Still, I remained somewhat concerned.

Again, it’s mid-afternoon. Again, it’s hot, although not as hot as in June. Again, we ascend to Meade’s office. This time he pays a little more attention to me. He gets Stanley Fink on the phone, making it obvious that Fink, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, took Esposito’s call immediately. He tells Fink about the soon-to-be new member of the Assembly from the 45th District, me. He finishes with Fink. After some more chit-chat with Herb, he finally turns to me. Again, he says “Feldman. I got some advice for you.” Again, reflection and consideration. A judicious pause. “I think you should say ‘f—k’ more often.”

Of course, this was his way of telling me to relax, loosen up. But I quickly understood something that distant onlookers, armchair critics, and even those few reformers who kept their distance might not have understood. One very important source of Meade’s power was that almost everyone who actually met him liked him.

I learned more in my next encounter. Flash forward again, to spring 1981. Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold announced he would not run for reelection and Liz announced her candidacy for the job. Liz was one of the few who didn’t like Meade and Meade didn’t like Liz. I immediately endorsed Liz and began campaigning with her. The regular organization candidate was Norman Rosen, a former assistant district attorney but a thoroughly unimpressive person. Meade’s dislike of Liz, though, impelled him to corral all the support he could for Rosen. Rosen’s campaign hired Hank Sheinkopf to craft its radio and television commercials. Before he went into public relations, Hank had been a New York City police officer who enrolled in the administrative law class I was teaching at John Jay College at the time. But now he designed a ferocious commercial against Liz. It featured an elderly Jewish lady advising the viewers and listeners that “She’s a nice girl, but she’s not right for the job.”

Some of my friends warned me that I would be annoying Meade by endorsing Liz. This influenced me not at all. She had proven herself a true friend of mine, and, as far as I could tell, especially with Lowenstein now gone, the most dedicated public servant I knew. And for several months, I heard nothing from Meade.

In mid-July, though, Jean Safonoff, who ran the neighborhood office that served my constituents (my “district” office), got a phone call from Ruth Gelbard, Meade’s secretary. Meade required my presence at the Arch Diner in Canarsie at 7 a.m. Thursday morning. This, Herb informed me, signaled a real meeting. Meade, now 74 years old, felt sharpest early in the morning, and held court at the Arch. The afternoon meetings at his Court Street office were for courtesy. The morning meetings at the Arch were for business.

I enter the Arch a few minutes early. Meade was already there, sitting alone. He welcomed me to his table, and invited me to breakfast with him. After a few minutes of pleasantries, he got to the point. “Look,” he said, “I know you’re her friend. You had to endorse her. I understand that. But you are part of the regular organization. Can’t you at least take it easy? You don’t have to campaign with her all the time.”

I said “Meade, you’re my friend. If you were in trouble, I would help you all the way. That’s what I have to do with Liz.”

He tried the line from the commercial: “you know, she’s a nice girl, but not right for the job.” I said, “You know as well as I do, she’s not so nice, and she’s perfect for the job.” He laughed.

Then he said “Okay. I understand. Fine. But there’s a City Council race in your district, and I happen to know that you’re not personal friends with any of the candidates. So you’ll support my guy, okay?”

What could I say? In fact, I was by no means crazy about his guy. But I agreed. This taught me more about how Meade exercised control. In fact, the Council race was canceled for legal reasons,   so I never had to support the candidate in question, and Meade never again asked me for anything. However, several fellow politicians told me, in later years, that Meade had said to them, “Feldman was the only one who had ever stood up to me” – and he meant it as a compliment.

While I never saw any evidence that Meade broke any laws, I cannot say I was astonished when he was convicted of influence peddling some years after his retirement in 1983.  But I couldn’t help but like him.

 

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