Daniel L. Feldman

Campaigning at the Brighton Baths

In NYC Politics on September 7, 2011 at 6:36 am

Weekends required somewhat different scheduling than weekdays. Of course candidates don’t do subway stops, since few workers commute on the weekend. However, the campaign schedule requires synagogue attendance on Saturday mornings and church attendance on Sunday mornings, regardless of the candidate’s personal religious views. Sunday mornings also feature breakfast meetings of synagogue men’s clubs and B’nai Brith chapters. But for a candidate for the Assembly in the 45th Assembly District, the biggest chunk of weekend time – Saturday and Sunday afternoons – was most profitably spent at the Brighton Baths.

The “Baths” had a lot of character. Situated between Brighton Beach Avenue and the Boardwalk, and between Coney Island Avenue on the west and Brighton 12th Street on the east, the Baths took up the equivalent of several entire City blocks. It featured several swimming pools, a half-dozen paddle-tennis courts, numerous handball walls, a grill restaurant, miniature golf, mahjong and card tables and lounge chairs as far as the eye could see, a bandshell with hundreds of seats in its outdoor auditorium, and cavernous locker rooms, one each for men and women, complete with steam rooms, saunas, and massage tables. At its peak, it enrolled fifteen thousand members. It opened in 1907 and closed in 1997 to make way for luxury housing. Between the 1950s and the 1970s all major New York politicians made it their business to show up there at least once during their campaigns. For me, though, the Baths meant not just a mandatory campaign stop, but virtually a mandatory campaign summer. Of the several thousand members still enrolled and mostly in attendance on any sunny summer weekend in 1980, at least a third voted in the 45th Assembly district, whether in Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Midwood, Flatbush, or Sheepshead Bay. Herb Lupka, Max Sultan, and many other local political potentates held court at spots they had occupied there for decades as supplicants begged favors or just ambled over to pay respects. Candidates who were mere visitors, like myself, encountered elderly, cheerful, slightly bored members: the perfect political audience.

Hy Cohen presided over this establishment. The Muss real estate organization owned the Baths during that era, but Hy ran it for them. A big, gruff former construction worker, Hy had long served as a fixture in the Brooklyn Democratic organization. He, Lupka, and Brooklyn Borough President and later Democratic County Leader Howard Golden were especially close. Any politician could stand in front of the entrance to the Baths, on the public street, and greet the members as they entered. But politicians that Hy Cohen favored got to enter, and chat with the members as they relaxed, instead of merely offering a quick greeting as they entered. Hy permitted the most favored to speak to the assembled multitude at the bandshell. Although the members did not really want to hear speeches, this mark of Hy’s approval counted as a plus with most of them. Since Lupka now supported me, I was one of those thus favored.

Even if Hy let you wander through the Baths and speak, though, it paid also to greet the members at the gate as they entered or left. Many members had enough patience only for the quick greeting, but after meeting you a dozen times that way during the summer, they would at least remember your name. This mattered, because in campaign for an open seat for minor office, for much of its duration the voters will usually not know any of the candidates’ names. Voters have many things on their minds, and many, many more information stimuli are competing for their attention. Your campaign merely adds yet another annoyance. But on primary day, in the voting booth, the voter who recognizes a name will take pride in that quantum of knowledge. Often, in gratitude to the candidate for engendering this pleasant emotion, the voter will support that candidate. Thus, one of the oldest pieces of political wisdom: at that point in your campaign when voters tell you “if I hear your name one more time I’m voting for the other guy,” your campaign has now begun to have an impact. If you really want to win, keep it going until the election.

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