Daniel L. Feldman

Welcome to Albany

In New York State Politics on October 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

When I committed myself to the Assembly race, I also committed myself to the three-week Everest trek in the Himalayas. I reasoned that if I lost, I would have to give up my dream of elected office. With my third straight loss, I would have seen it as “three strikes and you’re out.” I would need three weeks in the Himalayas to adjust. And if I won, it also wouldn’t hurt to get some perspective.

In those days, before the onslaught of trekkers that started a few years later, the Everest trek still could provide all the beauty, tranquility, and adventure I needed. I’m sure it remains a great experience, but I am told that it isn’t quite the same.

Upon my return, I made one pleasant and two unpleasant discoveries. Since my eleven fellow newly-elected members of the Assembly had been made aware of the reason for my absence from the orientation the Assembly leadership provided, my adventure had given me some status points: “He misses orientation to go hiking for three weeks in the Himalayas??!!” (We spent an additional week in Katmandu, a fascinating city.) That was the good news. The first bad news was that my disappearance had significantly hurt the feelings of my long-suffering and altogether admirable and nonpolitical girlfriend, Arlene McKay. As she noted, after she valiantly endured my political campaign, it was extremely insensitive for me then to desert her for a month for a solitary vacation. This incident presaged the eventual end of our relationship.

Second, I learned that Larry Pinkoff had completely hidden from me the fact that the campaign had gone $14,000 into debt. Larry had had complete responsibility for paying vendors, and complete control over the books. I learned I was in debt via dunning phone calls from suppliers who had not been paid, catching me completely by surprise. Some candidates do not pay their campaign debts. The Lindsay presidential campaign still owes me about $75 for my work in his Florida primary in 1972. I pay my debts, and so I had to begin my career as a legislator immediately engaging in the only part of politics I truly despised – raising money.

But even these disturbances could not erase the bliss I felt in my new role as the elected representative of a constituency, a goal I had sought since I was a child, and one which I had often thought I would never reach.

The weather in Nepal had not completely prepared me for Albany. In November, near Mt. Everest, we had climbed to elevations as high as 18,000 feet, and that meant we hit temperatures as low as zero Fahrenheit. Albany was minus 17 when I arrived. Furthermore, snow covered all the roads, and snowbanks lined all the streets. I asked my Albany friends why the snow had not been removed. They told me that Erastus Corning, the mayor, explained his policies on the matter as follows: “God put it there and God will take it away.” This was not so many years after John Lindsay had incurred the wrath of voters by his Sanitation Department’s failure to dig Queens streets out from a major blizzard. But by 1981 Corning had served as mayor of Albany for 40 years, and would serve two more, till May 1983, when he died, the longest-serving mayor in American history.

I was fascinated by my new colleagues. First elected in 1980 with me were Michael Bragman, John Branca, Geraldine Daniels, Gloria Davis, Eileen Dugan, Brian Murtaugh, Richard Ruggiero, Gail Shaffer, Helene Weinstein, and the lone new Republican, Bob Straniere. I have no trouble recalling all their names, over thirty years later.

Like all freshmen, I was assigned a seat in the Assembly Chamber that senior members did not want, not in the very back row, which some senior members preferred, but in the row second to the back. Seated to my left was Fred Schmidt – the same Fred Schmidt that defeated Vito Battista in 1974 instead of accommodating me by entering into that year’s City Council primary with me and Walter Ward. Seated to my right were Eileen Dugan, then Helene Weinstein, then Joe Ferris, from Park Slope in Brooklyn. Schmidt was probably the most conservative Democrat in the house, and among the most conservative members of either party, but an extremely likable and funny man.  Ferris was the most liberal, other than Frank Barbaro.

Sitting between Schmidt and Dugan meant I had permanent entertainment. I sat next to Freddie for twelve years, till he became a judge, and next to Eileen for several. She died untimely of cancer in 1996 at 51; he died relatively young in 2003 at 71. I still miss them both.

Dugan dubbed us the “raucous caucus,” but if we merited the accolade, it was mostly her doing. A heavy-set woman of 36 at the time who had previously been on the staff of New York City Comptroller Jay Goldin, she had considerable political skills and perfect comic timing.

In the row behind us sat Bronx Assembly Member Louis Nine (pronounced “Nee-nay, “ not “nine”). I learned that Nine had great oratorical skill in Spanish, but his overwhelming Spanish accent sometimes made his English difficult to understand. His floor comments usually began with “Meester Spikker.”  Across the room sat Phil Healey, a Republican from Nassau County. Phil sputtered into the microphone when he spoke, so between words the Chamber would hear “pt pt pt pt pt pt.” As the two of them debated, I got them in stereo, because Dugan was mimicking them both into my right ear while my left hear heard the actual debate.

Dugan represented Brooklyn Heights, succeeding Michael Pesce, who went on to a judgeship, and had won her primary against the regular Democratic organization. The regular candidates for the Assembly and male and female district leader included one quite overweight person, one named Buffalano, and one named Dorf. Dugan dubbed them “Balloon, Buffoon, and Dwarf.”

She told me that her mother, a religious Catholic from a farm in Ireland, had come to the United States at age fourteen or fifteen and got a job as a servant to an Orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park. She only first learned to cook there, in that house in Brooklyn. You need this background to understand the rest of the story. You also need to know that the Jewish kosher laws prohibit the ingestion of meat and milk products at the same meal. Eileen herself, obviously, liked to eat. In the middle of one night, perhaps at one in the morning, Eileen felt hungry, she told me, and to avoid awakening her mother, tiptoed to the kitchen for a snack. A few minutes later she was happily chomping on a turkey leg, with a glass of milk in the other hand. She thought she had been quiet enough to escape her mother’s notice, but no. Her mother materialized in the kitchen doorway. “D’ y’ know what ye aaaaaare?,” she asked Eileen, in a censorious tone. Eileen demurred. “You’re a BARBAAARIAN!” Eileen tried to explain that they were not actually Jewish, but her mother did not accept that argument as relevant.

 

 

 

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