Daniel L. Feldman

The District

In New York State Politics on October 21, 2011 at 9:32 am

I was not off duty when I came home from session in Albany, partly because of the precedent set by my two immediate predecessors, Steve Solarz and Chuck Schumer. Of each it was said that they would show up at the opening of an envelope – that is, a slightly exaggerated report that any event or meeting whatsoever in the district would be graced with their presence. Therefore, in the 45th Assembly District, at least, getting up to Albany eventually became something of a relief from the incessant and insistent constituent demands of the district.

Unlike some rural upstate districts, spanning hundreds of miles, the residents of Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, East Midwood, and so forth lived near my local neighborhood office, the “district office,” which for my first ten years was located on the second floor of 1126 Kings Highway, with its entrance on East 12th Street (when the landlord starting asking for too much rent, we moved to Avenue U and Homecrest Avenue). I was not a distant figure. My constituents could easily find my office to bring their complaints about government services. Actually, we encouraged it. Early in my tenure in office, the Bay News, our quite competent local weekly neighborhood newspaper, at my request headlined my plea to constituents bring me such problems – and the constituency responded with a cascade of calls that never stopped for eighteen years.

Unlike some less-favored urban districts, citizens of the 45th participated in community affairs at a very high rate, with hundreds of active block associations, civic groups, church and synagogue groups, veterans’ organizations, and parent-teacher associations. A random selection: East 14th Street Block Association, Atlantic Towers Tenants Association, Jewish War Veterans Fleishman-Horowitz Post #6, St. Edmond’s Home School Association, Manhattan Beach Community Group, Sheepshead Kiwanis Club, Plumb Beach Civic Association, Midwood Civic Action Coalition, East Midwood Neighborhood Association – the list goes on indefinitely. And the citizens who attended the regular meetings of these groups got very miffed if the Assembly Member did not show up. Those citizens sacrificed their time and energy to help their communities. Communities with strong neighborhood association do indeed benefit. They therefore deserve and expect local elected officials to bind them into the fabric of the larger society, the state or the city. Those officials do so by honoring them with their presence, and of course occasionally by helping to solve some particular local problem they pose. So when the legislator comes “home” from Albany, “home” is not where the legislator gets to spend much time. When you are not meetings in your office, mostly you are at meetings outside your office.

You must not become distant from the groups that supported you the most. I would never have wanted my neighbors and fellow-congregants at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center to have any reason to say “Now that we elected him, we don’t see him.” So even though it would be difficult, I committed myself to attending their Board of Directors meeting at 8 p.m. on Monday night, January 12, even though that was the day I would attend my first regular session of the New York State Assembly as a member of that body. Larry still worked for me, now as a member of my Assembly staff, and though the speed at which he drove scared me, I knew he would have no trouble at all getting me from Albany down to Manhattan Beach in plenty of time.

Partisanship did not seem nearly so bitter in 1981 as it does now, nationally or in Albany. For reasons explained on pages 62 through 64 of Tales from the Sausage Factory, the Assembly actually passed a bill of mine on that first day of session, prompting a round of applause for me from throughout the House, Democrats and Republicans. Beyond that, mutual respect and sometimes affection patently crossed party lines.

Not that first Monday night, but on the next ten or so Monday nights, Dugan, Weinstein, Paul Viggiano, Tony Seminario, George Madison and I would go out to dinner together at Café Italia on Central Avenue near North Allen Street. We might have joked a little about the fact that George was Republican, but it certainly did not count as an issue. I had a different problem there. Notwithstanding Seminario’s size and appetite, I, not he, finished up everyone’s dinner. I gained a pound and a half a week, like clockwork. I had to stop going there. When I showed up at a reception some months later, Joe, the owner, accused me of not liking his food.  I explained: “Joe – I love your food. That’s why I can’t come here anymore.”

On the floor of the Assembly as well, brilliant and eloquent Republican members like Dominick DiCarlo and Jack Flanagan won tremendous respect from Democrats. I was by no means the only Democrat who occasionally voted with Jack, the ranking Republican, rather than with Leonard Stavisky, the chair, in meetings of the Education Committee. (Admittedly, that particular situation was aberrational, in that Stavisky, an extremely bright and well-intentioned legislator, and Flanagan stood at opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to interpersonal skills, which Flanagan had in abundance. And Speaker Stanley Fink did not take kindly to the defection of Democrats, even under those circumstances.)

So I left the Chamber at the end of that wonderful first session of mine filled with bonhomie. Larry dropped me at the synagogue door, and I went upstairs to the meeting room, where two factions, each composed of about twenty approximately 90-year-old Jewish men, all of whom having avidly supported my election, were about to kill each other over some arcane issue of synagogue management. I sat there very quietly, recollecting the version of the Certs commercial created by my best friend from junior high school, Glenn Ross. The actual commercial, if you don’t remember it or never saw it, had a pair of attractive young blond twins arguing the merits of Certs mints. “Certs is a  breath mint,” said one.  “Certs is a candy mint,” said the other. Soon, they resolved their dispute, graciously agreeing that it was both. In Glenn’s version, one elderly Jewish guy claims, aggressively, “Soits is a bret’ mint!” The other old guy counters, “Soits is a kendy mint!” Back: “’T’sa bret’ mint” Forth: “’T’sa kendy mint!” Screaming: “’T’sa’ bret’ mint!” “’T’sa kendy mint!”  Etcetera.

 

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