Daniel L. Feldman

Introduction to the inside politics of the Assembly

In New York State Politics on November 3, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Very little if any of my previous life experience had involved dealing with Republicans as a political force. The “enemy” had usually been organization Democrats. Even in 1956 when I was seven years old, handing out leaflets for Stevenson, the local Rockaway “regulars” showed no enthusiasm for the cause. They were better in 1960, for Kennedy, but my faction, the reform wing of the party, fought the regulars when I helped Herb Posner win his assembly seat in 1966, when I volunteered for Lindsay in 1969, when I worked for Holtzman, Lowenstein, and McGovern in 1972, and of course in my own City Council campaigns in 1973 and 1974. Although the regulars and the reformers backed me in 1980, I did and always will identify with the latter.

Only two teams mattered in the Legislature in Albany, though – Democrats and Republicans. True, the Assembly’s Democratic Study Group still met to review bills, and its leaders, like Oliver Koppell, argued within the Democratic conference on behalf of the generally more liberal and more reformist legislation the Group supported. (Footnote: the Democratic “conference” means both the Democratic members of the Assembly and the actual “conferences” among them when the Speaker adjourns legislative sessions temporarily to allow each party to discuss matters among themselves.) Still, every member, reformer or regular, considered himself or herself part of the Democratic conference. Usually the Democratic Study Group contingent lost the argument, but not always.

The leadership of my House long had a special relationship with the regular Democratic organizations. Stanley Steingut, who led the House from 1975 through 1978, changed that relationship by limiting the county leaders’ role in the legislative process. Previous speakers had used the party leaders to pressure Democratic Assembly members from their counties to vote for bills; Steingut ended the practice (TSFS, 87). But Steingut had not ended the relationship, nor would Stanley Fink, now my Speaker.

This affected me directly. Within two or three months of my arrival, Kenny Shapiro called me into his office. You certainly would have no fear of Kenny if you met this smallish, mild-mannered man on the street and did not understand who he was. But Ken Shapiro, Counsel to the Speaker, had a sign on his desk, facing out toward you. It said “They.” “They,” as in “they made me do it,” or “they killed my bill,” or, on a happy day, “they let me bill out of Rules” or “they gave me the budget increase I needed for staff.”

“They” had included in my committee assignments Corporations, Public Authorities and Commissions. Koppell, who chaired that committee, anointed me chair of its Subcommittee on Public Authority Structure. He had chaired that subcommittee as a younger Assembly member, and knew that it would give me a platform to address subway issues, of great concern to my constituents, because the Transit Authority and, above it, the MTA, came under its aegis. The Public Service Commission regulated utilities such as Con Edison, also of concern to my constituents. So Oliver did me a favor.

Kenny, though, had another favor in mind for me. He asked if I would like to have a counsel for my subcommittee – and the counsel would not be charged against my staff allocation budget; rather, the counsel would be paid as part of the Speaker’s central staff. How could I refuse? My counsel would be Steve Cohn, an attorney of course. Also the regular Democratic district leader of what was then the 58th Assembly District, and under the 1982 reapportionment redesignated as the 50th, including parts of northern Brooklyn such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg.  [The previous sentence has been updated to correct minor errors caught by Howard Graubard.]

I don’t know for a fact that Steve expected a no-show job, but he did seem mildly surprised when I gave him his first assignments and made it perfectly clear that others would follow. To his credit, not only did Steve never balk, his drafts of subcommittee reports consistently reflected good quality work, and he came up with valuable suggestions from time to time.

Only a few years later, in 1986, my own former Assembly Member from the Rockaways in Queens, Gerdi Lipshutz, resigned after investigators revealed that she had “no-show” employees on her legislative staff, hired on the “recommendation” of Richard Rubin, the executive secretary of Queens Democratic County Leader Donald Manes’ organization. Rubin went to prison on that basis.

My next memorable meeting with Kenny also arose out of Corporations Committee business. Jerry Nadler, the Assembly Member from the upper west side of Manhattan, led a small group of us who strongly believed that New York should restore the strength of its manufacturing sector, and needed to rebuild its rail freight handling infrastructure to do so. The group included Joe Ferris, the very liberal Assembly member from Park Slope; Brian Murtaugh, a former first mate in the merchant marine, now representing Inwood, the community in the far north of Manhattan; Eileen Dugan, the Brooklyn Heights Assembly Member we met in a previous post; and me. My sensitivity to the issue had developed when I served as executive director of the Assembly Task Force on the Port of New York, under the chairmanship of Schumer and Dugan’s predecessor in the Assembly, Mike Pesce.

Apparently, Speaker Fink had worked out some sort of arrangement with Peter Goldmark, then executive director of the Port Authority, under which Goldmark would be permitted to turn over the Port Authority’s waterfront holdings in Hunter’s Point, Queens, for the development of luxury housing, in return for which the Port Authority would do something that Fink thought beneficial (I don’t remember what). I had already developed enormous respect for Fink, watching him lead our House with brilliance and passion. I had met Goldmark when he was an assistant to Mayor Lindsay and I was an Urban Fellow, and quickly recognized that he too brimmed over with intelligence and commitment to the public interest. However, their deal, by committing waterfront land to housing rather than to cargo-handling facilities, would add to the destruction of New York’s potential for restoring shipping to its harbor.

The deal needed legislation to effectuate it. The bill would come before the Corporations Committee. Nadler got us all to vote against it. Specifically, he got each of us to pledge that we would not give the chair the vote it needed for a majority. Of course, if it did not get a majority of votes in committee, it could not be reported to the floor. But, acknowledging our discomfort in opposing the Speaker, we retained the right to vote for it if the effort to stop it proved a lost cause. However, with the five of us opposed, and with other members whose opposition we could count on, we knew we had the power to stop the bill.

After I seated myself in Kenny’s office, he introduced the conversation by noting that some people spend many years as members of the Assembly without getting to chair a committee; and much of one’s future in the Assembly depended on leadership’s perception of the member’s propensity to cooperate. Thinking I knew where this was heading, I immediately told him that I had given Jerry my word that I would oppose the bill, and I would not break my word no matter the consequences. Kenny broke in: “No one is asking you to break your word.” Deeply puzzled, I listened further. “Jerry just asked you not to provide the vote to report the bill out, right?” “Right,” I said. “All I’m asking you to do is, if the bill gets enough votes to be reported out, you vote for it too.” This did not violate my pledge, so I agreed. I still could not imagine how the bill would get reported, but just in case I said to Kenny, “but if it does get out, I’m still going to vote against it on the floor.” “Fine,” he said.

Committee chairs call the roll on controversial votes, sometimes in alphabetical order, but more often in order of the members’ seating around the table. I voted no. A few members later, to my astonishment, Dugan voted yes, giving the bill the majority it needed. I changed my vote to yes. After the meeting, Nadler approached me. He quickly recognized what had happened, and acknowledged that I had not broken my word.

A week or so later, the bill came to the floor. Kenny wandered around with his clipboard, getting all the “yes” votes he needed to pass it. I voted “no.” Fink came off the podium, got in my face, yelled at me, and sped on before I could respond. A few weeks after that, he, I, and most of the Democratic Assembly members took some boat ride off Manhattan, for reasons lost to memory. He approached me again, and this time apologized. Kenny had explained it to him, he said, and I had done the right thing.

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