Daniel L. Feldman

Hugh Carey: A Fond Memory

In New York State Politics on November 11, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I served in the Assembly for the final two years of Hugh Carey’s term, all three of Mario Cuomo’s terms, and George Pataki’s first term (of three).

Although I overlapped Carey the least, his vivid personality left a strong impression. Fink, with his own powerful intellect, let us know that he greatly admired Carey’s handling of New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis. Without Carey’s intelligence and strong character, we learned, New York City might well have gone bankrupt, with very bad consequences. By 1981, though, when I arrived in Albany, Carey appeared bored. Under those circumstances, he died his hair orange, offered to drink a glass of PCBs, and married a woman who had been divorced three times previously.

His occasionally bizarre behavior reflected only one aspect of a genuinely warm and charming personality, notwithstanding his occasional digs at the Legislature. In those years, following an annual tradition, the Governor hosted an end-of-session formal ball for the Legislature at the Governor’s Mansion. (After continuing the tradition for a year or two, Mario Cuomo abandoned it. It was not suited to his personality.) Spouses and significant others would join legislators in Albany for the day, repairing to the Mansion in the evening. Usually, the Speaker of the Assembly extended “courtesies of the floor” to such guests, meaning that the sergeant-at-arms (in my day and to the present, the beloved Wayne Jackson) would permit them to enter the Chamber itself, and even to chat quietly with their affiliated legislator.

Sometime in the 1970s, Louis de Salvio, who had represented the Lower East Side of Manhattan for thirty years, presided over the Assembly as Speaker pro tem, or pro tempore; that is, in the absence of the actual Speaker (which is most of the time, as the Speaker usually works out of the office he occupies just behind and to the left of the podium, if you are facing it). DeSalvio, apparently, was not among the more polished members of the Assembly. The duties of the Speaker pro tem include maintaining order, by orders enforced through the sergeant-at-arms. In those days few women served as members of the Assembly, and many members kept spouses at home in their districts while sustaining ongoing relationships with different people in Albany.

On an ordinary legislative day, when the buzz of conversation among members, visitors, and staff grows deafening, the Speaker pro tem will order the sergeant-at-arms to “clear the floor” of all except legislators. On this day, de Salvio found it necessary to do the same. However, a legislator protested: “Mr. Speaker,” he argued, “many of those on the floor today are wives of legislators.” “Okay,” came the official ruling of the Speaker: “wives can stay. Girlfriends must leave.”

No such development took place in 1982. After session, I went back to my office in the Legislative Office Building, where I changed into the formal clothes I had left there and picked up my girlfriend (I was single then!), and walked with her the few blocks to the Mansion.

At the end of a delightful evening of dining, dancing, and drinking, about twenty of us legislators, with our dates, stood around the piano, which Carey played quite well. By this date, both Houses of the Legislature had passed Oliver Koppell’s landmark “bottle bill,” requiring refundable deposits on soda bottles, ultimately resulting in much cleaner streets, a vast increase in recycling, and a source of income for many poor and homeless people. However, both Houses had also passed Roger Robach’s fake bottle bill, introduced by him at the urging of the bottling industry, who fiercely opposed Oliver’s effort. Roger’s bill, incompatible with Oliver’s, would actually have blocked bottle return. Both Oliver and Roger joined the small crowd around Carey. Carey, with the Legislature having placed both bills before him and thus having passed the decision entirely to him, made an announcement. Looking at Oliver and Roger, he said, “I’m going to make my decision based on which one of you sings the ‘New York, New York’ song better. (You know – Sinatra made it famous with his 1979 recording: “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today; I want to be a part of it: New York, New York,” etcetera. ).

First Oliver sang, surprisingly well. Then Roger sang, not as well, but not bad. Carey said, “Ah, you both stink,” and gave his own rendition, accompanying himself on the piano. By the way, he did a superb job.” Great round of applause. A few days later, he signed Oliver’s bill.

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