Daniel L. Feldman

Public servant

In New York State Politics on December 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

Elected officials almost always call themselves “public servants.” That doesn’t truly describe the role of a president, a U.S. senator, a governor, or most statewide office-holders. In many ways they are really public masters, not public servants.

As the Assembly Member from the 45th District, I knew I was a public servant. For one thing, I lived in the servants’ quarters.

As noted earlier, I had moved to my aunt and uncle’s house on Falmouth Street in Manhattan Beach in 1977, after my father sold our family house in Belle Harbor. They had paying tenants on the second floor, but I lived in the attic crawl space on the third floor. Given its triangular shape, there weren’t many places I could stand up straight, but I didn’t mind, especially since they did not charge me any rent. However after I won the primary and was assured of election, they gently informed me that as an elected official, I really had to get my own place to live.

At that time New York State paid its Assembly members $27,500 a year, slightly less than the $30,000 a year to which my salary had risen while working for Schumer. Although theoretically a part-time job, the 45th Assembly District had grown accustomed to full-time service from my predecessors Solarz and Schumer, with the Assembly Member available in his neighborhood office during the day and at community meetings every night and weekend, unless in Albany for legislative business, and would resent any lesser degree of service. Therefore, that salary represented the extent of my income, except for the three or four thousand dollars I might be paid each year for adjunct teaching at L.I.U. or N.Y.U.

So I had to budget very tightly. I looked for the cheapest apartment I could find. I found it on the sixth floor, the top floor, of 50 Shore Boulevard, a building more-or-less at the intersection of three of the neighborhoods I represented: Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay. While my apartment stood literally across the street from the water of Sheepshead Bay itself, a nice location, it was so tiny that you might walk in without noticing you had just passed through the kitchen. Other than a small bathroom, the room you entered was all there was, and it was not large. Cater cornered across the street were the houses of Manhattan Beach, the wealthiest part of my district. But very few of my constituents in any part of the district lived in quarters cheaper or smaller than mine.

[Thanks to Adrienne Knoll, this edition corrects the date of this story from 1983 to 1984, and notes that Bay News reported it.] During the winter of my fourth year in the Assembly, my ceiling started to leak. I told Bill Collins, our building superintendent. He explained that in a top-floor apartment, like mine, deterioration in the roof caused the problem, but the roof was under repair, so the problem would soon disappear. In the next couple of months, it got worse. Bill then informed me that the management and the roofers were in dispute, which would have to be resolved before work could continue.

By April, I had to place buckets under the leak. I also stopped paying my rent, in protest. The Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader schedule the closing day of session for sometime in June, but that rarely happens. By mid- or late June, the effort to close often requires daily sessions, sometimes including weekends. That year, session kept me away from my apartment for at least a week. We finished on the last weekend in June. It had been a rainy week. Probably from getting too little rest, I had a bad cold. I got a lift home from a colleague – Joe Ferris, if remember correctly – and reached my apartment door  at about 1 in the morning, lonely, sick, cold, wet, and depressed. The first thing I saw on my floor was a pile of rent bills, stuffed under the door. The second thing I saw on the floor was 24 square feet of ceiling. Broken rafters hung halfway down from the roof. Wet plaster dust covered my bed and floor. I was not happy.

But I kept my composure in one important respect. I didn’t touch a thing, except to clear off the bed enough to go to sleep. The next morning I called the New York Post and Daily News. The next day’s Post had a vertical wide-angle lens shot, the full length of the page, of the floor covered with rubble, me sitting disconsolately on my bed, and the rafters hanging from the ceiling. The News had a smaller picture, but good enough. And of course the Bay News, the wonderful local weekly that always gave my doings excellent coverage, had the story as well.

On Wednesday, July 4, I stood in front of the Brighton Baths, greeting the normal July 4th number of entering members – several thousand. Approximately two out of three said, “Oh, Mr. Feldman, we saw your picture in the newspaper! I’m so sorry about what happened to you.” If I had ever needed to show my solidarity with my fellow tenants in the district, this did it.

Back in Albany the next week, Assembly Speaker Mel Miller joked, “Well, either you are completely honest, or you’re the cheapest s.o.b. in politics.”

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