Daniel L. Feldman

Fighting with Constituents

In New York State Politics on December 23, 2011 at 9:56 am

At one point, I was battling Governor Cuomo on one front and Mayor Koch on another. My wife disingenuously asked me if she was under a misapprehension in assuming that politicians were supposed to be especially good at making friends, not enemies.  But I didn’t only antagonize fellow politicians. I sometimes antagonized constituents, too.

I thought that if I regularly pretended to like people I didn’t like, the constant pretense might spill over, so that my affection for people I did like might become less real. Perhaps I was merely rationalizing self-indulgence by allowing myself to vent at annoying people. But I really was worried about becoming less than genuine.

I admired Jimmy Carter’s letter to an obnoxious constituent, drafted for him by Jody Powell, in which he noted that one of the many burdens of elective office was the responsibility of answering “barely legible letters from morons,” and “respectfully” suggested that the correspondent “take two running jumps and go straight to hell.”  Similarly, I liked Liz Holtzman’s standard response to the usual block-lettered nasty missive with lots of exclamation points: “I thought you would want to know that some obvious lunatic has been sending out notes over your signature.”

In those years I thought that enactment of a death penalty statute, drafted to virtually assure that no one would be executed, would help restore the frayed fabric of government legitimacy. Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides warned of the greater dangers societies face when they attempt to “banish the Furies” rather than confining them in a place of honor. While most of my constituents supported my position, many disagreed, often quite articulately. So many disagreed that I drafted a form letter explaining my position. Unfortunately, it included a typographical error misspelling “Aeschylus.” Still, most recipients seemed satisfied that at least I had a reasonable basis for my view. One constituent, however, returned a ferocious response. How dare I cite Aeschylus, a cultivated person, in support of my “simeon-like” views? And, of course, I knew no better but than to misspell his name.

My friend Ibby Lang suggested my response.  I respectfully acknowledged our difference on the issue. I then added, “Since you have indicated an interest in spelling, I thought you would want to know that Simeon is a man’s name, while the term you sought was no doubt “simian,” or “ape-like.” Thus, your submission was both ungrammatical and mis-spelled. Please feel free to call on me if I can be of any further assistance.” Needless to say, she did not.

Some years later, I engaged with a constituent in a considerably less literary interaction. I had left the Quentin Road entrance to the Kings Highway stop as the final day of my subway stop series, as described in an earlier post. Two weeks straight of subway stops drained my supplies of energy and of bonhomie. I had started doing subway stops in Liz’s 1970 district leader race, or maybe earlier, and covered stops innumerable times in my Council races, so I had well more than a decade of experience, and I invariably picked up any leaflets that commuters had dropped on the ground. I had at least two reasons: I did not want to leave the impression that I had untidy habits; and I did not want people stepping on pictures of the candidate’s face, especially if the candidate were me.

As I have mentioned, some commuters accept the leaflets; most commuters ignore the subway-stop politician; a few make unkind comments. As always, I had arrived at around 6:30 a.m. Near 8:30 a.m., the very end of my visit, one tough-looking fellow in his mid-twenties ignored me and walked up the stairs toward the elevated tracks, as had so many others. This fellow, however, before disappearing from view, yelled down at me, very sarcastically, “And I suppose you’re going to clean up all those leaflets after you leave!!”

In no mood for this, I replied, “Yes. And I hope you are not one of the pigs that dropped them!” At this he came back down the stairs, yelling “are you calling me a pig?!,” and clearly signaling by the position of his fists that he intended an immediate physical confrontation. I must confess that I was delighted. My nerves were such that I truly looked forward to a fight. I snapped into free-fighting stance, and said with some enthusiasm, “Come on. Come on!”

Astonished, he asked, not unreasonably, “What kind of politician are you?!!” He called over to a police officer, who happened to have just arrived in the station, and asked him to arrest me, but the officer explained that people are allowed to campaign in subway stations. The young fellow departed.

As I cooled down, I began to think about the possible outcomes. He might have beaten me up, which would have been unpleasant. What if I had beaten him up, however? I had a vision of a news photo of the fellow, sporting a cast on his arm and a black eye or broken nose, captioned “Is this how Assemblyman Feldman treats his constituents?”

From that day forward I decided that physically fighting with constituents never qualifies as a good idea. From this realization, I tried to advance to the next level: that screaming at constituents isn’t really a good idea either. But I occasionally violated the second rule.

I had to invoke the first rule to another politician on one occasion, however. Irving Yanoff, an overweight older man who had been a political fixture for decades, regularly campaigned for conservative Democratic candidates on street corners. (Apparently registered at one time as a member of the Liberal Party ,  he received less than 7% of the vote in a three-way Democratic primary against State Senator Marty Solomon in 1980, and about 12 % of the vote as the Liberal Party candidate in the general election against Assembly Member Frank Barbaro in 1970 .)  He came equipped with a naturally loud voice as well as a bullhorn. When Liz faced Alan Hevesi in the 1993 New York City Comptroller primary, I campaigned with her in front of the Brighton Baths, where of course I was popular among the members, introducing her to them and praising her as the Baths emptied for the day. Yanoff stood five feet from her, heckling her vociferously. Probably because of my death penalty vote, Yanoff liked me. Liz said to me, sotto voce, “do something about him!”

I moved next to Irving and chatted with him, leaving Liz to greet the populace in peace. This lasted for about five minutes, when Yanoff returned to the bullhorn, and I returned to introducing Liz. Every so often I’d interrupt him again, and he and I would chat amicably for a while. The pattern kept repeating. But Liz was getting frustrated. Finally, she said to me, with some annoyance, “my brother would have hit him!” Having undergone my earlier epiphany, I explained: “Liz, I’m an elected official. I can’t hit people.”


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