Daniel L. Feldman

Creeping Republicanism

In General on January 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm

In the 1973 and 1974 City Council campaigns, I saw the power of incumbency. Walter Ward was a politician who could barely articulate a statement on any matter of public policy, who never authored serious legislation, and much of whose district, during his tenure, deteriorated as a result of poorly planned low-income housing and nursing home construction under the auspices of the City government to which he was elected. Yet he beat me handily in both primaries. So many voters had personally benefited from Walter’s help – perhaps he got an extra crossing guard for their children’s school, or arranged for an extra sanitation pick-up, or got the City Council to pass a resolution honoring their grandfather on his 100th birthday – that he got plenty of votes even in the Rockaways, my part of the council district, which had suffered greatly.

But from the late 1980s through the 1990s, incumbency (and habit, a related matter) worked powerfully to my benefit. The demographic changes I described in the previous two posts rendered my district far more conservative than it had been when I was first elected. Because I endorsed David Dinkins over Rudy Giuliani in the 1989 general election, members of the various senior citizens centers in my district, who had always given me strong support, actually booed me when I spoke.  Although Dinkins won the mayoralty that year, he did not win the vote in the 45th. So far as I could tell, the electorate did not share my strong support for gay rights. My efforts to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws seemed to puzzle many constituents, and probably annoyed many others.  But by then my office had helped them get school crossing guards, arranged extra sanitation pick-ups, and brought Assembly proclamations for 100th birthdays, as well as a thousand other things that built voter loyalty.

I did not control the leadership of the Club. Lupka had never given me any trouble, and had never asked me to put anyone on the Assembly payroll, or in any other way violate my “reform” principles. As noted earlier, though, in 1987 Lupka had to relinquish the leadership, I very reluctantly took it for a year and a half, and then happily handed it to Hal Epstein. But Hal quickly tired of it, and in 1990, when I must still have been too much in recovery from the 1989 race for District Attorney to pay much attention, Etan Merwis ran to succeed him as the Club’s candidate, defeating Jerry Bisogno (a political ally of Harry Smoler). Etan’s mother, Hilda Mirwis, worked for Borough President Golden, and fancied herself a political power in Manhattan Beach. Abrasive and outspokenly conservative, she had pushed her twenty-something-year-old son into the race. Etan himself having alienated many Club members, in 1992 Hal Epstein’s friend, yet another Manhattan Beach resident, challenged Merwis for the leadership in the Democratic primary. [I thank Howard Graubard for wisely doubting my original recollection of this history, and for getting what I believe to be a more accurate history from Jeff Feldman, who at the time ran the Brooklyn Democratic County organization for then County Leader (and Borough President) Howard Golden.] I endorsed and campaigned vigorously for Geller, since he seemed pleasant and articulate. Geller even prevailed in the election district that included the Merwis home.

But in June of 1993 I got a phone call from Geller in which he informed me that the next morning he and Mary Tobin, his conservative Democratic co-leader, would endorse Republican Rudy Giuliani over incumbent Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. There was nothing I could do about it. In fact, if it was a question of reading the will of the constituency, Geller and Tobin read it quite well. Dinkins would lose the 45th by a bigger margin than he had in 1989, and this time would lose the mayoralty as well.

It was not that I felt a duty to endorse a Democrat. If they had stayed neutral, I would not have been offended. But for my Democratic party leaders to endorse a Republican was appalling and personally hurtful to me. Geller and Tobin were not merely reflecting the constituency, though. Their own personal political ideology reflected the district better than mine did.

Dinkins, of course, had done nothing to endear himself to my constituents. His passivity during the first hours of the 1991 Crown Heights race riot, during which Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered, infuriated many voters throughout the City. Closer to home, his office announced plans to establish a welfare center on Brighton 12th Street in my district. The prospect of welfare recipients congregating on that block did nothing to sooth my constituents’ feelings. No doubt, racial prejudice played a role in their highly negative reaction. However, the proposal also lacked common sense on practical grounds. During the summer, no street in the district suffered worse traffic congestion. It could take a half hour for a car to negotiate that one block. The Dinkins administration, in effect, told my constituents that it intended to make the situation worse still. In reality, for logistical reasons, they had chosen a very poor location. However, despite protests from all the area’s local elected officials, the Dinkins administration refused to reconsider.

Few voters supported Dinkins in (mostly white) southern Brooklyn. No elected officials from the area endorsed him. Early in the spring of 1993, John Bozella, one of the City’s lobbyists, approached me in Albany and asked me to endorse the Mayor. I thought it over, and decided that however unpopular he might be with my constituents, and despite my qualms about him, I would like to support him against Rudy Giuliani, his challenger. However, I needed some degree of political protection. I told Bozella that if the Mayor would reverse his decision to place a welfare center on Brighton 12th Street, I could use that concession as my public rationale for such an endorsement. I could say that I endorsed him in return for that benefit to my district.

Months passed. Geller and Tobin announced their endorsement of Giuliani. No white politician from southern Brooklyn endorsed Dinkins. Summer turned into fall. An endorsement from one reasonably popular white Jewish elected official could have had some impact, possibly somewhat mitigating the stunning impact of the endorsement from my two Democratic district leaders.  I considered the possibility that if the Dinkins administration was incompetent enough to ignore my offer, perhaps he really shouldn’t be reelected mayor. And he wasn’t.

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