Daniel L. Feldman

Characters: Marty Markowitz

In NYC Politics on March 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Among the many, many speeches I gave during the District Attorney campaign was one to the 71st Precinct Police Community Council. Police community councils, enlisting volunteers who want to make sure that their local police contingent responds to the needs of the community as they see them, sometimes draw big crowds to their meetings when some incident or condition arouses that wider community. The neighborhood, and thus the crowd at the meeting, was one hundred percent black, except for three of the speakers: me, one of the police officials, and then-State Senator Marty Markowitz. Assembly Member Clarence Norman spoke, to polite applause. The police official spoke, to polite applause. Another black elected official spoke, to polite applause. I spoke, to polite applause. Then Marty Markowitz spoke.

Markowitz had represented a mostly Jewish district in southern Brooklyn. Almost without impact in Albany, Marty represented his constituents with fierce tenacity. I visited his office for some reason in the early 1980s, and heard him screaming at some commissioner on behalf of a constituent who needed some bureaucratic attention. I recognized the constituent: he was an obnoxious semi-lunatic who regularly annoyed his neighbors; Markowitz would have won more votes by insulting him publicly. But he was Marty’s constituent, and that was enough.

After the 1980 census, though, the Republican-controlled Senate leadership redistricted Markowitz so that his new constituency was almost entirely black. Marty stood in front of the crowd. “I know who I am,” he said. “I’m a short, fat Jewish guy. But don’t think that means I don’t understand your problems.

“My office is on Church Avenue, on the second floor. Some guys stand in front of it all day, dealing drugs. So I went down to talk to them. I said, ‘Look, I’m a State Senator. It doesn’t look right for you to be selling drugs right in front of my office.’ They thought about it, and answered me, sounding very reasonable. ‘You make a good point,’ they said. ‘You should move your office.’”

I’m sure my rendition doesn’t do justice to Marty’s performance. The crowd went nuts. They loved this guy.

The precinct council people tended to be older. When walking among younger black constituents, Marty sometimes carried a “boom box” with him, tuned to hip hop music. He seemed to become one of them, to the extent possible. I think he was sincere.

He was still single when we served together in Albany, although he was approaching 50. The legislative scene in Albany in those days included lobbyists’ receptions for legislators with enticing spreads of food and plenty of alcoholic refreshment, before the ethics laws restricted lobbyists’ ability to provide that sort of thing. Mary Lee King was not a lobbyist, but for decades ran the ZAP courier service, specializing in expedited delivery of memos to legislators for lobbyists facing some urgent legislative deadline. Mary Lee, a grandmother, still wore extremely short skirts. Six feet tall and gorgeous, she always made a strong and extremely pleasant impression. As I chatted casually with her, Marty sauntered over. From his five foot five inch level, he slowly raised his eyes to take in Mary Lee’s full dimensions. “What’s the use even fantasizing,” he mused very audibly, and walked away.

Marty’s years representing black Brooklyn won him enormous popularity. When he represented white Brooklyn, he solicited enough money from private sources to put on fabulous popular music concerts in Midwood and Brighton Beach, drawing thousands of people, at which he would give appropriate recognition – advertising – to the corporate sponsors. When he moved to black Brooklyn, he continued to preside at the original concerts, in his trademark white tie and tails, but added concerts in his black neighborhoods.

In 2001 [David Eichenthal and Howard Graubard corrected the mistaken date in the earlier version of this post] he ran for Brooklyn Borough President against Ken Fisher, a very intelligent white member of the New York City Council, and Jeanette Gadson, a very capable black deputy to Borough President Howard Golden. Golden of course disliked Markowitz for having tried to unseat him in previous years, before borough presidents were term-limited out. Toward the end of that race I had breakfast with Steve Cohn, my old subcommittee counsel (see post #57). Steve grew up with Ken, and considered him to be virtually a brother. I asked him how the race was going. “Well,” he said, “Marty will split the white vote with Kenny, and he’ll split the black vote with Jeanette.” Steve was too loyal to Kenny to say outright that Marty would win. But his meaning was clear enough.

The New York Times ran an endorsement in that race. After noting that Fisher “clearly prefers wrestling with global policy issues,” the Times endorsed Markowitz, suggesting that he “hir[e] technical experts to deal with complex areas” and thus “free himself to do what he does best, promote and help Brooklyn residents,” or, essentially, “The borough presidency is a job for an idiot. We endorse Marty Markowitz.” And Marty has in fact been a great borough president.


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