Daniel L. Feldman

Characters: Don Halperin

In New York State Politics on March 23, 2012 at 11:23 am

State Senator Donald Halperin became my closest friend among my fellow legislators. If ever a politician remained entirely immune to the ego inflation common among elected officials, it was Don. Not even a shred, a molecule, of arrogance attached itself to this man.

In 1970, while in his third year at Brooklyn Law School, Don assembled his friends from college, law school, and the Manhattan Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he would live his entire life, and took on a pillar of Brooklyn politics, the long-term incumbent State Senator Willie Rosenblatt, who had served since 1945. Don won, and became the youngest person ever elected to the New York State Senate.

When I took office in 1981, I quickly learned that having Halperin as my own state senator conferred a tremendous advantage. State senators and Assembly members from the same neighborhoods often have occasion to introduce each other’s bills in their respective houses as lead sponsor. In Tales from the Sausage Factory (pages 62-64), I explained how the Assembly passed a tenant protection bill of mine in my very first working day of session, and the bill became law – because Halperin carried it in the Senate.

Only Halperin, among the Senate minority Democrats, regularly won passage for a great many of his bills. In fact, he got more bills passed than many Republicans – an astonishing feat in a legislature where majority parties generally give very short shrift to minority party legislators. What made Halperin so unusual? By the time I arrived, he had already been around for a decade. More important, everyone liked him – and liked him a lot. His total and obvious decency just shone.

His extraordinary sense of humor, no doubt, contributed to his popularity. Back home in Brooklyn, Sunday mornings often found him and me on the same breakfast meetings track: synagogue men’s clubs, Jewish War Veterans Posts, B’nai Brith chapters, civic associations, parent-teacher associations, whatever. We sat together as the treasurer of a small B’nai Brith chapter in a low-income neighborhood took pledges from members, many of them in small multiples of “chai,” the Hebrew word for life, but also, because of the numerical value of Hebrew letters, indicative of the number 18. Most of these pledges were twice chai, three times chai, or chai by itself, but one member pledged “six times chai.” This treasurer did not have an especially quick head for arithmetic, and struggled with the multiplication for a while. Halperin nudged me. “Dan, Dan,” he whispered. “Pledge ‘pi chai.’”

I did not personally observe one of the most famous Halperin stories, but heard about it. At one point Halperin served as the ranking Democratic minority member of the Senate Codes Committee, chaired by the formidable Dale Volker. Dale had been a Buffalo police officer, and later a lawyer. He led the battle for the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York, which he won in 1995 (nominally – the State never executed anyone under that version of the statute).  No one incarnated the “law and order” stance better than Dale. His appearance and demeanor also tended to the strict and forbidding, with a typical police officer’s bristle-cut hair style, erect and military bearing, and a dour countenance.

If you kill someone’s dog, courts in New York have held that you become liable not merely for the economic value of the dog, but for the emotional pain you have caused the owner as well. For a number of years, a fervent cat lover had lobbied Albany legislators to extend such liability to anyone responsible for the death of a pet cat. A compliant legislator introduced the bill, but most other members satirically dubbed it the “flat cat” bill, suggesting the image of a cat that had been run over.

As committee chairs customarily do, Volker would have his Codes Committee staff schedule the bill for a “kill” calendar (pun not intended) near the end of session. Among many such pieces of legislation considered trivial, it would be treated with a motion to “hold” by the chair, and the committee members would unanimously support the motion without debate, thus consigning such a bill to oblivion for at least another year.  Any member of the committee wishing to debate the bill could object to this procedure, but toward the end of session most members had too little spare time to bother.

Volker brought up the flat cat bill, with a motion to hold. Halperin politely objected, and requested debate. By this time, Volker knew Halperin well, and knew something was up. “Okay, Senator,” he allowed, bracing himself for what he knew would be some kind of classic Halperin performance. “What is your objection?” Don began. “I understand that people love their cats, as well as others love their dogs. But this bill actually poses an equal protection problem. After all, people can become very attached to other pets as well – birds, for example. I believe that if we are going to protect a pussy, there is no good reason why we should not also protect a cockatoo.”

Legend has it that Volker made valiant efforts to match Halperin’s straight face, and succeeded for several seconds.

In 1993, Governor Cuomo appointed Halperin as New York State housing commissioner. But with Cuomo’s defeat in the 1994 election, Halperin was out of public office for the first time in his adult life.  The loss had no effect whatsoever on his demeanor. Without vanity or vainglory as a public official, he remained exactly the same out of office. Nor did his transition to the private sector, as a lobbyist in a law firm, diminish his sense of humor.

Some years later, around 2004, I met another good friend from the Legislature, Oliver Koppell, at his law firm at 40th Street and Park Avenue, and we began walking to a nearby Chinese restaurant. As is our habit, we got deeply involved in a conversation about politics, philosophy, or both well before we even reached the restaurant, so by the time we sat down, we were mostly oblivious to our surroundings. The waiter began setting the table as we sat, placing silverware, napkins, and water glasses in front of us. However, the waiter performed so clumsily that he was almost impossible to ignore. A good ten minutes in, he was still reaching over us to place items on the table, and eventually he was reaching from behind me, with one hand on either side of me, simultaneously placing two items on the table.

At this point, we could not help but notice that he was not Chinese. He also was not wearing a waiter’s uniform. He was Don Halperin.

Life with Don was not only jokes. It was also fun and games. One afternoon, early in my Assembly service, Don asked me to meet him in Coney Island, near but not in our respective districts. At that point I was ready to agree immediately out of respect for my senior colleague from the upper house, assuming we had some matter of importance to go over, perhaps in confidence. Actually, the early 1980s saw tremendous growth in the sophistication and popularity of computer games. Don had brought me to the Coney Island amusement park to try some of the new ones.

He kept in great physical shape. He had swum competitively in high school and college, and still did 75 pushups each night. When he told me this, I tried it one night in Albany, since I always considered myself to be in pretty good shape too. However, not having practiced pushups for a while, for the next week or so my colleagues and constituents, watching me walk around, must have thought I was practicing my impression of Quasimodo.

Sometime in the 1990s Don brought a karate instructor to Albany, and at 7 a.m., once a week, we brushed up on our martial arts skills.

In the physical skill area, Don most impressed me with his continued ability to perform a kazatski dance, in which while remaining in a low squatting position, you alternate kicking each leg out straight, quickly and in time to the Russian music.

Ironically and tragically, Don fell victim to a rare form of cancer, and died at the age of 60. His obituary in the New York Times included a classic Halperin story, resonant with his humor and humility. Writing about his trip to a reunion in Los Angeles of New York transplants there organized by a friend he knew from his Boy Scout troop in Brooklyn, the obituary closed by noting, “Of his journey to the city that stole the Dodgers, Mr. Halperin said, ‘I retaliated by making a long, boring speech.’”

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