Daniel L. Feldman

The “Go” Game

In National Politics on May 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

In 1982, a scholarly journal called Political Methodology had published an article of mine, “Games of Skill: Wei-ch’i and a Democratic Primary in Brooklyn,” in which I explained the political strategy with which I won my 1980 Assembly race in terms of the game called “go” in Japan and “wei-ch’i” in China. In go, unlike chess, players best dominate by building strength at the various corners and edges of the board. In the article, I applied the theory literally, showing my techniques of building support in the various geographical reaches of the district.

As noted in a previous post, I contemplated the theory more metaphorically in the congressional race, thinking that my accomplishments for drivers, subway riders, tenants and homeowners would build support in those demographic cohorts of the district. Even in ideological terms, I thought I had put down the right “markers”: in late 1997, as I was gearing up for the race, I asked for and received a letter of endorsement from the New York City Police Benevolent Association, a generally conservative group; and based on my work with women’s groups combating domestic violence, I expected and received the endorsement of the New York City chapter of the National Organization of Women, a generally liberal group.

However, I thought I could apply the theory geographically as well. After all, historically the big Democratic votes in the 9th congressional district came from my own 45th Assembly district, where I would surely do well, and the 39th and 41st, respectively Tony Genovesi’s, based in Canarsie and Mill Basin, and Helene Weinstein’s, based in the half of Sheepshead Bay east of my half, where I thought I also had reason to do fairly well, all in Brooklyn. Since I had supported Genovesi in his brief and abortive effort to depose Silver as Assembly Speaker, I thought I would have Genovesi’s support. On a personal basis, I had pestered the very overweight Genovesi into joining Artie Malkin and myself for racketball games, thinking it would benefit his health. In fact, for his size, Tony gave us a decent game, since he used to be a good handball player and still had some moves. On the Queens side, the 22nd covered most of Rockaway, where I grew up, and Howard Beach, where I had lost my City Council races to Walter Ward, but where I thought I still had friends, like Betty Braton, the district manager who had supported me in those races. Of course, Melinda Katz would be strong in the 28th, the Forest Hills district she represented, but otherwise, I thought I could be the Queens candidate as well as the Brooklyn candidate.  

Beyond such calculations, I simply did not think I could lose to any of these opponents. Indeed, early on in the race, probably in March, 1998, my pollster, Global Strategies, called me and Louis in for a celebratory meeting. Their polls had me beating my opponents by comfortable margins. Jeff Plaut, one of the principals of the group, offered me a congratulatory cigar. This made perfect sense to me. My work, over all those years, benefitting so many key constituencies, I thought, had brought me widespread support.

I really didn’t think I could lose to my opponents, all of whom I considered lightweights. Somehow, after all my years in politics, I still had the notion that substance and merit would prevail. Congressman Jerry Nadler half-joked, at one point, that I had written more books than my opponents had read. My qualifications so clearly outclassed theirs that I could not imagine, for example, that the New York Times would fail to endorse me, even with Schumer’s Luca Brasi on the editorial board (see post #73). I even imagined that the Post and News would feel compelled to endorse me.  I should have taken more of a lesson from the Saturday Night Live skit when Jon Lovitz, playing Michael Dukakis in his debate with Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, finally said what every Democratic intellectual must have thought the real Michael Dukakis was thinking that year: “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!”

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