Daniel L. Feldman

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Art of the Watchdog — available

In General on January 11, 2014 at 5:57 pm

With its official publication date of January 1, 2014, The Art of the Watchdog is now available directly from the publisher (SUNY Press) and from Amazon.


THE ART OF THE WATCHDOG gets nice endorsement

In General on December 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

New York Times reporter Sam Roberts included our new book, The Art of the Watchdog, in his recommended reading list for the new mayor (it’s the last book on his list, so be sure to get to the end):

December 13, 2013

Suggested Reading for de Blasio


The Art of the Watchdog: Fighting Fraud, Waste, Abuse and Corruption in Government” (State University of New York Press). This wonky volume by Daniel L. Feldman and David R. Eichenthal ought to be required reading for any government executive. It’s a timely reminder of the necessity for holding appointed and elected officials accountable and for making sure, too, that watchdogs bite as vigorously as they bark.

Gun Violence: Who Should Pay?

In Criminal Justice Policy, General, National Politics, Policy on July 2, 2013 at 5:51 pm

In April 2013, I sent the following as a proposed Op Ed piece to the New York Times:


By Daniel L. Feldman*

Hardly does the public hear about proposals to make gun manufacturers financially liable to victims of gun violence when tragedy results from the manufacturers’ careless distribution of their product. When a car manufacturer’s negligence, along with a driver’s, helps cause an accident, the victim can sue both. But right now, since most perpetrators of gun violence don’t have money, the random victim bears the cost, while businesses that profit from such sales get off scot-free.

Politicians allied with the gun lobby have successfully painted the effort to impose financial accountability on gun manufacturers as radical, and thus have kept it outside the mainstream of public discourse. As a recent illustration, Republicans blocked nomination of a candidate for the D.C. Circuit Court, claiming that she had demonstrated her “extreme” views by having worked on a lawsuit against gun manufacturers a decade earlier.

But there is nothing extreme, from a legal or policy point of view, in holding gun manufacturers financially liable for supplying their product to dealers who they know or should know consistently “leak” guns to the criminal market. Indeed, a conservative Republican judge on the New York Court of Appeals, writing a decision in 2001 denying financial relief to gun victims, noted that were gun victims actually to succeed in establishing such facts, gun manufacturers “might well” be liable.

Crime gun tracing data collected by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) showed quite clearly in 1999 that less than two percent of gun dealers leaked the majority of guns to the criminal market, and the manufacturers and distributors know or have reason to know which ones they are. But they continue to supply them with the product.

So beginning in 2003, with the Tiahrt Amendment the NRA got Congress to suppress ATF data revealing the gun industry’s negligence in supplying the criminal market. Two years later Congress enacted the Lawful Protection of Commerce in Arms Act, essentially immunizing the industry from liability for such negligence altogether. The current state of the law, then, should be seen as extreme: an extraordinary exception to deep-seated traditional common law principles that increases the damage to public health facilitated by the worst elements in the American gun industry.

Full financial liability for negligent distribution of their products would give gun manufacturers an incentive to supply only those gun dealers who sell responsibly – the vast majority, in any case. Such a change in the law would assure a substantial reduction in the number of victims.

Even if the Second Amendment had said “the right to sell arms shall not be infringed,” gun manufacturer tort liability would still be constitutional, just as liability for libel and slander remains constitutional notwithstanding the prohibition against “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The NRA, however, primarily the voice of its financial backers rather than of its members, treats threats to the profits of the industry as more “extreme” than restrictions on gun ownership. On at least one occasion, it awarded an “F” to the most visible proponent of the Brady Law, but an “F-minus” to the sponsor of state legislation to impose tort liability on gun manufacturers.

Thus, the NRA has succeeded in keeping gun manufacturer tort liability on the margins of the gun control conversation. In an honest and rational debate, even those who believe that the Second Amendment creates a general right to bear arms would have to acknowledge that no gun control initiative trespasses less on the Second Amendment than manufacturer tort liability. Rational discourse on this subject should shame Congress into repealing the Tiahrt Amendment and the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.



*Mr. Feldman, an associate professor of public management at John Jay College, served as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1981 to 1998, and in March convened and moderated a panel discussion, “Gun Violence: Who Should Pay?,” at John Jay with U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal.), who recently introduced legislation to repeal the statutes mentioned above; Michael Cardozo, the New York City Corporation Counsel, who has sued gun dealers and manufacturers on behalf of the City; Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Program of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence; Elizabeth Holtzman, former Member of Congress, District Attorney, and NYC Comptroller, who initiated discussion of gunmaker tort liability more than two decades ago; and David Yassky, NYC Taxi Commissioner and former City Council Member, who in his earlier capacity sponsored the New York City law intended to impose such liability.


According to my search of the New York Times archives, the last time they mentioned the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was in 2008. However, within weeks of my submission, which they did not print, they covered the subject in an article by Jim Dwyer (May 28), an Op Ed by Robert Morgenthau (June 23), and an editorial (June 29). I am pleased that the Times is giving attention to the issue.

[note that although the results below say “1-10 of about 617 Results,” examination of the results past the first 10 do not actually refer to the Protection of Commerce in Arms Act]


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1-10 of about 617 Results

  1. 1.     U.S. Appeals Court Rejects City’s Suit to Curb Guns

That law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, banned all suits against the gun industry except those in which a plaintiff could prove …

May 1, 2008 – By ALAN FEUER – New York Region – Article – Print Headline: “U.S. Appeals Court Rejects City’s Suit to Curb Guns”

  1. 2.     A Law That Keeps Gun Makers Smiling

The law signed that day, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, has smothered lawsuits by cities around the country, including by New …

May 28, 2013 – By JIM DWYER – N.Y. / Region – Article – Print Headline: “Keeping Gun Makers Smiling”

  1. 3.     A Gun Maker Moves On

3 days ago This outrageous law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, can only be envied by other industries whose products might affect …

June 29, 2013 – By THE EDITORIAL BOARD – Opinion / Sunday Review – Article – Print Headline: “A Gun Maker Moves On”

Suing, or Taxing, the Gun Makers

20 hours ago It was necessary to put the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act into effect to prevent unwarranted and misdirected lawsuits designed to …

July 1, 2013 – The New York Times – Opinion – Article – Print Headline: “Suing, or Taxing, the Gun Makers”

  1. 5.     U.S. Court Rejects New York Gun Lawsuit

That law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, banned all third-party suits against the gun industry except for those in which a …

April 30, 2008 – By ALAN FEUER – N.Y./Region

Smith & Wesson Is Fighting Its Way Back

A gun-friendly administration as well as a new law signed last fall by President Bush — the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms act — that …

April 11, 2006 – By LESLIE WAYNE – Business – Print Headline: “Smith & Wesson Is Fighting Its Way Back”

Let Shooting Victims Sue

They went to work and, the next year, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, severely reducing the legal liability of …

June 23, 2013 – By ROBERT M. MORGENTHAU – Opinion – Article – Print Headline: “Let Shooting Victims Sue”

  1. 8.     Judge Clears Way for City to Sue Gun Companies

The judge ruled that the new law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, does not apply to the city’s lawsuit because it falls under a …

December 3, 2005 – By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM – New York Region – Print Headline: “Judge Clears Way for City to Sue Gun Companies”

  1. 9.     Lawyers, Guns and Mayors

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act would shield irresponsible firearms manufacturers, wholesalers, dealers and trade …

February 24, 2004 – Opinion – Article

10. Votes in Congress

Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act: The bill would make gun manufacturers and dealers immune to lawsuits stemming from the misuse …

April 13, 2003 – New York and Region – Article



In General on July 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

I was fortunate to represent an Assembly district with very good public schools in each of the two Community School Board Districts, 21 and 22, that served it. In those days, prior to the 2003 legislation that ended much of the decentralization of power that followed on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict and the teachers’ strike of 1968,   Community School Boards exercised substantial hiring powers, and therefore substantial control over the quality of the schools within them. My two School Boards were among the best.

My children went to P.S. 195 in District 22, probably the better of the two. We moved when my son was going into fourth grade and my daughter was going into second grade. In our new North Shore Long Island district, with excellent schools paid for with enormous property taxes, my children’s new teachers asked my wife if they had come from private schools, because they were somewhat ahead of their new classmates.

I knew that I needed to do all I could to maintain the quality of my district’s schools, because strong families move to neighborhoods where they know their children will access to good schools, and leave neighborhoods where they learn otherwise. That’s why I spent significant amounts of time visiting the schools to identify their needs, and used my “member item” (pork barrel!) moneys primarily to support pre-kindergarten programs and computer facilities for them. In this regard, Naomi Broadwin, my staff member who had been a former Parents Association president at her children’s school, helped me a great deal.

P.S. 195 probably may have provided the best education among “my” public schools. However, all of them performed well. I spent a significant amount of time in those schools, and was especially impressed by the work of Dan Gitter, principal of P.S. 254 on East 19th and Avenue X, Lillian Dinofsky of P.S. 153 at Homecrest and Avenue T, and Kathleen Cashin of P.S. 193 on Bedford Avenue and Avenue L. [Adrienne Knoll corrected the earlier version of this post; I had mistakenly remembered Dr. Cashin at P.S. 197.] Dr. Cashin is now a member of the New York State Board of Regents.

Even P.S. 195, however, could not match the education I received in the 1950s at P.S. 114 in Queens, where I remember being required to write letters responding to front-page articles to the editor of the New York Times each week; performing in an English-language and somewhat abbreviated but nonetheless fairly authentic version of Don Giovanni; and preparing my exhibit on Argentina including maps, actual cuisine, and form of government, for our school’s international fair. Further, other than the aforementioned schools and perhaps a few others, teachers exercised too little control. In the 1950s, P.S. 114 required all the boys to wear white shirts and ties, and all the girls to wear similarly business-like clothing. In the 1980s, the teachers at most of our public schools dressed far more sloppily.

My wife had unpleasant memories of harsh discipline at her Catholic elementary school in the 1950s, as did other friends of mine who attended such schools. In the 1980s, though, when the public schools, on average, operated at a level of chaos that appalled me, the Catholic schools in my district seemed to give their students the perfect balance of individual expression and order. Monsignor Thomas Noonan, who ran St. Edmunds on Avenue T and Ocean Avenue, to me personified that balance, but St. Brendan’s on Avenue O and East 12th, St. Marks on Avenue Z and Ocean Avenue, and Resurrection on Gerritsen Avenue between Avenue V and Whitney Avenue provided fine examples as well. The financial ills that plagued the Catholic school system generally in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, forced St. Brendan’s to close, in its case partly the result of the replacement of many middle-class students with students from families who needed much more financial support.  Some of the yeshivot, Jewish day schools, impressed me similarly, especially the Shulamith School for Girls near East 14th Street and Avenue M, the Harry Halpern School of East Midwood Jewish Center, and the Prospect Park Yeshiva, which actually was on Avenue R and East 17th Street, despite its name. The Mirrer Yeshiva and the Chaim Berlin school, two prestigious very Orthodox institutions, also served my constituents, but were too conservative for me to assess them fairly.

My commitment extended, therefore, to the religious schools as well. As noted in post #79, I identified a serious financial need there as well, and – at Alan Hevesi’s suggestion, as it happened – introduced legislation that became law and reimbursed those schools for their costs in administering the mandated school immunization program. This created the first new stream of revenue from government they had won in many years, and some of the schools, operating on a very slim margin, told me it saved them from closing.

Often, teachers at the schools would invite me to guest-lecture to their students. Eventually, I learned to talk in the right way to teach younger students, but it wasn’t easy. As an experienced adjunct faculty member in graduate programs, I initially thought I would have no trouble. I soon learned that teaching elementary school poses different challenges. A few days after offering what I thought was a well-received talk on government to a very polite group of third graders, I received a very nice thank-you note for each student in the class. Only one, though, included a phrase that really had the ring of truth. The student wrote, “Thank you very much for coming to our class. What you said was interesting, but boring.”

With some effort, I clarified the presentation style I would subsequently use for third-graders. Then I was asked to talk to a kindergarten class about a forthcoming election. I kept my remarks down to ten minutes, this time, out of respect for what I now understood was a limited attention span, but I took pains to provide what I thought was a very simple, crystal clear distillation of the electoral process. Then I asked for questions, and got one: “What is voting?”

I felt so much more comfortable talking to an auditorium-full of junior high school students. After all, they had reached the age of reason, and should be able to understand me much better. In addition to my substantive remarks, I offered them a personal observation as well. I explained to them that notwithstanding how I looked from their perspective, at my age at that time (35), I truly did not feel significantly older than them. This was a heartfelt effort to enable them to understand our different perspectives on age. They laughed.

A Day in the Life

In General on July 20, 2012 at 6:58 am

Newspaper editorials often say that New York State legislators work only part time, because they only report for session about sixty days a year. I kept the record of my schedule for a Sunday in 1983 – not a session day, and not during a year that I was running for office — that was probably busier than usual, but not atypical:

9:30 a.m.: speech at Veterans Post #6 in Brighton Beach regarding transit

10:30 a.m.: meeting of local elected officials at Midwood Development Corporation regarding the State budget

11:15 a.m.: speech at Kings County Council, Jewish War Veterans, in East Flatbush, regarding cemetery vandalism

Noon to 4 p.m.: campaign for and with Assembly Member Fred Schmidt in Queens

5:30 p.m.: two shiva stops in Manhattan Beach (shiva is the period of mourning after a Jewish funeral)

6 p.m.: Brooklyn Women’s Political Caucus meeting in Park Slope

7:30 p.m.: South Brooklyn Development Corporation dinner in Borough Park

8:35 p.m.: New York Region Salute to Israel meeting in Midwood

10:30 p.m.: meeting with State Senator and Borough President over coffee, regarding State budget

At that time, with the American economy in better shape, most jobs either gave the jobholder spare time, as with eight-hour-a-day, 9-to-5 jobs, or spare money, as with doctors, practicing lawyers, engineers, corporate executives. I had been earning $20,000 a year at my law firm in 1974. Allowing for the rampant inflation in the interim and the unreimbursed costs of elective office (like the extra telephone my office needed, for which the Assembly would not pay; journal ads, dinner tickets, flat-out contributions to local charitable organizations and civic groups in my district, etcetera), my pay in 1983 — $43,000 a year – surely left me at a lower standard of living than I had enjoyed just out of law school. Had I remained with the firm and not made partner, I would have been earning about $120,000 a year at that point. Had I made partner, my income would probably have been about double that.

It did not bother me. I paid under $250 a month rent for my tiny studio in Brooklyn. In Albany, I sublet a room from a friend who rented the second floor of a house. Actually, I really rented a cot, because he used the room as his study when I wasn’t there, enabling him to charge me very little rent, allowing me to use the difference between that and my “per diem” reimbursement to cover some of my other expenses.

In January and February, we spent Mondays and Tuesdays in Albany in session and in committee meetings. In March, as the April first budget deadline approached, we could be there seven days straight or more, and often didn’t know from day to day whether we’d have to stay. On one not extraordinary occasion, the Speaker announced on Tuesday that we’d be home Wednesday; on Wednesday that it would be Thursday; on Thursday we should wait for Friday; and on Friday, Saturday. I walked into the Members’ Lounge, a room for Assembly members a short corridor down from the floor of the Assembly Chamber, to hear a colleague calling out, “Anyone know a good divorce lawyer?”

Wednesday and Thursday nights, back home, were for community meetings, unless we were in session. We usually did not have regular Monday-through-Thursday sessions until June, at the end of which, like during budget week, we could be in session non-stop, including weekends. Saturdays and Sundays, I would attend one of the numerous synagogues in my district, sometimes visit a church, join a veterans’ post or charitable group for breakfast, and perhaps attend a political dinner. Of course, I might also have to head into the office to finish paperwork I couldn’t get to during the week, because I often found I had a full week of paperwork in each office – Albany and Brooklyn.

Not all Assembly districts were as demanding as the 45th. Schumer and Solarz, my predecessors, had set impossible examples. Thus, I could go to fifty community meetings a week and be scolded for missing the fifty-first. Fifty thousand constituents lived within walking distance of my office, and they walked in — or called in, or wrote in. Officials representing low-density rural districts, or defeated, poverty-stricken districts, often had less call on their time.

In one two-and-a-half year period from January 1981 to June 1983 my neighborhood office staff handled over 2100 constituent matters, from housing complaints (“my landlord never gives me heat!”) to traffic signal requests, to assistance in obtaining Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement. Although I had three twenty-hour-a-week and two ten-hour-a-week assistants, (at about $7000 a year in salary for the first three, $2500 a year for one of the latter, and free – a volunteer – for the other), the responsibility for this operation, as well as some direct involvement in some of the more complicated cases, was mine. When the problem affected a community, rather than an individual, I played a much greater role, such as when a police precinct persistently provided inadequate response to citizen complaints, or a school needed a crossing guard, or a large apartment building needed to have me come in to organize a tenants’ committee.

As I gained in seniority, my staff allocation increased, and my efficiency increased. I always enjoyed the work, but it never got easy.

Henry Feldman

In General on July 13, 2012 at 10:52 am

My mother obviously influenced me as a politician, although she tried to discourage me from running for office – both of my parents did: they thought the public would be ungrateful for what they knew would be my earnest efforts in the public interest. (In one important respect, they were wrong: the constituency that I ultimately represented for eighteen years, the 45th Assembly District in Brooklyn, remained deeply loyal to me with their votes and their sentiments even when I lost my race for Brooklyn District Attorney in 1989 and for Congress in 1998.)

My father, Henry Feldman, may have influenced me less directly, but with equal impact. In one way, the example he set simultaneously made me a better person and a worse politician: self praise and self-promotion were anathema to him; and even in his business – interior design – he really only played to his toughest audience: himself. He had to know that the product he delivered met the highest standards, whether or not the customers knew or cared and whether or not he profited on the project. In another way, his example only helped: to the extent that I was able to copy his leadership style, I benefited personally and politically. Charming, gentle in manner, and immensely likeable, his personal style enabled him to exercise leadership throughout his life. Born in 1903, he grew to become a shade under five feet tall, and though he was no doubt the shortest basketball player even in a day of relatively short players, he was captain of his fairly successful high school team. Although the fifth of eight children, he founded and directed the company that gave employment to five of them for many decades.

While my mother dominated our dinner table conversation about politics (or anything else), my father’s example must also have helped to shape my views. He ran the “shop,” where cabinet-makers, upholsterers, and drapers in his employ created the furniture he also designed within his overall designs for interior spaces, on principles far removed from the standard business model, although its profits did put my brother and myself and many of my cousins through college. First, though, every employee had to be well compensated. My father and his brothers (his partners) could take what was left; sometimes, there was nothing left. Second, designs were not to be variations on themes: each customer would get a different theme, because art demanded true creativity. Third (according to my mother), “any bum in New York City with a good story could get a handout from Feldman Brothers Incorporated.” Not only was the Shop racially integrated and unionized starting in the 1920s, my uncles themselves – the bosses – continued to carry union cards themselves throughout their careers.

Henry Feldman graduated from Hebrew Technical High School, and took some design courses, at night, at Cooper Union. He strongly believed that government should provide jobs for people who could not otherwise find employment (he loved the Humphrey-Hawkins bill to that effect, which never became law), and should make sure that schoolchildren had enough nutritious food to eat. He rarely expressed views on other political issues, but when he learned about the Schmidt-Feldman bill to require storekeepers to shield prurient pictures on magazine covers from public display, he immediately found a better counterargument, i.e. that since those pictures were the magazines’ publishers’ principal form of advertising, such restriction in fact raised a First Amendment issue (although not a legally dispositive one, or, for me, sufficient on the merits to dissuade me from enacting the bill into law, as we did). His argument – far more astute than the arguments I easily countered on the floor of the Assembly from my Ivy-League-law-school-trained Upper West Side colleagues – came from a man with a high school education, who never evinced the slightest personal interest in such material. Libertarian on behalf of others, he was as straight-laced in his personal behavior as could be imagined.

One April, when I noticed that he had apparently abandoned his annual ritual of smoking a single cigarette, he explained that he “gave it up.” After a doctor prescribed a shot of whiskey at dinner each night for a heart condition (that it eventually turned out he did not have), he drank about a thimbleful each night for a week, at the end of which he disgustedly exclaimed that he simply couldn’t handle “all this drinking.”

This blog is supposed to be about politics, not about my family. Therefore, I will simply say that I still hope someday to be more like him. Limited political success would have been a small price to pay, should I succeed.

The political configuration of 1998 and the 9th congressional district

In General on April 13, 2012 at 10:14 am

The political configuration of 1998, though, posed far worse threats to my congressional prospects than that of 1994, although I refused to admit that fact to myself or to others. Nine years had passed since my D.A. race, so much less of the name recognition that campaign had generated would remain than in 1994. And, in 1994, 30-year-old Anthony Weiner had served on the New York City Council only for two years. By 1998, Weiner had six years of incumbency in a district that largely overlapped my Assembly district,but in cluded about twenty percent more voters.  Before that, he had worked for Schumer for six years. I had worked for Schumer from 1977 mid-way through 1980. Weiner started working for him in 1985. Perhaps Schumer had learned to encourage ambitious staffers to run for office, instead of treating them the way he had treated me. Or, more likely, Schumer saw a far more kindred spirit in Weiner – a young man burning with political ambition, unburdened by strong ethical or policy convictions, who would do anything to advance himself. In any event, their relationship remained so strong that even after six years as a member of the City Council, and now as a candidate for Congress, Weiner still acted as if he were a member of Schumer’s staff. I learned this at a 1998 outdoor summer event at Kingsborough Community College, overhearing Weiner on his cell phone counseling Schumer that the event had drawn a large enough crowd to warrant Schumer’s attendance.

Weiner wasn’t my only problem. In 1994, 29-year-old Melinda Katz had only just been elected to the Assembly, succeeding Alan Hevesi, for whom she had worked as a baby-sitter, and who backed her against a Democratic district leader who the Queens County Democratic organization preferred. Hevesi was, as Tom Robbins wrote in the Village Voice in 2009, “a fierce backer of his young protégé.” By 1998, she had compiled a thin record of accomplishment, but enough to justify her candidacy to herself and to Hevesi.

At 49 years of age, after eighteen years in the Assembly, I had won significant legislative victories for drivers (such as forcing the Parking Violations Bureau to pay a “fine” to drivers it had harassed unreasonably for tickets already paid or wrongfully issued), subway riders (such as establishing the Transit Corps of Engineers which, during a critical period, raised the morale and performance of transit engineering from unsafe to professional levels), tenants (such as ending the practice of double-billing tenants for rent paid in cash by requiring the issuance of rent receipts), and homeowners (such as establishing the Tax Assessment Small Claims Court, which reduced the perfunctory affirmation by the Tax Commission of tax assessment increases on homeowners from 97 percent down to 77 percent).  No other legislator could match my record of achievement on behalf of those four interest groups – drivers, straphangers, tenants, and homeowners. If I won their support, I should be able to beat any opponent. Dozens of my other legitimate legislative accomplishments had tangibly improved the lives of New Yorkers. I had proven myself highly effective in the role of a legislator working in the interests of my constituents.

So I should win a race for congress overwhelmingly, right?

The Democratic County Organization, Norman Rosen, and the Politics of the 1989 D.A. Race

In General on March 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

Notwithstanding all this, I might well have beaten Hynes but for the third candidate. Norman Rosen, who Liz had defeated in 1981, thought his candidacy was still viable in 1989. Howard Golden had not returned my favor of endorsing him, or my reluctant acquiescence to his request for me to take on the burden of the district leadership. Mario Cuomo had called him. Using the influence of the Governor’s office, Cuomo persuaded Golden to endorse Hynes. Years later, Hynes tried to claim that the Brooklyn Democratic organization had backed me, on the basis of the hair-splitting distinction that Golden had only endorsed Hynes in his capacity as Borough President, not as County Leader.  But the lawyers in Golden’s Democratic county organization either worked for Hynes, or, as it happened, worked for Norman Rosen. This became very significant.

Rosen had joint petitions with Council Member Louis Olmedo, who had previously served time for extortion. My campaign showed that so many of Rosen’s signatures were false or fraudulent that when we challenged them in court, Judge Joseph Slavin threw Rosen and Olmedo off the ballot. John Leventhal, a lawyer for the Brooklyn Democratic County organization, later a New York State Supreme Court judge, appealed to the Appellate Division, whose Second Department unanimously restored Rosen’s name, but not Olmedo’s, to the ballot – based on the same signatures, and with a brief opinion. This probably reflected the influence of the Democratic county organization as well.

If readers find this behavior by an appellate court shocking, they should be assured that it was not unprecedented. In a Democratic primary seven years earlier in Brooklyn’s 12th congressional district to succeed Shirley Chisholm, regular organization candidate State Senator Vander Beatty lost to reformer State Senator Major Owens by almost 3000 votes out of about 34,000 cast. It was credibly alleged that Beatty then sent functionaries to the Board of Elections purportedly to review the records, but actually to change them right then and there. Beatty then brought suit for a re-run based on the irregularities which he claimed had been committed earlier. The trial court granted him his re-run, and the Appellate Division affirmed. In that matter, the State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, finally put a stop to the affair, on the basis of evidence that the New York Times had earlier described as being as clear as a bright yellow line painted down the middle of the road, leaving Owens to enjoy the victory he had so clearly already won. But the New York Times had no editorial interest in exposing any irregularities that worked to my disadvantage in 1989, and the Court of Appeals did not review the matter.

The significance of Rosen’s restoration to the ballot went beyond the sheer numbers. Rosen shared with me the same ethnicity, as well as a pro-death penalty reputation, thus splitting off some of the votes I would have won on either basis. Phil Caruso, head of the Police Benevolent Association, told me that I would have the PBA’s endorsement if I succeeded in knocking Rosen off the ballot. A shrewd politician himself, he knew that I would have a much better chance in a two-way race. In a two-way race, with the PBA endorsement, my campaign would have stood in much clearer contrast to Hynes’s.

Ultimately, Hynes would get 51% of the vote, to my 35% and Rosen’s 14%. So my vote and Rosen’s, together, still added up to less than half. But in a two-person race, with the PBA and likely other endorsements that would have come my way as well, chances are I would have beaten Hynes.

Chairing the Committee on Correction: Maximum Security

In General on January 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I can say, with some confidence, that I spent more time in prison than any other New York elected official who was never convicted of a crime. New York had 62 correctional facilities – prisons – in the twelve years I chaired the Assembly Committee on Correction, and I spent time in most of them. This experience made me see that we needed fewer prisons, not more, and that we really needed to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, as I explained in Tales from the Sausage Factory. But my prison experience taught me many other things.

For one, it undid some preconceptions about who serves time for what. I remember a long talk, early in my tenure, with a highly intelligent and articulate inmate who had done graduate work at NYU prior to his business career. He corrected my assumption that he was doing time for embezzlement or some other white collar crime. He was a kidnapper, for profit. I made similar assumptions about the slight Chinese-American fellow, also at Green Haven, a prison near Beacon, New York, in Dutchess County, housing a lot of lifers. This fellow murdered someone, with a knife. The prison warden – superintendent, in modern lingo – explained to me that a whole category of small guys characteristically committed murder. These fellows grew up in tough places, where a fast response to a threat might save their lives. However, sometimes they overestimated the threat, a realization that came after the lightning-fast thrust of their knife into the gut of the perceived attacker. The big muscular fellows tended to be much less dangerous, because they rarely felt threatened.

For a long time, New York had an unofficial system for dealing with especially difficult inmates. It sent the worst inmates to the same prisons it sent the worst correction officers. Great Meadow, in the far northeast of the state, took the prize. There, the inmates might well attack the officers, but the inmates surely got the worst of it. As I visited the various facilities, I could sense the differences in atmosphere. Attica, although not as bad as Great Meadow, still retained the deeply grim and oppressive character that had been exemplified in the 1971 riot there, where the National Guard killed dozens of inmates. Clinton Correctional, in Dannemora, New York, with about 3000 inmates, is the state’s largest prison and one of its oldest. Its mere size makes it fairly oppressive.

Green Haven, in contrast, generally impressed me as a relatively cheerful place. Although the aforementioned prisons all include lifers, I learned that everything else being equal, lifers tend to stabilize a prison. They have had the time to find that cooperation leads to more pleasant conditions, and since they know they will be staying a long time they have a lot of incentive to keep it as pleasant as possible. Green Haven has an especially active prison industries program, with a big furniture shop, and during my time, an auto-body repair shop.

I had an especially memorable visit to Sing Sing in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic hit the prison population hard. Many inmates had used intravenous drugs, and others had consensual or non-consensual anal sex. My visit had the unhappy purpose of investigating the AIDS unit, to make sure it had sufficient staff and facilities, and the much happier purpose of speaking at the graduation of about thirty inmates from Mercy College, which in those days was permitted to enroll inmates in a college-degree-granting program of instruction, provided inside the prison walls. Because I had been exposed to tuberculosis as a youngster, and tested positive on the TB tine test, I was assured that I was immune against various strains of tuberculosis, including the multi-drug resistant strain that frightened many at the time, especially among AIDS victims. In the AIDS unit, I saw several dying men. Sad though they were, they praised the conditions of their care.

At the graduation, I saw something more pleasant. I need to provide some background to explain my reaction. Throughout my service in the Assembly, I spent a great deal of time visiting the schools in my district, because the education of their children held great importance to my constituents and to me. As noted in a previous blog, I also attended virtually every school graduation each year. For the first few years, Jewish and Italian kids overwhelmingly dominated the ranks of the valedictorians and salutatorians. Gradually, though, the Asian kids, mostly Chinese, took over those ranks. Now, at Sing Sing, I was waiting my turn to speak to the graduates as the valedictorian was called to the rostrum first. Oh yes. They get in everywhere

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.