Daniel L. Feldman

Archive for the ‘New York State Politics’ Category

Centralization of power

In Criminal Justice Policy, New York State Government, New York State Politics, Policy on September 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Two years after I returned to my normal life in the Assembly after the 1989 race for District Attorney, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York convicted Mel Miller for cheating clients of his law firm out of profits they made on a transaction.  Two years later the federal Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, holding that the clients had no clear right to the profits in the first place. Under New York State law, Miller had to give up his elective office when he was initially convicted of the felony. The law has no provision for returning his office to him upon the reversal of such a conviction.

Stanley Fink and Mel Miller, as Speakers of the Assembly, wielded enormous power over members’ staff allocations, member items, and even which of their bills would become law. However, they led their Democratic majority as small “d” as well as large “D” democrats: they were good at judging what policy direction the majority of our caucus wanted to pursue, but checked to make sure they were right – and no member of the Democratic caucus hesitated to disagree, even forcefully, with those Speakers behind the closed door of our conferences. Some members, like me, even had open and public disagreements with the Assembly leadership, and were promoted, not punished. In my effort to change New York’s transactional immunity law to the much more typical state and federal “use immunity” law, I fought against Mel Miller when he chaired the Codes Committee. New York prosecutors had explained to me how it allowed some criminal defendants to get away with crimes – with murder, in the case of Delissa Carter – because it immunized them from prosecution related to any event about which they testified before a grand jury. I failed to change the law, but the New York Post praised me for my effort and lambasted Mel. Nevertheless, he gave me the first committee chairmanship at his disposal when he became Speaker.

Stanley had told committee chairs, “I decide the budget. You decide everything else.” This was mostly but not entirely true. First, the committee chairs always included two or three nitwits, and no Speaker allowed them to exercise any significant power. But those were exceptions. More generally, no legislature could have a dozens of legislators each deciding how much money to allocate to individual parts of the budget: to education, prisons, health, and so forth. Naturally the committee chair for each such area would tend to “break the bank” on behalf of the constituencies he or she most deals with, and to try to solve the problems for which he or she had most responsibility. Someone has to be able to weigh the great variety of needs against each other, and settle on allocations that would not, in the aggregate, bankrupt the state.  However, Stanley and Mel carefully consulted committee chairs for the more detailed information and therefore superior grasp of budgetary nuance each chair was likely to command, and took that information and nuance into serious consideration in shaping their decisions. On the other hand, while committee chairs made policy in their respective substantive areas, they were only permitted to do so within the general parameters of what the Democratic majority caucus would allow, and the Speaker enforced those limits.

But in my very first year as chair of corrections, I negotiated significant changes to the kinds of sentences low-level drug offenders would serve. Larry Kurlander, Governor Cuomo’s Criminal Justice Coordinator, Chris Mega, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Crime and Correction, who became my good friend thereafter, and I agreed to establish shock incarceration and earned eligibility, two programs that significantly reduced time actually incarcerated for many inmates. We each understood the range of choices we were each respectively allowed, but that range was broad enough so that prior to our negotiations most of our colleagues probably never even heard of the programs we decided to approve.

After Mel had to relinquish his office, things changed. My preferred candidate for Speaker, Jim Tallon, from Binghamton, would doubtless have continued in the mold of Stanley and Mel. But Jim’s gentlemanly qualities deterred him from the aggressive campaigning that might have won the job. Although Saul Weprin was also an extremely nice man, his key backers, Michael Bragman and Sheldon Silver, provided enough aggressive politicking on his behalf for Saul to win overwhelmingly.

Weprin died less than two years later, and may well have been more seriously ill than we recognized even from the start of his speakership. His counsel, Ben Chevat, moved to consolidate power – whether truly on Saul’s account, or in the interests of Bragman and Silver, remains unknown.

Although they were paid out of the Assembly’s central staff allocation, not out of my committee budget, I had been accustomed to selecting my committee staff and expecting them to follow my direction, unless of course they offered ideas I liked, which they often did. A few months after Saul’s accession to the Speakership, my program associate, Dick McDonald, shocked me by informing me that he could not work on a policy project I had asked him to pursue (I no longer remember the subject). He explained that Carol Gerstl, his “team leader,” had decided against it, and that Chevat had been informed that they were now to take direction from their staff chain of command, not from their committee chairs.

I collected my colleagues who chaired Codes, Judiciary, and Government Employees, all of whose staffs reported to Gerstl, and demanded a meeting with Weprin. Chevat tried to meet us, but we bypassed him, and explained to Weprin that he would have four immediate committee chair resignations if our power to direct our committee staff was not restored. Weprin immediately agreed.

When Silver succeeded Weprin, however, sometimes subtly and sometimes more overtly, central staff gradually usurped much of the power of committee chairs anyway. This did not improve my relationship with Silver, or endear us to each other.




How a politician publicly supports shortening sentences for drug dealers, and survives anyway

In Criminal Justice Policy, New York State Government, New York State Politics, NYC Politics, Policy on September 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm

In my first few years representing the 45th Assembly District, constituents regularly called me to complain about drug dealers peddling their wares in front of a building on Avenue K near Coney Island Avenue. The building stood just a block northern of my district, but the unsavory atmosphere there troubled my nearby voters. In response, I would call the captain of Brooklyn’s 70th Police Precinct, who would send officers to make arrests.

However, weeks later my constituents would call again, complaining that “they let the drug dealers out: they are back on Avenue K again.”

Back in Albany, Speaker Fink asked members of our Democratic caucus who similarly complained that judges let drug dealers go free how, then, we managed to increase our state prison population from 12,500 in 1972 to 40,000 by the early 1980s? I think he understood, and I gradually learned, that judges did lock up many of those drug dealers. Other drug dealers just replaced them very quickly, because so many addicts wanted those jobs to help pay for their own supplies.

Indeed, many a judge would sentence a drug dealer, after a first felony arrest, to time served waiting for trial and probation. But the addicted dealer, quickly back on the street, would be just as quickly arrested again. This time, the Second Felony Offender Law would require the judge to sentence the dealer to prison for at least two years.

In an earlier time, dealers peddling heroin would try to carry too small a quantity at a time to constitute “felony weight,” so that judges could continue to sentence them to probation. But dealers in the cocaine and crack era seemed to have less sense, and generally carried large enough quantities to be hit with felonies.

I began to understand that with about 600,000 addicts in the State, we would never run short of drug dealers. With 40,000 inmates, we needed to cannibalize higher education funding to help defray the cost of the State prison system; we could not very well incarcerate several hundred thousand inmates and keep the State solvent. Therefore, massive incarceration of low-level non-violent addict/sellers was not going to solve our drug problem.

Like voters throughout New York City and New York State at the time, mine were not generally anxious to hear that we should stop locking up drug dealers. But I told them anyway. Because I had consistently voted for the death penalty (a decision I made then to help preserve the legitimacy of the State government in the face of an increasingly rebellious citizenry), because I had championed other initiatives sought by law enforcement, even in the face of opposition by my own Democratic Assembly leaders, and because I had helped and supported my constituents on landlord-tenant issues, consumer issues, property tax issues, and transportation issues, I was able to carry my message without jeopardizing my reelection. I may even have persuaded some.

When arguing with my constituents, however, I tried to couch the message not so much in terms of the criminalization of people who did not fit standard criminal profiles except in terms of feeding their addictions, the destruction of families, the waste of human lives, or the unfair treatment suffered by minorities. Rather, I pointed to the need to use expensive prison space for violent criminals, the increased tax burden, and the decrease in college scholarship aid likely to be available to their children.

I did not succeed in enacting my legislation to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws. Eleven years after I left the Legislature, though, others completed that mission. I like to think that I helped lay the groundwork.

Getting there and back

In New York State Government, New York State Politics on August 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Post #93

For my first nine years as a member of the Assembly, I drove there and back. Actually, Larry Pinkoff, who ran my 1980 campaign, drove me there and back my first year, before he departed for Florida and another career. I was told that there was at one time something called a “permit for take-off and landing from the New York State Thruway.” We used to joke that Larry must have had one. He regularly drove the 160-mile trip in less than two hours, door to door. Readers from other areas must understand that with the roads from southern Brooklyn through northern Manhattan included in that route, his performance was phenomenal – also, to me, terrifying. But he got me to my meetings on time, at either end.

I remained among the few legislators who refused to get Assembly license plates for my car, because I felt that state legislators should not seek or get special treatment from the police. I had to do my own driving, starting with the 1982 session, but this did not pose a problem, because I was a notoriously slow driver. Shortly after legislative session ended, unless we were scheduled for session on the following day as well, dozens of cars would emerge from the legislators’ parking lot under the Empire State Plaza and head down the Thruway. They all seemed to pass me.

Since I have always walked fast, the word among my colleagues was that “Feldman walks faster than he drives.” So I never got stopped by the State Troopers. When they saw the Assembly or Senate plates on the cars of my speeding colleagues, the Troopers would indeed stop them, but then simply warn them to slow down. Some speculated that the Legislature’s traditional alacrity in approving pay increases for the Troopers may have influenced this behavior.

At one point during the mid-1980s, my late colleague Leonard Stavisky noticed some State Troopers sleeping in their patrol cars, known as “cooping,” and got some press attention when he publicly criticized the practice. His best known legacy, the 1976 Stavisky-Goodman law, a major accomplishment, limits the degree to which New York City can cut funding for education in any given annual budget.  Stavisky, a college professor as well as a legislator, had a fine intellect and a good heart, but so lacked interpersonal skills it remains amazing that he achieved elective office. Colleagues cruelly referred to him as “Major Hoople,” after a big and big-bellied grandiose windbag of a comic strip character originating in 1921. After Stavisky’s press release, the State Troopers started issuing speeding tickets to legislators. A few weeks later, big placards began to appear in the rear windshields of legislators’ cars: “We Hate Stavisky Too!” The ticketing stopped.

My $7000 1980 Dodge Aries K-car, Betsy, loyally gave me over 180,000 miles, almost all of it in the service of my legislative life. After 1989, however, I had switched to using the train. I didn’t see so well at night, especially when trying to drive home in snowstorms, and as I got older, I got more tired. On the train I could sleep, read, or catch up with paperwork. So I allowed Betsy to semi-retire: it became my “train car” in Albany. From the legislative garage to my rented room in Albany only took about fifteen minutes to drive on the nights I stayed over, and from the garage to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer only took about five minutes. Even for that purpose, though, George Dunbrook and his brother, who ran the gas station at Lark and Madison, finally told me it was too old: time for full retirement.  I couldn’t give it up. One night though, a few hundred yards from the train station, I heard a noise I have never heard before or since, and hope never to hear again. I cannot describe it, but it was the sound of a car dying – a sound so definitive you know it will never start again. Rest in peace, Betsy.

Inside Politics Versus Outside Politics

In New York State Government, New York State Politics on August 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

The final days of my first session in Albany late in June coincided with the last days before expiration of the main contracts with public employee unions in New York. Since those unions had agreed to give-backs and even had placed their pension funds at risk in order to help New York City through its fiscal crisis, they had for several months pressed the Legislature to enact legislation improving their benefits under the next contract. The various public employee unions – sanitation workers, the public employee locals of the teamsters, firefighters, and others – chose as their point person for the battle Norman Adler, then the legislative director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the largest union of New York City public employees. Adler, an extraordinarily intelligent and persuasive advocate, had also been one of my favorite professors in college, and arranged for his union to send letters of support for me to its many members in my district, and to send some members to work in my campaign, when I first ran for the Assembly – the only major union to get involved at all.

Norman lobbied me, as he must have lobbied virtually every other legislator, making strong arguments on the basis of equity and fairness. The Democrats in the Assembly had caucused the issue several times, with Speaker Fink explaining that Governor Carey said he would veto any bill we passed that did more than simply extend existing benefits. If the Governor vetoed the bill, with the old contracts having expired, until a new contract could be authorized the public employees would have no insurance coverage or other benefits. But Adler had argued that Carey would not dare veto the bill. Adler believed that Carey planned to bluff us into passivity.

I approached Fink privately, and explained my dilemma. I told him how much I owed to Norman, and that it would be very hard to say no to him. Fink replied, “That’s fine. When you need money for staff, ask Norman.” Of course only the Speaker controlled staff allocations  — and virtually everything else I would need to be an effective legislator.

Senior Assembly members like Frank Barbaro, chair of the Labor Committee, and José Serrano, chair of the Consumer Affairs Committee, with well-established pro-labor credentials, supported Fink’s position. If I voted only to extend the old benefits, though, perhaps Adler and the unions he represented would see me as an ingrate, and perhaps they would be right. Was Carey bluffing? I didn’t know.

Fink called a final Democratic conference on the matter the day we would have to take a vote. I intended to make my case to the Democratic conference as a whole: how could I, as a junior legislator, elected with strong support from Adler’s union, vote for the extender? I waited as other Democrats, in turn, spoke on various aspects of the controversy. Just as I got up to speak, Fink – who had apparently just received a message – asked me if I would suffer an interruption. Of course I acceded. With my colleagues, I waited as he left the room. About ten minutes later, he returned, and announced to the Conference – “Adler says it’s okay to vote for the bill.” I felt no further compulsion to speak.

Later, I learned that he left the conference to meet with Adler. Friends though they were, Fink had laced into Adler with the considerable ferocity of which he was capable, essentially indicating that Adler had better withdraw what was in effect a challenge to Adler’s leadership of the Democratic Conference. Adler, powerful and articulate though he was, knew better than to risk seriously alienating Fink.

When the bill came to the floor, a few members, knowing that the extender would pass, voted “no” anyway, apparently on the thought that some of the labor unions would be grateful for their refusal to go along. Legislators have a word for making oneself look good at the expense of colleagues like that: it’s called “grandstanding” (“playing to the grandstands”). The extender did of course pass, Carey signed it into law, and we all went home to our districts.

I enjoyed the sense of relief, because I had not had to choose between Fink and Adler, for weeks after the vote.  Sitting in my district office one summer afternoon going through my mail, I perused a newsletter from a small local of one of the public employee unions affected by our vote. I was annoyed to read its effusive praise for the “grandstanders.” Then, to my great distress, I saw my name in a list of legislators labeled “traitors” for having voted for the extender. My distress turned to fury when I saw that the names of well-known friends of organized labor, such as Barbaro and Serrano, who had like me also voted for the extender, were omitted, when their inclusion might have signaled that the leadership of organized labor had acquiesced in our decision. Then I turned the page. A shorter, separate list included their names: it was labeled “lickspittles.” I felt better.


In National Politics, New York State Politics, NYC Politics on June 15, 2012 at 10:35 am

Alan Hevesi, as Comptroller of the City of New York, served as the most influential trustee of the pension fund for New York City police officers. When the Police Benevolent Association “withdrew” their endorsement of my candidacy for Congress, they claimed that having provided it so early, they had not realized it was for Congress. They then made no endorsement in the race. Their behavior was difficult to explain, other than by hypothesizing that Hevesi engineered it.  I did not blame Hevesi for supporting Katz over me, notwithstanding my obviously superior credentials, in that I had supported Mel Miller for Speaker of the Assembly against Hevesi, and Liz Holtzman for New York City Comptroller – twice – against Hevesi. But I was convinced that Hevesi had stolen my PBA endorsement. That was dirty, and for that I did blame him.

While the New York City branch of the National Organization of Women stuck by their endorsement despite Katz’s entry into the race, based on the length and quality of my record, the State organization endorsed Katz. Whether they did so purely as a matter of gender, or whether Hevesi had some role there as well, I do not know.

Tony Genovesi had warned me, many years earlier, to make peace with Schumer. As far as I was concerned, Schumer had wronged me. In 1998, I did endorse Schumer for Senate in his primary against Mark Green and Geraldine Ferraro, because his immense popularity in his own congressional district, in which I was running, gave me no choice. But I was not and am not a person to truckle, and I would not knuckle under or pledge fealty to him when Tony suggested it, back around 1990, or thereafter. Tony owed me for supporting him against Silver, but he endorsed Weiner, no doubt at Schumer’s insistence. This meant that the thuggish Bernie Catcher and Carl Kruger, Genovesi’s lieutenants, by then respectively a political operative in Trump Towers and the successor to Don Halperin’s State Senate seat, also worked for Weiner.

Then, in July, came the really bad news. Jeff Plaut, of Global Strategies, called me. He had discovered a classic weakness in our polling data. His pollsters had infected their communications with respondents by their support for their client – me. This “infection” skewed the responses heavily in my favor, invalidating the results. Plaut offered to refund the $11,000 or so our campaign had paid him, and I accepted.  We then engaged Penn & Schoen, Doug Schoen’s highly-regarded firm. In a few weeks they had results. Dear and I were polling at about twenty percent, with Katz and Weiner polling at about twenty-five percent.  Schoen did not think it was possible for me to win the race.

At this point, I truly disagreed. With the endorsement of the New York Times and perhaps the other dailies, and with a fine Election Day operation, I thought I could still win. I expected Schumer to endorse Weiner. Schumer had called me early in the year to thank me for endorsing him and to tell me that he would not make an endorsement until late in the race – by implication, out of gratitude for my endorsement. I understood that he would ultimately endorse Weiner, and given his relationship with Weiner, this did not upset me. I knew the Schumer endorsement would help Weiner and hurt me, but I still thought I would win.

Meanwhile, Dear was spending tremendous amounts of money, actually sending CDs (which were more expensive in those days) to each likely primary voter, touting his accomplishments, such as they were. Most of his mailings, though, simply attacked each of us, although his criticisms of Weiner and Katz, perceived as more liberal than myself, were much harsher. On primary day, the Dear campaign would use its superior financial resources to send cars and buses to pick up identified Dear supporters and drive them to their polling places.

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.’”

Reactions to changing demographics

In New York State Politics on January 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

The older established residents of the district did not react to the Russian immigrants the same way they reacted to the Chinese. Many of my constituents, often of Russian-Jewish ancestry themselves, regarded these new Russian immigrants as obnoxious and pushy. Indeed, after a lifetime of struggling with corrupt officials, with inadequate supplies of food and merchandise in poorly-stocked stores, or with unfriendly bureaucrats in Moscow or elsewhere, some of these immigrants had developed rather aggressive habits, arguably as a survival mechanism. Ironically, then, my older constituents, ancestrally Russian-Jewish themselves, would plead with me: “Get us more Chinese, not these obnoxious Russians!” The Chinese were “nice,” they explained – polite, not pushy.

I had some trouble with the negative characterization. My constituents had no doubt forgotten that when their grandparents and great-grandparents came to America in the great wave of East European Jewish immigration in the 1880s, the well-established, assimilated German Jews of that era also regarded them as uncouth and obnoxious. The highly-noticeable few generated an image that stuck to them all in that generation and in ours. My grandfather, who was part of the 1880s group, could recite large tracts of Shakespeare by heart – in Yiddish, of course, not English – but was likely more scholarly and gentlemanly than many of the “superior” German Jews that looked down on him.

We do owe those German Jews some debts, however. Jacob Schiff and others like him supported the Settlement Houses and other charities that made life tolerable for many of those impoverished new immigrants. They also created Hebrew Technical Institute, where the children of the new immigrants, “obviously” unsuited for academic work, could learn to work with their hands at trades. Under the leadership of its beloved principal, Dr. Edgar S. Barney, who instilled in his students the spirit behind its motto “hands, heart, and head,” my father and my uncle, who became respectively an interior designer and company owner, and a teacher of the deaf, were proud graduates of Hebrew Tech, later the model for Brooklyn Tech. By 1910 the school had already numbered “the head of the Parks Commission in Newark,” New Jersey, and “mechanics, architects, electrical engineers, factory Superintendents [sic] and owners, teachers, authors, and inventors” among its graduates.  Graduates in Cooper Union, Hebrew Technical Institute Holds Its Commencement Exercises, The New York Times, May 12, 1910.

Yet another demographic change altered the district’s political coloration. Especially in East Midwood, east of Ocean Avenue, and in the further western sections of Midwood west of Coney Island Avenue and north of Kings Highway, as the older constituents died or moved to Florida, very religious Jews purchased their homes. The Orthodox Jews of my childhood did not differ very significantly from other Jews. They kept strictly kosher, while we ate more-or-less “kosher style.” They had separate sections for men and women in their synagogues. The men might wear yarmulkas, or hats, all the time, not just in synagogue – but some of them did not even do that. But these new Orthodox Jews made much more strenuous efforts to separate themselves. Some, like the various sects of Hassidim, wore beards and long coats if they were men, and wigs and long dresses if they were women, with their arms always covered. If they were modern Orthodox, they still took pains to dress “modestly.”  And overwhelmingly, they followed the conservative line in politics. Their preferred newspaper, the Jewish Press, touted a sickening version of right-wing politics, often bordering on racism.

West of Coney Island Avenue and south of Kings Highway came another kind of Orthodox Jewish community, the “Syrians.” I put the term in quotation marks because the community included Jews from other Middle East countries as well, but the Syrians predominated. During the mid-1980s, Representative Stephen Solarz persuaded the Syrian government to let many Jewish women leave, arguing that there were too few marriageable Jewish men in Syria for them. Jerrold Nadler, Steve Solarz: Foreign Affairs Expert, The Jewish Week, October 30, 2010.  The publicity surrounding their immigration to the Ocean Parkway area helped draw more and more Jewish immigrants from the Middle East to that part of the 45th. By and large, this community vigorously proclaims its Orthodoxy but privately, I have been given to understand, practices a more relaxed version. Although it tends toward political conservatism as well, it had less impact on the voting results in the 45th because many, if not most of its members have summer homes in Deal, an expensive town on the New Jersey shore, and register to vote from those residences. It exercised significant political impact through campaign contributions, however, since many of its members had tremendous skill at retail business. Members of that community created the “Crazy Eddie” appliance stores and the Duane-Reade drugstore chain, among many other very successful businesses.

Thirteen years after I left the Assembly seat, what to many was a startling political reversal reflected, in part, these demographics changes. In the special election held on primary day, September 13, 2011 to replace Anthony Weiner, who had resigned his position as the Member of Congress for the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens, the Republican-Conservative candidate, Robert Turner, defeated David Weprin, the Democratic candidate, who also had the support of the Working Families and Independence parties.  In the 45th Assembly district, Turner won 5916 votes, or just under 70 percent of the total, to Weprin’s 2605 votes. Statement and Return Report for Certification, Special. Assembly 23-27-54-73 Congress 9 09/13/2011 Kings County All Parties and Independent Bodies, page 2, City of New York Board of Elections.

But the transformation had been well underway while I still served. In the next post, I will explain how this change in character affected the politics of the district then.

Changing demographics

In New York State Politics on December 30, 2011 at 11:37 am

As Rouchefoucald said several hundred years ago, the only constant in life is change. Like everything else, the 45th Assembly District changed. In 1980, it still turned out one of the largest Democratic primary votes of any district in New York, with about 18,000 votes cast in my own race, at the bottom of the ticket. Statewide or national campaigns, higher on the ballot, usually attract much more attention, and more votes. But the decline in participation in the 45th meant that by the hotly contested 2010 Democratic primary for New York State Attorney General, a race much higher up on the ballot, only 3016 people cast their votes. While I don’t have exact figures for the interim years, the 45th cast only about 10,000 votes in the Democratic primary for Congress in 1998, and a similar number in the Democratic primary for District Attorney in 1989.

With the decline in their active identification with the Democratic party, voters in the 45th   Assembly District also starting voting more Republican, as part of a generally more conservative outlook. What accounted for this change?

From 1978 to 1988, more than 200,000 apartments in New York City changed from rentals to cooperatives.  While no precise figures exist, my 1980 campaign staff estimated that at least half of the voters in the district rented their living quarters. The co-op conversion boom must have reduced that fraction, and probably cut it in half, leaving no more than a quarter of the voters as tenants. At least one American study has shown that, ceteris parabis, homeowners, generally, tend to vote more conservatively than tenants.

Changes in ethnic demography more clearly altered the political configuration of the district. Of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who came to the United States in the 1980s, enough settled in Brighton Beach to earn it, early on, the nickname “Odessa by the Sea.” By the late 1980s it had become predominantly, even overwhelmingly, first-generation Russian-American. Enough Russians moved into Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach to constitute substantial portions of their populations as well. The immigrants, for the most part, felt that they owed a great debt to Ronald Reagan, under whose administration they arrived, for his strong efforts to press the Soviet leadership to permit their exit. Reagan had insisted on conditioning the grant of “most-favored-nation” status to the Soviet Union, an important boon to the Soviets’ international trade status, to its willingness to allow Jews and “refuseniks” to leave. For many such refugees, their hatred of Communism might have driven them in the direction of conservative Republican politics anyway; their loyalty to Reagan reinforced such tendencies.

The 45th also saw the development of a significant community of newly-arrived Chinese Americans. When I first ran in 1980, I was introduced to Carl Rosenberg, a shoe store proprietor, as the “mayor” of Avenue U. Carl was close to 90 at the time, and in that regard served also as the archetype of the street’s business owners. Frank Sinatra, I heard, still got his semolina bread shipped to him from the bakery across Avenue U from my office on the corner of Homecrest Avenue. Elderly Jews and Italians owned and ran the vast majority of the clothing stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, and the like on Avenue U, but many of them ran their establishments mostly out of habit. Stores were closing, customers were few.  Without the energy of an influx of new immigrants, Avenue U could have become moribund. By 1990, though, the few store signs on the block that were not lettered in Chinese were lettered in Vietnamese or Russian. By then, the wonderful Chinese supermarket just around the corner on my side of Avenue U rivaled anything in Chinatown. I used to have to go to Mott Street to find certain ingredients for my Chinese cooking. Now, they were two minutes from my office door.

Fighting with Constituents

In New York State Politics on December 23, 2011 at 9:56 am

At one point, I was battling Governor Cuomo on one front and Mayor Koch on another. My wife disingenuously asked me if she was under a misapprehension in assuming that politicians were supposed to be especially good at making friends, not enemies.  But I didn’t only antagonize fellow politicians. I sometimes antagonized constituents, too.

I thought that if I regularly pretended to like people I didn’t like, the constant pretense might spill over, so that my affection for people I did like might become less real. Perhaps I was merely rationalizing self-indulgence by allowing myself to vent at annoying people. But I really was worried about becoming less than genuine.

I admired Jimmy Carter’s letter to an obnoxious constituent, drafted for him by Jody Powell, in which he noted that one of the many burdens of elective office was the responsibility of answering “barely legible letters from morons,” and “respectfully” suggested that the correspondent “take two running jumps and go straight to hell.”  Similarly, I liked Liz Holtzman’s standard response to the usual block-lettered nasty missive with lots of exclamation points: “I thought you would want to know that some obvious lunatic has been sending out notes over your signature.”

In those years I thought that enactment of a death penalty statute, drafted to virtually assure that no one would be executed, would help restore the frayed fabric of government legitimacy. Aeschylus’s play The Eumenides warned of the greater dangers societies face when they attempt to “banish the Furies” rather than confining them in a place of honor. While most of my constituents supported my position, many disagreed, often quite articulately. So many disagreed that I drafted a form letter explaining my position. Unfortunately, it included a typographical error misspelling “Aeschylus.” Still, most recipients seemed satisfied that at least I had a reasonable basis for my view. One constituent, however, returned a ferocious response. How dare I cite Aeschylus, a cultivated person, in support of my “simeon-like” views? And, of course, I knew no better but than to misspell his name.

My friend Ibby Lang suggested my response.  I respectfully acknowledged our difference on the issue. I then added, “Since you have indicated an interest in spelling, I thought you would want to know that Simeon is a man’s name, while the term you sought was no doubt “simian,” or “ape-like.” Thus, your submission was both ungrammatical and mis-spelled. Please feel free to call on me if I can be of any further assistance.” Needless to say, she did not.

Some years later, I engaged with a constituent in a considerably less literary interaction. I had left the Quentin Road entrance to the Kings Highway stop as the final day of my subway stop series, as described in an earlier post. Two weeks straight of subway stops drained my supplies of energy and of bonhomie. I had started doing subway stops in Liz’s 1970 district leader race, or maybe earlier, and covered stops innumerable times in my Council races, so I had well more than a decade of experience, and I invariably picked up any leaflets that commuters had dropped on the ground. I had at least two reasons: I did not want to leave the impression that I had untidy habits; and I did not want people stepping on pictures of the candidate’s face, especially if the candidate were me.

As I have mentioned, some commuters accept the leaflets; most commuters ignore the subway-stop politician; a few make unkind comments. As always, I had arrived at around 6:30 a.m. Near 8:30 a.m., the very end of my visit, one tough-looking fellow in his mid-twenties ignored me and walked up the stairs toward the elevated tracks, as had so many others. This fellow, however, before disappearing from view, yelled down at me, very sarcastically, “And I suppose you’re going to clean up all those leaflets after you leave!!”

In no mood for this, I replied, “Yes. And I hope you are not one of the pigs that dropped them!” At this he came back down the stairs, yelling “are you calling me a pig?!,” and clearly signaling by the position of his fists that he intended an immediate physical confrontation. I must confess that I was delighted. My nerves were such that I truly looked forward to a fight. I snapped into free-fighting stance, and said with some enthusiasm, “Come on. Come on!”

Astonished, he asked, not unreasonably, “What kind of politician are you?!!” He called over to a police officer, who happened to have just arrived in the station, and asked him to arrest me, but the officer explained that people are allowed to campaign in subway stations. The young fellow departed.

As I cooled down, I began to think about the possible outcomes. He might have beaten me up, which would have been unpleasant. What if I had beaten him up, however? I had a vision of a news photo of the fellow, sporting a cast on his arm and a black eye or broken nose, captioned “Is this how Assemblyman Feldman treats his constituents?”

From that day forward I decided that physically fighting with constituents never qualifies as a good idea. From this realization, I tried to advance to the next level: that screaming at constituents isn’t really a good idea either. But I occasionally violated the second rule.

I had to invoke the first rule to another politician on one occasion, however. Irving Yanoff, an overweight older man who had been a political fixture for decades, regularly campaigned for conservative Democratic candidates on street corners. (Apparently registered at one time as a member of the Liberal Party ,  he received less than 7% of the vote in a three-way Democratic primary against State Senator Marty Solomon in 1980, and about 12 % of the vote as the Liberal Party candidate in the general election against Assembly Member Frank Barbaro in 1970 .)  He came equipped with a naturally loud voice as well as a bullhorn. When Liz faced Alan Hevesi in the 1993 New York City Comptroller primary, I campaigned with her in front of the Brighton Baths, where of course I was popular among the members, introducing her to them and praising her as the Baths emptied for the day. Yanoff stood five feet from her, heckling her vociferously. Probably because of my death penalty vote, Yanoff liked me. Liz said to me, sotto voce, “do something about him!”

I moved next to Irving and chatted with him, leaving Liz to greet the populace in peace. This lasted for about five minutes, when Yanoff returned to the bullhorn, and I returned to introducing Liz. Every so often I’d interrupt him again, and he and I would chat amicably for a while. The pattern kept repeating. But Liz was getting frustrated. Finally, she said to me, with some annoyance, “my brother would have hit him!” Having undergone my earlier epiphany, I explained: “Liz, I’m an elected official. I can’t hit people.”


In New York State Politics on December 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm

To this day I cannot eat doughnuts.

Section 3-400 of New York State’s election law requires the appointment of two Democrats and two Republicans as “inspectors” at the polling place for each election district. The local political party organizations submit lists of candidates for those posts to the local board of elections. In New York City today, those inspectors get paid $200 a day, and if they work both on primary day and on Election Day, and attend a training class, they get an additional $75. . The pay reached this level sometime in the 1990s; it used to be less. But since poll workers have to arrive before 6 a.m. to set up for the voters, and need to stay past 9 p.m. to close the polls, they work a roughly 16-hour day. At one time, these jobs were considered attractive political plums, and in some places they still are, but the State had to raise the pay because in many communities too few members of the political clubs continued to think so.

During the course of the day, these poll workers meet many of their neighbors – the ones that vote, that is. Most likely, the poll workers know many of their neighbors to begin with. They may well have solicited their signatures on nominating petitions, and in other ways played active roles in their neighborhoods. Many of these poll workers take up their same stations at the polls for decades. Thus, to the extent they look favorably on a politician, the politician likely benefits.

In the 45th Assembly District, and elsewhere, politicians developed the tradition of visiting each polling place, and bringing with them some candy or cookies for the workers. During the course of a long day, the poll workers presumably get hungry.

I thought I’d go a little further. Doughnuts would make a bigger impression, and perhaps help the poll workers remember me from among the various visiting politicians. By my impecunious standards, they cost a lot of money, which I paid personally, not out of campaign funds, which I was hoarding for an actual campaign.

Electioneering within the polling place, however, violates the law, which I would not do. So, only when my name was NOT on the ballot, I would make my rounds. To the best of my recollection, I began my personal doughnut-delivery tradition on primary day 1982, and continued it on primary day in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1996. Since I always had a Republican challenger, I could not deliver my doughnuts on Election Day in even-numbered years. Not being in the habit – and perhaps feeling that once a year was enough – I skipped Election Day in the 1993 and 1997 mayoral years too. I had to skip the 1989 mayoral year primary too, because that year I ran in the primary for the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn District Attorney.

My district, like most Assembly districts, had about 100 election districts. With four inspectors for each, this required 400 doughnuts. I would order them from the kosher Dunkin’ Doughnuts on Avenue M, since some of our inspectors kept kosher, pick them up at 5 a.m. on primary day morning, stack the boxes in the back of my Dodge Aries K-car, and drive to polling place delivering them all day. The poll workers liked them. My car stank of doughnuts for weeks thereafter.

(I couldn’t do the doughnut run in 1988 because I had a primary challenge that year, so my name was on the ballot. Harry Smoler had served as the Assembly Member from the 41st A.D. just to my east from 1979 through 1982. The 1982 reapportionment dismembered his district, merging the largest chunk of it with Helene Weinstein’s district, which had been based in East Flatbush, but giving me such neighborhoods as Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park, as well as additional sections of Sheepshead Bay. He lost primary races against Helene in 1982 [Howard Graubard pointed out that my earlier version of this post had incorrect dates for Harry’s primary against Helene] and against me in 1988, getting less than a quarter of the vote.)