Daniel L. Feldman

Archive for the ‘NYC Politics’ Category

Judgeships and the Regular Democratic Organization

In NYC Politics on September 23, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Since Vito Lopez has been in the news in recent weeks, I thought that the following essay, which includes some thoughts on his role as Brooklyn Democratic County Leader, might be somewhat timely.

“New York State has the most archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country.” Thus begins the 2007 report of the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts , a commission to which I was appointed by Chief Judge Judith Kaye, my former colleague at the Olwine, Connelly law firm (see post #41).

The political party establishment plays a different role depending on what kind of judgeship a lawyer seeks, determining which path the lawyer chooses to take. While the role of politics therefore varies depending on the situation, the story of my quest for a judgeship nonetheless illuminates more generally the role of the political party establishment in staffing the judiciary.

Theodore Jones sat on the bench as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in the Second Judicial District, the trial-level court including Brooklyn and Staten Island in its jurisdiction. Early in 2007 the New York State Senate confirmed his appointment to New York’s Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, to fill the vacancy created by Al Rosenblatt’s mandatory retirement at age 70.

Since Jones’ Supreme Court term did not expire until 2014, his elevation created a vacancy. When such a vacancy occurs, the Governor makes an appointment to fill the vacancy until the end of the year. In November of that year, candidates who have received the nominations of their respective political parties run for election to fill out all of a new full fourteen-year term of office. Generally, and especially when the Governor and the political leader of the relevant county are from the same political party, the political leader will see to it that the Governor’s temporary nominee also gets the nomination for the full term.

In early March of 2007 Governor Spitzer announced his appointment of judicial screening committees to advise him on the merits of judicial candidates. The Second Judicial Department includes the Second Judicial District, so the committee for that Department would interview candidates to succeed Jones there.

Having taught law at Fordham Law School and Brooklyn Law School, co-authored a law book, written quite a few laws, established a good reputation for integrity, and served honorably both as a legislator and as a member of Spitzer’s staff in the Attorney General’s Office, I thought I would be a strong candidate. Spitzer’s screening committee agreed. They announce which candidates they deem qualified, but not their priority. However, I learned through friends on the committee, and got confirmation from friends in the Governor’s office, that the committee deemed me the most highly qualified of all the candidates for the position.

They also regarded Robert Miller as well qualified. Admitted to the bar in 1975, the same year I was, he had been in private practice, taught Continuing Legal Education courses, and served as a volunteer on bar association committees and neighborhood organizations. . What his official biographical listing for the Appellate Division (where he now sits) omits, however, was his role as treasurer of Mel Miller’s legal defense fund in 1991. The Brooklyn political establishment must have had great confidence in Bob Miller to have chosen him for such a sensitive position. He was not related to Mel. More to the point, the law did not require public disclosure of the contributors to that fund. Since Mel Miller still served as Speaker during the period in question, any quid pro quo or favor conferred in return for contributions, subtle or otherwise, would be impossible to ascertain so long as Bob Miller remained discrete about the contributors’ identity. True, Bob’s history included challenges to Noach Dear for City Council in 1991, and opposition to a Simcha Felder, a candidate supported by Dov Hikind to succeed Dear, in 2001 [Howard Graubard reminded me of these aspects of Miller’s biography], but with his more recent services to the Brooklyn Democratic organization, if he was ever a “prodigal son,” his return to the fold was welcome.

Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic County Leader 2007 and to this day, informed Spitzer that either Miller or I would be acceptable, although he would prefer Miller.

Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic County Leader 2007 and to this day, informed Spitzer that either Miller or I would be acceptable, although he would prefer Miller. Spitzer chose neither. Rena Uviller, a Court of Claims judge, had been serving as an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court.   New York State judges must retire at age 70, but those serving on the Supreme Court may be “certificated” up to three times for two-year terms after reaching 70. By appointing Uviller, Spitzer not only allowed her up to six more years, but added those six years of service to the capacity of the Supreme Court, because she would continue to serve even after another judge was elected in November to a fourteen-year Supreme Court term.

In November, Bob Miller ran as the Brooklyn Democratic County organization’s candidate for the Supreme Court – also as the Republican, as did the other three Democratic candidates that year, but only Miller also had the Conservative Party nomination.

The party candidate for a New York Supreme Court judgeship is not chosen directly by the voters in a primary election, but rather is selected by a “judicial convention,” populated by judicial delegates previously selected in the primary. Since they do not get paid, only serve in the one single convention for which they are chosen, and have no other power, there is little competition for such positions, which almost always go to loyal organization “soldiers” who do what the County leader tells them. [The two previous sentences reflect a correction by Laurie Kinsler Garson, for which I thank her. I think the error she corrected must have resulted from a strange synaptic misfire in my brain, because I certainly knew the facts — I just wrote something else.]  Thus, the party leader controls the nomination. In Brooklyn, where the Democrats dominate overwhelmingly, the Democratic County Leader can offer the Republican leader one out of every half dozen or dozen judgeships in return for joint endorsement. Perhaps the Conservative Party occasionally gets a favor as well.

Why did Spitzer bypass Miller and me? Probably because, as his first judicial appointment, he did not want to appoint a former staff member who no longer even lived in the Second Judicial District, because by that time I lived in Nassau County. Or, because Lopez clearly preferred Miller, Spitzer did not want to insist on me as their heir presumptive to the seat. By choosing the well-respected Uviller and thus add some capacity to the system, he could reduce the potential embarrassment of the choice.

Why did Lopez choose Miller over me? As noted in Post #56, the Democratic organization had far less patronage at its disposal than in earlier years. The reform movement, civil service, ethics laws, and press scrutiny had done that much. It had little more than judgeships with which to reward the faithful. Miller had not only served as Mel Miller’s defense fund treasurer, through years of his quest for a judgeship had bought tickets to all the Democratic district leaders’ annual dinners and, I’m sure, had served the Party in ways of which I remain unaware. Had Lopez designated me, he would have sent a deeply destructive message to his “troops”: a loyal servant like Miller gets bypassed in favor of an independent reform-minded former legislator who may have bought some dinner tickets this year to serve his judicial ambitions, but who had done nothing for the organization and could not even be trusted to appoint Party loyalists as his law secretaries if he did get to the bench.

Vito Lopez has done a number of things as Democratic County Leader for which he has been harshly – and in my view, justifiably – criticized, to say nothing of more recent allegations in a different domain.  I do not condemn him, however, for choosing Miller over me. The screening committee was right: I had better qualifications, on the merits, than Bob did. But Bob sufficiently qualified on the merits. I had confidence that he would be a good judge, and so far as I can tell, he has been. More to the point, though, as County Leader, Vito is responsible for keeping that organization as strong as possible. Had he chosen me, he would have failed in that responsibility.

With such sentiments, am I still a “reformer”? I think so. I understand the need for a real political organization, like the one Vito heads, and therefore I understand that leadership of such an organization entails the responsibility for maintaining it. But I also understood my role, when I was in politics, as combating the excesses and abuses of entities that exercised power in the public arena, be they the regular Democratic party organization, Republicans, government agencies and officials, banks, insurance companies, or what have you. I could not fight them all at once, and sometimes I needed alliances with some to fight others, but the overall instinct remained – and remains.

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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.

Silver linings

In NYC Politics on July 6, 2012 at 6:46 am

In retrospect, had I won the congressional campaign I would have spent my life away from my family. When not in Washington, the Member of Congress following Schumer and Solarz would have to spend “home” nights and weekends at community meetings. In what time I had to spare, I’d probably be begging for campaign contributions. This no longer sounds like fun to me.

I worked at the Assembly job at least twice as hard as my constituents would have required, and I imagine I would have performed similarly in Congress. My family and I paid the price in terms of time and attention. Starting a year or so after I lost, when I had regained my equilibrium, in part surely because I was happily working with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, my wife Cecilia and I would occasionally run into Anthony Weiner at various events. Invariably, Cecilia would thank him for having saved our marriage by defeating me. She was not kidding. Realistically, she did not expect me to engage in extramarital shenanigans, as he later did, but she told me quite bluntly that her tolerance for my lack of participation in our family life had been coming to an end.

As my participation in my family life increased and improved, my children appreciated the difference. At that point our daughter was seven and our son was nine. As I went up to their rooms to kiss them goodnight, they told me to sit down. “Promise us you will never run for office again,” they said. I agreed, without hesitation.

Still, I encourage intelligent and idealistic young people to run for office. If they don’t hold public office, who will? We certainly have more than enough of the other kind. But I sometimes wonder if I am doing such fine young people a disservice. I loved it when I did it, but having subsequently recognized the personal cost of that addiction, one could argue that I should not wish it on others.

On the other hand, I will always take satisfaction in various ways I made small improvements in the lives of large numbers of people. As my Tales from the Sausage Factory co-author reminded me, some laws that would probably not have been enacted but for me – and certainly would not have been enacted as soon – have saved lives. It is easy for me to say, now, that I will not return to elective office. But I say that having the knowledge that I have made a difference, in a good way.

Over the next few weeks, you will see “flashback” posts – stories that go back in time before the 1998 campaign. Two documents reminded me of those events, which I had forgotten until now: On Becoming a Politician, an unpublished manuscript the great editor Ted Solotaroff had asked me to prepare for Harper & Row in 1986, but which he decided not to use; and Pragmatism Meets Theory: A Personality Case Study in Political Prediction, a senior thesis for Barnard College by Rita Gunther, based on my 1980 Assembly campaign, in which she played a major part.

Defeated

In National Politics, NYC Politics on June 29, 2012 at 3:49 pm

A tiny group of friends – perhaps a dozen — heard my concession speech, but among them was the loyal Liz Holtzman. Somehow feeling less pain than I had the previous week, or than I would for the next several months, I pointed out that I had not actually died; I just lost an election.

Actually, I had died, in a way. I never had any other ambition than to pursue justice and seek a better world through elective office. Now I finally understood that if I could lose to a crew like Weiner, Katz, and Dear, I was truly in the wrong business. If so, I no longer knew who I was.

Over the next few weeks, I had to raise more money, because the campaign had spent some of the extra thousand dollar contributions that had come in for the general election, and those contributors had to be repaid that amount. I had always hated fundraising, but under these circumstances I detested it with infinite passion. During this period, I needed root canal work. The work itself causes far less pain than the patient suffers beforehand, as the dental nerve slowly dies. I was happy to suffer the physical pain as a distraction from my depression.

Later, a member of the staff of Joe Califano’s drug research organization, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, told me that what I had gone through was not significantly different from heroin withdrawal.

As an addict, irrational though it was, for a brief period I decided to run in the special election to fill what would now be Anthony Weiner’s vacant City Council seat. Peter Romeo, a friend, community activist, and owner of a local lamp store, lived at 3030 Neptune Avenue, and suggested that I start the campaign by ringing doorbells in his building. Virtually every tenant who answered the door assured me they would vote for me. When we finished the building, Peter said to me, “You really hated doing that, didn’t you.” It really wasn’t a question, although I had not realized, until he said it, that I did indeed hate doing it. After twenty-five years, I was burned out. With Anthony Weiner going to Congress, the thought of asking people to vote to send me to the City Council was just too nauseating.

My friend Howard Graubard thought he’d captured a truth with a typically witty “equation” he devised – that Chuck Schumer minus Anthony Weiner equaled Dan Feldman. He meant that Schumer had both substance and the necessary political skills, while Weiner had the political skills and I had the substance. I’m sure Howard did not mean to insult me, but I continue to believe that in certain respects, Feldman minus Schumer leaves a fairly worthwhile person. (Actually, it may occur to a mathematically inclined reader that subtracting a negative is equivalent to adding a positive, so the subtraction of Weiner from Schumer might add to Schumer in terms of character.)

This is not to say that I blame Schumer for my defeat. For the most part, I blame myself. Don Mazzullo, an Albany lobbyist with political views far to the right of mine, nonetheless shares a friendship with me. Don pointed out, a year or so after the race, that I would not have needed to “sell out” in order to win. He argued that, over the course of my eighteen years in office, had I merely shifted my priorities ten percent in the direction of personal publicity and political advancement, rather than focusing so single-mindedly on legislative accomplishment, I would have garnered the support necessary to win the congressional campaign.

Also, I had misread the demographics. Much of my voting base in the 45th Assembly district, and even more so, my old voting base in Rockaway, had died or retired to Florida. Too few of them still voted to give me the margins I needed. Katz did not do particularly well outside the 28th, in Forest Hills, but the voting population in Forest Hills had exploded, and with the support of her mentor Alan Hevesi, who had represented that community for 22 years and was phenomenally popular there, she almost won the race on that basis.

Further, as noted earlier, I lacked the appropriate attitude. I never could give voters the short and simple-minded sound bites that inspire confidence, but at the beginning of my career at least I sincerely radiated the “please please please vote for me” attitude that helps to endear voters to candidates. I had proven my worth, but it was irrational of me to expect the voters to know that. “Examine the record and make a rational choice” reflected the wrong attitude.

My wrong attitude was probably inevitable. I was brought up to believe that it is ungentlemanly to blow your own horn. I was also brought up to believe that the most important audience was oneself: you must know that you have performed with integrity, on every level. These are probably not the lessons most conducive to political success.

This is not to say that I did not seek adulation. In the early 1980s Arlene McKay and I heard me say, on a taped radio interview, “I’m not the sort of person who really seeks the limelight.” I responded to the skeptical look she gave me by saying “yeah, but I’d rather be saying it on television.” I don’t exactly seek the limelight, but I sure am happy when it comes. But I did find it demeaning to chase after it – a significant handicap in politics.

Nonetheless, I still would have won the race under a system urged for many years by my friend Professor Steven Brams, of the NYU Government Department. Brams proselytizes for “approval voting,” a system that reflects voter preferences more accurately than our usual system does in a multi-candidate race. There, voters check off each candidate on the ballot of whom they approve. Under that system, the candidate with the highest approval rate, as I was, wins the race.

Finally, even under our system, I might still have won with a different split. Without Katz in the race, I would have done far better in Queens. Without Weiner in the race, I would have swept non-Orthodox Brooklyn. Without Dear in the race, I would have won the Orthodox vote, although I could not have turned out nearly as many as voted for him. With any of the three out of the race, I probably would have won.

But the public protected me against that fate.

The End (but not the final post)

In National Politics, NYC Politics on June 22, 2012 at 6:34 pm

I had selected as campaign manager a woman who had been recommended by Steve Solarz and who had run the Assembly campaign of my friend Jules Polonetsky to succeed Howard Lasher in the 46th Assembly district, just to my east. At the end of the campaign, when she claimed I owed her additional funds, my wife demanded the financial records of the campaign. In reviewing those records, she found that the campaign manager had directed substantial and unjustified sums to her husband for unclear “services” rendered to the campaign, along with other questionable expenditures. When the campaign manager returned the campaign computer to us, it had been wiped clean of records. My campaign had virtually no Election Day operation, on which I had been so heavily counting to bring in an extra percentage point or two. The campaign manager had kept me out of the headquarters, insisting that my time must be spent only on raising money and on subway, street, and door-to-door campaigning. Now I saw why: she had not wanted me to see what had been going on at headquarters.

In retrospect, I imagine that the early Global Strategies poll had encouraged her to believe that she was getting in on the ground floor with a winner. Once the Penn & Schoen results appeared, she cut her losses by grabbing as much money as possible and, perhaps, traded our campaign files to Schumer or other politicians for favors paid or owed to her.

I did not admit defeat to myself after the Penn & Schoen poll. The Post endorsement of Noach Dear did not crush my hopes either. The News never did make an endorsement. But when the Times endorsed Melinda Katz, I knew it was over. Surprisingly, the Times did not support Schumer’s candidate, although it called both Weiner and Katz “the strongest candidates” in terms of “fresh energy,” of which it said New York’s congressional delegation was “desperately in need.”  This time, it called me “a respected member of the Assembly” who had “spent nine terms working hard on issues of criminal justice and corrections.” But its endorsement of Katz was ludicrous, claiming that she had “distinguished herself as an advocate of health and women’s issues.”

Katz may have earned the second part of the Times’s praise for her: “and for her constituent services,” but I had no way of knowing whether her constituent work was in any way especially distinguished, and neither did the Times. More likely, since the Times Editorial Board felt that it could not endorse Catherine Abate for Attorney General, it thought it needed to endorse a woman in another high-profile race, and made up a rationale for so doing. Clearly, though, had it not endorsed Katz, it would have endorsed Weiner.

I had an unusually difficult job to do over the remaining five days before the primary results came in. Now I knew I would lose, but out of fairness to my supporters, volunteers, and campaign staff, I had to maintain an attitude of optimism and enthusiasm. In that I have no talent at pretending to emotions I do not feel or hiding those I do feel, I was able to do so only at the cost of tremendous effort and pain.

On primary night, I learned that I had come in last. Weiner ended up with 28 percent, Katz with 27 percent, and Dear and I with 22 percent each, but Dear having won slightly more votes.   However, as Weiner’s staff told me that night when I visited to congratulate him, I had the best favorable-to-unfavorable ratio of the candidates throughout the race, and consistently outpolled Dear (but his Election Day pulling operation must have provided his final winning margin).  Also, in the area that knew us both best – that part of the congressional district where Weiner’s Council district overlapped my Assembly district – I beat Weiner fairly handily. Those constituents did not need to base their decisions on our campaign ability, where Weiner clearly outdid me, but on our performance in office.

Unravelling

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.

Queens

In NYC Politics on June 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm

In the years between 1977, when I moved from Rockaway to Brooklyn, and the congressional race in 1998, I often had the same anxiety dream. I dreamt I was jogging through Rockaway – as indeed I had jogged its 12-mile length a number of times when I was in my twenties – but big swatches of what had been the residential areas I knew on the peninsula had now disappeared, either washed away by the ocean, or covered with sand, or replaced with some kind of hostile developments. Somehow, for my own sense of security, I needed to know that my hometown, Rockaway, had stayed strong and healthy.

On some subconscious level, I must have imagined that the people of Rockaway reciprocated my concern and affection. Having narrowly beaten the popular incumbent City Council member, Walter Ward, on the peninsula, a quarter of a century earlier, I somehow imagined that its voters would stay loyal to me.

In fact, I did still have fairly strong support in the immediate Belle Harbor and Neponsit neighborhoods where I had grown up, but that mile-and-a-half community of mostly one-and-two family houses would only provide a fraction of Rockaway’s total vote. Further, a good many of the voters whose loyalties I might have won in throughout the Rockaways in the 1970s had by now died or retired to Florida.

Without Katz in the race, I probably could have positioned myself more clearly as a Queens and Brooklyn candidate, in sharper contrast to Weiner (Dear, in many neighborhoods, was not a factor). But failing that advantage, Weiner’s natural street-campaign talents, and perhaps his eventual endorsement by Schumer, enabled him to outpoll me.

Friction between Alan Hevesi and Tom Manton, the Queens County Democratic leader, left it unclear for a while whether the Queens County Democratic organization would support Katz. During that period, former friends like Betty Braton, now a political force in Howard Beach, sidestepped my efforts to enlist their support, using the purported candidacy of Art Beroff, a young self-made millionaire from Howard Beach, as an excuse. Beroff, a pleasant young man with very little depth in public policy, removed himself from consideration as soon as Hevesi succeeded winning County support for Katz. Beroff died tragically young, at 44, from esophageal cancer in 2004.

Nettie Mayersohn and Tony Seminario, two of my colleagues representing Assembly districts in Queens that lay partially in the 9th congressional district and would contribute some Democratic primary votes, both loudly and often touting their political independence, both having claimed irreconcilable political differences with Katz, and both having made shows of friendship with me, quickly endorsed Katz once Manton made his peace with Hevesi.

Back in Rockaway, Geraldine Chapey, the female Democratic leader from the regular wing of the party, shared my distaste for Simon and took significant amounts of my time talking incessantly about how she would help me with Irish Catholic voters in Rockaway, especially in Breezy Point. While relatively pleasant, certainly compared with Simon, Chapey ultimately refused to “go against County” and thus did not endorse me. Dan Tubridy, my old friend from Broad Channel, produced almost a solid bloc vote for me there – about ninety percent, with my three opponents dividing the rest – while Chapey produced nothing. Of course, she could always make the untestable claim that I would have done worse without her, but I doubt it.

 

Debates, street campaigning, door-to-door

In National Politics, NYC Politics on June 1, 2012 at 10:56 am

Some of the Democratic clubs hosted debates among the candidates. Some civic groups did as well. I remember a debate in the gym at St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic church, on 129th  Street in Belle Harbor, down the block and across Neponsit Avenue from where I lived until I was nine years old. Pauline Emanuel, my fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 114 on Beach 135th Street, showed up to cheer me on. An old regular Democratic clubhouse in Woodhaven hosted another debate; as did Rockaway Independent Democrats, the reform club my mother helped to found in the 1950s and that had supported me in my 1970s City Council races; and a few reform Democratic clubs in Brooklyn hosted others. Usually, the moderator would ask questions, and the three of us would take turns answering, rather than debating each other directly. I don’t remember whether Noach Dear ever participated. I don’t think he did, and if he did, it could not have been more than once.

I noticed something about the way the audiences responded to Katz and Weiner. Of course, I thought I responded with far more intelligence and substance than either, but Katz clearly gave much more relevant and substantive answers than Weiner. However, the audiences responded much more enthusiastically to Weiner, whose comments were “cute” in the attractive sense of that word, or self-deprecating, or funny. I persuaded myself that I got a good audience response too – probably wishful thinking. In retrospect, my responses must have been substantially more substantive, and substantially less effective, than Katz’s.

Knowing what the nation later learned about Weiner’s personal behavior, it may seem odd for me to attribute his success to “emotional intelligence.” Some might prefer to characterize his behavior as reflective of emotional idiocy. But the ability to charm, persuade, and mislead requires empathy, a close relative, if not the equivalent, of emotional intelligence. Studies have found that fraud perpetrators not only score higher on empathy than do other property offenders, they even score higher than a comparison group of college students. So Weiner’s odd personal proclivities could very easily coexist with an empathic understanding that underlay his ability to win over voters.

Democratic politics in the Rockaways had so deteriorated that an unstable and generally bizarre person from the reform club, Lou Simon, had defeated Sy Sheldon after the latter’s long and unimpressive tenure as male district leader (and Simon remains the district leader there). But I won the endorsements of the other reform Democratic clubs after debates at the forums they provided. Wishful thinking notwithstanding, the more intellectual audiences clearly gave me better responses than they gave Katz or Weiner. Of course, when told that he had “the support of all thinking Americans,” Adlai Stevenson quite correctly noted “That’s not enough. I’m going to need a majority.” It wasn’t enough for me either.

If Weiner out-campaigned me in debates, he did even better on the street. He gave short, brief, confident answers to questions. He joked and charmed and endeared himself. Preternaturally thin, his appearance and appeal regularly impelled older women – the largest voting bloc – to pinch his cheeks and urge him to eat more. His poise and charm coexisted with his patently urgent plea for voters’ support.

In contrast, while I did not actually say “if you want to be an idiot, vote for someone else,” I probably made it clear enough that that’s what I thought. On countless occasions I urged voters to “look at the record and make a rational choice.” Voters do not ordinarily do that, and my campaign was no exception.

While Weiner raised about as much money as I did, I believed he needed less time to do so, since Schumer was not actively opposing his fund-raising efforts, as he opposed mine, and may have helped him. Therefore, Weiner had more door-to-door time than I did. I think I rang all the doorbells in Trump Towers, a huge set of middle-income housing projects in Coney Island (built by Donald Trump’s father), and in the Dayton Towers apartment buildings along Shorefront Parkway in Rockaway, another such rich mine of middle-income voters. But Weiner rang them all several times, according to reports I received. Whatever Katz was doing, it did not win her a large percentage of the vote outside her own district. But as the final tally would ultimately reveal, that was almost enough for her to win.

 

Characters: Noach Dear – “a piece of work”

In NYC Politics on April 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Noach Dear has his good points. Now a judge, he has stood up for suffering debtors against sleazy debt collectors. Even as a rascal, his uninhibited forthrightness had a certain charm. At one point in my congressional campaign, some mutual friends introduced me to a few wealthy Syrian Jews from the Ocean Parkway neighborhood, from whom I tried to raise money. None contributed, but one was open enough to tell me that Noach had done too many favors for him and his friends for them to help an opponent of his — me. He went on to reassure me, though, that he knew what Noach was – because Noach had told him. They were marching together in some parade, he said, when he began mildly berating Noach for a vote on some City Council item apparently at odds with the views of the Syrian Jewish community. Noach responded, “Look – I know what I am. I’m a prostitute!”

In my personal dealings with him, that kind of bizarre forthrightness was part of an openness and warmth that made it difficult for me to dislike him personally. However, friends of mine involved in certain business ventures with Dear complained bitterly about his behavior. I found his political behavior absolutely appalling, and thought he was a terrible public official.

A former professional saxophone player, he had served as District Manager of Community Board 12 (much of which covers Brooklyn’s Borough Park community) and helped Howard Golden attract the growing Orthodox Jewish population of Golden’s Borough Park-based City Council district. When Golden became Brooklyn Borough President, he helped engineer Dear’s succession to the City Council seat. Unlike the politically moderate Golden, however, Dear rose to prominence as a fierce opponent of gay rights who “often compared homosexuals to criminals and deviants.”  The Village Voice noted his “lifetime of hostile rhetoric towards gays, blacks, and women.”

Dear also created a charitable foundation, ostensibly to help Soviet Jews, but used the proceeds to pay for trips for his family and other personal expenses, for which was required to reimburse over $37,000 to the foundation and was censured by then-Attorney General Robert Abrams.  The foundation also paid him about $250,000 a year. During our congressional race, he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions (perhaps a third of the money he raised for that campaign), for which his campaign was fined $45,000 by the Federal Election Commission. Dear’s campaign treasurer, Abe Roth, also served as the CPA for Sholom Rubashkin’s Agriprocessors, the Iowa “kosher” meatpacking plant that mistreated animals and workers alike.

Most of my “member item” money – the infamous “pork barrel” or “slush fund” money that legislative leaders allow individual members to direct to pet causes – went to pre-kindergarten programs in the public schools in my district. However, out of respect for the work that Catholic schools and yeshivas also performed for the children in my district, and cognizant of the financial pressures many of them faced, I had sought ways to help them as well. I led the fight to reimburse those schools for administrative costs imposed on them by the earlier enactment of a law requiring them to exclude children who had not been immunized, and of course to keep records in order to do so. My amendment to the “mandated services” statute created the first new stream of public revenue in a long time made available to non-public schools in the State of New York. Its enactment won me effusive plaudits from the Orthodox Jewish community.  But Noach was “one of them,” and had done so many political favors for individuals and individual organizations that I could not win any substantial support in the Orthodox Jewish community (not counting my own Orthodox synagogue, the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center, most of whose members at the time, like me, were not actually Orthodox).

Ultimately, on September 11, 1998 the New York Post would endorse Noach in the race, while noting “some ethically questionable choices [he had made] in the 1980s,” calling me “a serious student of government,” but noting that I was “a truly straight talker, almost to a fault,” perhaps really meaning it was a fault.

Characters: Marty Markowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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