Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘Council 82’

Fund-raising for Congress

In National Politics on May 4, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Raising money, as always, tormented me. To this day I feel bad about old friends I hadn’t spoken with in years who responded generously when I called to beg for money, and with whom I quickly lost touch again thereafter. For example, Nathan Abramowitz played chess with me on our high school chess team, went to Fordham, served as a platoon leader in the Vietnam War, and became a partner at the Mudge, Rose law firm. Some of my fellow members of Columbia’s heavyweight freshman crew team are in that category too. Another is Ira McCown, a couple of years ahead of me in college and my squash partner at Harvard Law School. Holly Hendrix, a fellow member of Columbia’s Van Am service society who became president of Union Theological Seminary, similarly responded with his characteristic warmth and generosity. These very good people, and others like them, probably feel that like a typical politician, I only reached out to use them. I suppose I did, but without personal wealth or substantial vested interests committed to my success, I had no choice but to beg everyone I ever knew. Now, having reverted to being a normal person, i.e. not a politician, I cannot keep in touch with the hundreds of wonderful people who contributed.

Federal law limits contributions to congressional campaigns to one thousand dollars per person. Someone could contribute a thousand dollars each for a candidate’s primary and general election campaigns, but in my case, since I had lost the primary and had no general election, I had to return the money contributed for the latter campaign. Since I had to raise several hundred thousand dollars, and most contribute less than a thousand, this would require a lot of telephone calls even if everyone said yes, and most people say no.

Joe McLean, from the McLain Clark political group, somehow found me. His organization would take a percentage of the money they helped me raise. Joe seemed like an honest guy, and I think he is. He placed a young woman named Tammy Shake in my campaign. She did, essentially, what Louis Bochette did in the District Attorney race, but with computer-assisted lists. After exhausting my personal lists, Tammy made me call unending lists of donors identified as sympathetic to Democratic candidates. I don’t remember the real percentage, but distant memory tells me something like one out of a hundred would actually contribute. That seems wrong, because out of a hundred calls, which might take an hour, I would only reach ten or fifteen people – most of whom, again, would decline. Yet, under Tammy’s direction I raised perhaps three hundred thousand dollars. Combined with the contributions from my personal lists, about $75,000 from my “bundlers” (see below) and about the same from unions, I raised a total of about $600,000 – the same as Katz and Weiner. Dear raised as much as the three of us put together.

I had compiled a strong pro-labor record in Albany, and a number of unions each contributed at the five thousand dollar maximum they were permitted by federal law. I assume they were counting on me to continue to support the labor movement, and indeed I would have. However, I lost an important range of support from labor because at the urging of certain respectable clergy members, I had publicly asked the FBI to investigate allegations of correction officer misbehavior at a prison in western New York. Council 82, the union then representing New York State correction officers, which had strongly supported me in the past, regarded this as a betrayal. They told the leadership of AFSCME District Council 37, the powerful umbrella group for New York public employee union locals, that if DC 37 supported me, Council 82 would leave DC 37. This made it impossible AFSCME’s national to support me, which in turn prevented me from presenting myself as the “labor” candidate. (Ironically, a year later, in 1999, Council 82 lost the right to represent New York State’s correction officers.)

Other than from labor, I did not raise much money from Washington-based “PACs” – political action committees, created for the purpose of collecting donations from people or entities with common political interests and then contributing to candidates.  I had been the New York State Legislature’s leading proponent of gun control, earning an F-minus from the National Rifle Association for my efforts. Anthony Weiner had actually opposed the major gun control effort to come before the New York City Council, and Katz and Dear played no significant role on the issue. But the gun control PACs refused to support me.  I suspected, and later confirmed, that Schumer had actively discouraged individuals and organizations from supporting me. Since he played a leading role in gun control efforts in Congress (although the NRA gave him a slightly higher grade – a plain F – than the F-minus it gave me) the gun control PACs, I suppose, must have been especially responsive to his influence. Still, this experience helped me share the general skepticism of politicians toward “holier-than-thou” civic groups.

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Chairing the Committee on Correction: Prisons and Jails

In Criminal Justice Policy on January 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

In 1988, with my blessing, New York opened its first “maxi-max” prison facility, Southport Correctional, in Chemung County, near Elmira. Not only were we running out of solitary confinement units to house violent and otherwise disruptive inmates, Commissioner Tom Coughlin and I felt that we could improve on the unofficial system of distributing “bad” inmates and officers to the worst facilities. We thought that this prison, comprised entirely of solitary confinement cells, would provide a more humane alternative to the old system, based – unofficially – on beatings. In retrospect, I am not sure we were right. Some prison experts feel that solitary confinement tortures inmates psychologically in ways that involve crueler punishment even than physical abuse.

In any event, back in 1990, the correction officers’ union, then Council 82 of AFSCME, wanted me to investigate complaints by the officers at Southport. George Winner, my Republican colleague in the Assembly who represented the area, accompanied me on the visit. Shortly after our arrival, the correction officers and union officials had us don white plastic garments that covered us from head to toe. These “shit suits” were to protect us against “throwers,” inmates who would hide their own feces until they could throw them at officers. As we moved through the tiers, or cellblocks, we heard many of the inmates screaming or raving incessantly. Clearly, a substantial percentage suffered mental illness, whether brought on by solitary confinement or perhaps responsible for their in-prison violence in the first place.

The officers pointed out, however, that during the legally required hour of exercise outside their cells, the inmates moved to an outdoor area with flimsy fencing. Staffing levels did not suffice to assure security either. The conditions presented a serious danger of riot.

Immediately upon my return, I sent a memo to Commissioner Coughlin seeking urging attention to these issues. A few weeks later, nothing having been changed, the inmates rioted and took hostages. The incident, and my memo, made the front page of the New York Times. Fortunately, Commissioner Coughlin resolved the situation within a few days without any fatalities.

Assembly Member Winner, later a State Senator, had won a reputation for especially cutting remarks to Democratic opponents in Assembly floor debates. He and I, however, always enjoyed a cordial relationship. So a few months later, when he rose to debate one of my bills, I slowly and ostentatiously removed from the drawer of my desk in the Chamber the white plastic suit I had been saving for just that occasion. Winner, overcome by hysterics, could not proceed.

So far, I have discussed only maximum security facilities. Green Correctional, about 20 miles south of Albany, houses younger offenders, eighteen to twenty-one years of age, in medium security. This makes it harder to run than some of the maximum security joints: raging hormones and immaturity do not help keep a prison calm. Unlike maximum security prisons, where cells stretch out along lengthy corridors, or “tiers,” medium-security prisons house inmates in dormitory rooms, sometimes with ten or twenty inmates to a room. They still use razor wire to cover their walls, so they protect the security of the outside world in ways not significantly different from maximum security prisons, but the security inside the walls is looser. Minimum security facilities often house inmates who may leave during the day on work-release programs. There, the system presumes that the outside world needs less protection.

Jails run on different rules altogether. That does not necessarily mean they are easier to run. Even Clinton Correctional, the State’s largest prison, could fit into a corner of Riker’s Island, New York City’s enormous jail, which at its peak housed about 20,000 inmates and detainees. Criminal defendants awaiting trial stay in jail, not prison; defendants convicted of misdemeanors, who serve sentences of a year or less, also go to jail. Defendants convicted of felonies must serve more than a year, and they serve that time in prison, except for any credit they may be owed for time served in jail awaiting trial or sentencing. Short-term detainees, on average, cause more trouble than long-term inmates. Often, they have not yet acclimated to detention, and so have not figured out that bad behavior will make their stay less pleasant. They may not expect to stay long, and therefore in any event have less motivation to try to assure themselves a more pleasant stay by cooperating. For these reasons, I think it is more difficult to run Riker’s Island than to run any State prison.