Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘heroin’

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.



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.