Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘Liz Holtzman’

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.”


Meade Esposito

In NYC Politics on August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I had gotten to know Herb Lupka to some extent. Liz Holtzman seemed to have a visceral distrust of most regular Democrats and was one of the very few Brooklyn Democrats who never made peace with Meade Esposito, their countywide leader. But Liz liked Lupka. This gave me some threshold comfort with him, and nothing about him set off any red flags in my perceptual apparatus either. I picked up no hint that he would try to corrupt me in any way. When he informed me that I would be the Club’s choice, I was immensely relieved. I knew this would greatly increase my chances of victory.

A few days later, though, he let me know that as the regular Democratic candidate, protocol obliged him to take me to meet Meade, “our” county leader. Now I worried. What deal with the devil would I be asked to sign?

On a broiling hot June mid-afternoon, we drove up to Democratic County headquarters at 16 Court Street, the official seat of Meade’s reign. As always, I appeared in a suit and tie. Even at the end of my political life eighteen years later I was formal and stiff compared with the typical politician. I’m sure I was much worse in those early days.

Meade greeted Herb warmly, and me cordially. He paid little attention to me, though. I noticed the cartoon posted on his wall. A young bull says to a much older bull, “Let’s run down the hill and f–k a cow.” The old bull replies, “No. We’ll walk down the hill and f—k ‘em all!”

Meade talked with Herb at some length, although, so far as I could tell, not about anything very important. Finally, Meade turned to me.  “Feldman. I got some advice for you,” said in that famous gravelly voice. Uh-oh, I thought. Here it comes. What would he want? A pause. He reflects. “I think you should unbutton your collar and loosen your tie.”

Okay. Shortly you will read about the rather eventful next three months. But now we flash forward to September, after I’ve won the Democratic primary. Herb says, “Now you are the official Democratic candidate for the Assembly. We have to go pay another courtesy call on Meade.” Now I worried somewhat less. I was as good as elected, in my overwhelmingly Democratic district. What could Meade demand of me? Still, I remained somewhat concerned.

Again, it’s mid-afternoon. Again, it’s hot, although not as hot as in June. Again, we ascend to Meade’s office. This time he pays a little more attention to me. He gets Stanley Fink on the phone, making it obvious that Fink, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, took Esposito’s call immediately. He tells Fink about the soon-to-be new member of the Assembly from the 45th District, me. He finishes with Fink. After some more chit-chat with Herb, he finally turns to me. Again, he says “Feldman. I got some advice for you.” Again, reflection and consideration. A judicious pause. “I think you should say ‘f—k’ more often.”

Of course, this was his way of telling me to relax, loosen up. But I quickly understood something that distant onlookers, armchair critics, and even those few reformers who kept their distance might not have understood. One very important source of Meade’s power was that almost everyone who actually met him liked him.

I learned more in my next encounter. Flash forward again, to spring 1981. Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold announced he would not run for reelection and Liz announced her candidacy for the job. Liz was one of the few who didn’t like Meade and Meade didn’t like Liz. I immediately endorsed Liz and began campaigning with her. The regular organization candidate was Norman Rosen, a former assistant district attorney but a thoroughly unimpressive person. Meade’s dislike of Liz, though, impelled him to corral all the support he could for Rosen. Rosen’s campaign hired Hank Sheinkopf to craft its radio and television commercials. Before he went into public relations, Hank had been a New York City police officer who enrolled in the administrative law class I was teaching at John Jay College at the time. But now he designed a ferocious commercial against Liz. It featured an elderly Jewish lady advising the viewers and listeners that “She’s a nice girl, but she’s not right for the job.”

Some of my friends warned me that I would be annoying Meade by endorsing Liz. This influenced me not at all. She had proven herself a true friend of mine, and, as far as I could tell, especially with Lowenstein now gone, the most dedicated public servant I knew. And for several months, I heard nothing from Meade.

In mid-July, though, Jean Safonoff, who ran the neighborhood office that served my constituents (my “district” office), got a phone call from Ruth Gelbard, Meade’s secretary. Meade required my presence at the Arch Diner in Canarsie at 7 a.m. Thursday morning. This, Herb informed me, signaled a real meeting. Meade, now 74 years old, felt sharpest early in the morning, and held court at the Arch. The afternoon meetings at his Court Street office were for courtesy. The morning meetings at the Arch were for business.

I enter the Arch a few minutes early. Meade was already there, sitting alone. He welcomed me to his table, and invited me to breakfast with him. After a few minutes of pleasantries, he got to the point. “Look,” he said, “I know you’re her friend. You had to endorse her. I understand that. But you are part of the regular organization. Can’t you at least take it easy? You don’t have to campaign with her all the time.”

I said “Meade, you’re my friend. If you were in trouble, I would help you all the way. That’s what I have to do with Liz.”

He tried the line from the commercial: “you know, she’s a nice girl, but not right for the job.” I said, “You know as well as I do, she’s not so nice, and she’s perfect for the job.” He laughed.

Then he said “Okay. I understand. Fine. But there’s a City Council race in your district, and I happen to know that you’re not personal friends with any of the candidates. So you’ll support my guy, okay?”

What could I say? In fact, I was by no means crazy about his guy. But I agreed. This taught me more about how Meade exercised control. In fact, the Council race was canceled for legal reasons,   so I never had to support the candidate in question, and Meade never again asked me for anything. However, several fellow politicians told me, in later years, that Meade had said to them, “Feldman was the only one who had ever stood up to me” – and he meant it as a compliment.

While I never saw any evidence that Meade broke any laws, I cannot say I was astonished when he was convicted of influence peddling some years after his retirement in 1983.  But I couldn’t help but like him.


Running a congressional district office

In General on July 24, 2011 at 6:45 pm

My attitude required me overcome any obstacle, no matter how great, when Liz Holtzman assigned me a task. I have no recollection of why, but I remember running through a rail yard in Long Island to some office of the telephone company after I learned that only there could I get a copy of a particular telephone book we needed urgently for some reason. Liz is slight and about five feet tall. I found her much more intimidating than the law firm partner. I could hand Liz a memo with 100 components: she would instantaneously, laser-like, focus on the one error I had made, and scream at me for it. Because I was so demanding of myself, I was especially vulnerable to her criticism: my own perfectionism multiplied the impact of hers. But I also saw her – literally – scream at herself for errors. However much she drove me crazy, I understood that her intensity came from a commitment to serve the public well, which she did. Nonetheless, my predecessor in the job of running the office had gone through an entire bottle of Maalox each week he worked there, and I quickly understood why.

I learned something about myself as a supervisor. Constituents would come to us with all the usual problems: garbage was not being picked up regularly, Social Security check didn’t come or the amount wasn’t right, the schoolchildren needed a crossing guard at another intersection. Our caseworkers helped constituents with these problems, and my responsibilities included supervising the caseworkers. I had something of a personal relationship outside the office with one of them, because I had dated her sister briefly. One afternoon she went to lunch with a new caseworker. The two were “missing in action” for over two hours, making me wonder whether anything terrible had happened to them. Crime was on the rise in New York in those days; I was worried. When they finally ambled back into the office, I explained to the more senior caseworker why this was unacceptable. She seemed to accept my reproach, but some hours later scolded me for having expressed so much anger. Puzzled, I noted that I prided myself on never raising my voice, and had not done so. “No,” she said. “But your face turned purple and steam came out of your ears.” After that, I decided I might as well yell.

I also had to handle community problems. Mayor Beame’s administration, facing increasingly serious budget problems, wanted to close the 70th Precinct station house. Many community leaders protested to us. Liz needed to be in Washington. I met personally with Mayor Beame and somehow persuaded him to let it be. Ocean Parkway, the big and beautiful thoroughfare designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, running through Kensington, Parkville and Midwood, separating Sheepshead Bay from Gravesend, Coney Island from Brighton Beach, and terminating at the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk there, connects to Manhattan at the other end through the Prospect Expressway, the Gowanus Parkway, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. By 1973 it needed more than repaving. The roadbed under the surface no longer supported the paving, so new potholes would immediately succeed repaired ones. Somehow, it fell to me to coordinate the New York City, New York State, and federal highway agencies and bureaus involved in its restoration. This gigantic project took many years, but at its inception it took much of my first year as Holtzman’s Executive Assistant.

The Lubavitch Hassidic community was growing rapidly, and our congressional district included its home in Crown Heights. Yehuda Krinsky served as its government relations expert and liaison to our office. (After the passing of the great messianic “Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1994, Krinsky took the leadership of the movement, except for a minority of eccentrics who thought Schneerson was actually the messiah.) In the mid-1970s, Krinsky called me regularly asking if I’d seen the latest issue of the Federal Register, the publication that lists new proposed federal regulations – and, more to Krinsky’s interest, new federal grants. Most people, including myself, regard the Federal Register as far too boring to read. No one read it more assiduously than Krinsky. When one of the Lubavitch community organizations was actually well qualified for such a grant, we wrote letters in support, with some success. Thus, when the Rebbe held a big “farbrengen,” a gathering of hundreds, maybe a few thousand people to celebrate some religious milestone, Krinsky invited me, not Liz, to sit at the dais. They would have had to seat Holtzman, as a woman, in some special far-away section. Krinsky was far too astute to make such an error. This way, they honored her by honoring me. I still have the photograph of myself at the event, in a sea of long beards.

In the summer of 1976, my job transformed into that of a full-time investigator, as we stumbled across the evidence of what became known as the Summer Food Program Scandal of 1976. With my assistant Ibby Lang I essentially took on a nationwide consortium of politically-connected crooks who were stealing 85 percent of the funds Congress had intended to be used to feed hungry schoolchildren. This required longer hours even than the combination of Olwine Connelly and my second Council race. That summer, I regularly worked 100 hours a week, requiring all-nighters followed by another 18 hours of work, with perhaps 5 hours of sleep before another 18-hour day. I found that an early-morning jog of three miles would help me keep going after the no-sleep nights. The Summer Food Program investigation makes a good story, but I’ve told it before, in Reforming Government (New York: William Morrow & Co. 1981), so I won’t tell it again.

By this time, my salary had risen back to what it had been when I left the law firm. In early 1977, with the Summer Food Program investigation over, my responsibilities reverted for the most part to the more quotidian tasks of running the office.  Despite the tremendous amount of effort it had required, I found that I liked the muckraking role better than the standard administrative work. So I could not help but be intrigued when Assemblyman Charles Schumer called with an interesting offer. He said, “I saw what you did for Holtzman. How would you like a ‘hunting license,’ to work full-time going after waste, mismanagement and corruption in New York City government? I have a new subcommittee to chair, and you could be its counsel.” Once again, the offer included a 25 percent pay cut. How could I refuse?

A very successful congressional campaign

In National Politics, NYC Politics on May 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm

George McGovern won the Wisconsin primary with thirty percent of the vote, beginning the momentum that would lead to his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. Lindsay got seven percent, and dropped out of the race.

Back at law school, I got two telephone calls asking for my help in Brooklyn Democratic congressional primaries to be decided that June 20th. Al Lowenstein called to ask for my help in his race in the downtown Brooklyn/ Brooklyn Heights district against John Rooney, a conservative pro-Vietnam War hawk who had served since 1944 and was friends with J. Edgar Hoover.   Liz Holtzman called to ask me to help her run in the Flatbush-Midwood-Sheepshead Bay district against Emanuel Celler, the “dean” of the House, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, a liberal icon instrumental in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, who had served since 1922. I calculated thusly: Al would get volunteers and financial support from all over the country. Further, he was running against an outright conservative Democratic in a year when anti-war votes were propelling the McGovern forces to victory in Democratic primaries, so he would surely defeat Rooney. Poor Liz, running against the legendary Emanuel Celler, would definitely face massive defeat. At least if I helped her, she might get twenty percent of the vote, and avoid some degree of humiliation. So I went with Liz.

Liz assigned me the 43rd Assembly District, covering the Flatbush section, north of Brooklyn College, in the heart of Brooklyn. I had to recruit the volunteers to canvass the buildings, persuading voters first to sign designating petitions to get her on the ballot, and then persuading them to commit to voting for her. Telephone canvassers would call those voters the “foot” canvassers missed, working to get as complete a list of possible of those voters likely to support Liz. On primary day, volunteers would “pull” those favorable voters, again in person if possible and otherwise by vote, to get them out to vote. Other volunteers would stand outside the polling places leafleting approaching voters. Still others would drive to the polls favorable voters who were elderly or disabled.

Liz herself campaigned tirelessly, meeting voters at every subway stop, movie theatre line, supermarket, and bingo hall. Soon I saw that Liz would do better than I had expected, although (I thought) still nowhere near well enough to win. Celler had fought against the Equal Rights Amendment, and Liz, an obviously brilliant and hard-working woman, perfectly embodied the argument for the ERA. Also, Celler was 88 years old.  One of the telephone canvassers in the campaign office on Flatbush Avenue, after telling the voter on the other end of the line that Celler was 84, swallowed hard when the voter said, “I’m 84 years old!” The canvasser felt much better when the voter continued, “and if Celler feels like I do, he shouldn’t be in Congress.” We all felt much better after hearing the story.

The race included a third candidate, Bob O’Donnell. Led by Mike Churchill, Liz’s campaign manager, we undertook the massive effort necessary to try to knock him off the ballot, by showing that too many of his petition signatures failed to meet the legal requirements. If we succeeded, we thought, Liz would get the anti-Celler votes that O’Donnell would otherwise draw.  We failed. Post-election analysis showed that O’Donnell’s few thousand votes, had he been off the ballot, would have gone to Celler, not Holtzman. Holtzman beat Celler by about six hundred votes.

With all of Holtzman’s talent and drive, three factors beyond her control or our control enabled her to win. Our failure in the O’Donnell effort was one. Another was the Lowenstein campaign: the Democratic machine figured the odds just as I had. Assuming Holtzman had no chance, they put all their effort into Rooney’s campaign. Any support they could provide, such as “volunteers” from the Brooklyn Local 1814 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, all helped Rooney.  Celler himself called Holtzman “a toothpick trying to topple the Washington Monument,” so neither he nor the Brooklyn machine headed by Meade Esposito thought he needed any help.

Third, with Ed Muskie’s weakness, the regular organization knew better than to have him head up their slate, because voters rejecting Muskie might reject the organization candidates listed on the same palm cards (brief “cheat sheets” the local captains would hand their usually loyal voters) or other pieces of campaign literature jointly issued by the presidential and local candidates. But the regulars could not stomach McGovern, because his political support came from all the people usually opposed to the regulars. Also, at this point they still had hopes of defeating McGovern at the Democratic national convention. So their candidates running to be delegates to the convention listed themselves as “uncommitted.” The top of Holtzman’s slate of candidates, the delegate candidates associated with the reform movement, listed their choice for president as George McGovern. The record shows that while McGovern lost overwhelmingly to Richard Nixon in November 1972, he did quite well in the Democratic primaries.

I am proud to say that although Celler beat Holtzman in all the other Assembly districts in her congressional race, she won by a big enough margin in the 43rd – my responsibility – to overcome the deficits elsewhere. I had been working every day for Liz in Brooklyn, but many nights back in my own Queens neighborhood for McGovern (about which more later). Late at night on June 20th, driving back from polling places in Queens, I heard the radio announcement that Liz had beaten Celler. I almost jumped through the roof of my car in joy and amazement. I still could hardly believe it.

[PS — Thank you, Howard Graubard, for a factual correction from an earlier version.]