Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘McGovern’

Becoming a candidate

In NYC Politics on May 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

As we celebrated Holtzman’s victory, bad news came in from the Lowenstein campaign. Rooney had apparently prevailed, but Lowenstein’s poll watchers noticed enough cheating at the polls to warrant a recount. For example, the regular organization managed to deliver broken voting machines only to neighborhoods where Lowenstein was running ahead of Rooney. Also in the strongly pro-Lowenstein neighborhoods, an extraordinary number of “buff cards” went missing: these were the cards the voter had to sign each year identifying him or her as the registered voter in question. The “irregularities” accounted for more votes than Rooney’s narrow margin of victory, so Lowenstein’s lawyers won their court battle to have a re-run in September. This time I went to help Al. But regulars have almost always been much better than reformers at getting voters to the polls in special elections for local office, when no national or citywide races are on the ballot. With less than two weeks between the court decision and the special election, the Lowenstein forces could not overcome the superior organization of the regular, enhanced by Rooney’s strong support from organized labor. In the re-run, Rooney beat Lowenstein decisively.

During the summer, I had continued to work for McGovern in Queens. Somehow I managed to get moderately prominent civic leaders from communities across the borough of Queens to put their names on the letterhead of “People for a Better Queens.” I created this not-very-eloquently-named organization as a supplement to the weak effort the Democratic organization was putting out for its presidential candidate. Matthew Troy, then the Democratic county leader of Queens (we encountered him earlier as the City Council member who personally climbed the roof to raise the flag Lindsay had lowered on Vietnam Moratorium Day) lied to me personally when I pressed him to make serious efforts for McGovern. He promised to do so and almost completely reneged on his promise. I later learned that I should be no means have felt honored or singled out by this treatment: he lied to everyone.

I wanted McGovern to win, but I also had a selfish motive. I intended to use People for a Better Queens as the foundation for my own City Council race the following year. When I went back to law school for the fall semester of my third year, Arthur Kokot, my good friend and classmate (from college as well as law school), engaged in a primeval version of distance learning, managing his third-year law school classes at Harvard while spending much of his time protecting my political interests in Queens.

Step back for a picture of “politician” Dan Feldman at this time. I had gone to a fine elementary school, P.S. 114, where we were given the New York Times to read every morning, and were required to write letters to the editor in response to political issues of the day. I still remember reading about the abuse of black citizens in the South, feeling a wave a fury rising from my stomach, and swearing that I would do something about injustices like that – personally. Somehow, I thought that only by winning elections could I assure myself that power.

I was painfully – excruciatingly — shy. Still, I had a burning desire to become a politician. When started junior high school, I noticed that while I took the bus every morning, a nice classmate who lived across the street got a lift in from his father. I told my mother that I wished I could ride in with him. She said, “so why don’t you ask him?” I demurred – “I can’t do that!” She replied, “You want to be a politician? You’d BETTER learn to be able to ask people for things.” It took me three weeks to work up the courage. Of course he said yes.

I forced myself to make speeches. I was terrified, and terrible. When I was fourteen I earned my Eagle Scout rank. My synagogue asked me to make a speech to mark the occasion. I wrote and memorized what I planned to say. In front of the audience, I lost my place, and could not remember what came next. I truly wished for a hole in the floor to fall through. Somehow I managed to get off that stage, and slink to the seat next to my mother. She said, “You know, no one will ever forget that speech – it was so awful.”

I kept at it. I must have given a hundred speeches, all terrible. But if you do anything enough, you’ll eventually acquire some level of ability.

I made no secret of my intention to go into politics. All my friends told me that I could not be a successful politician: I was too honest. I have never been able to lie; I’m just no good at it. Also, I was not, and am not, especially diplomatic. So, I told them, I’d be an unsuccessful politician. I meant it.

But I didn’t do too badly as a student politician. I lost a race for class president to Fred Strober, an extremely nice guy, who was “popular” and good-looking, but I didn’t lose by much. By the time I got to college, my skills had improved. In my junior year, I became president of the Undergraduate Dormitory Council, at the time the only student government for Columbia College.

And of course, I must have learned something doing so much campaign work for others. But there is such a thing as a natural political personality. I didn’t have it. And now I was a candidate for New York City Council.

 

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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.]

An extremely unsuccessful presidential campaign

In General on May 13, 2011 at 6:55 pm

When I returned to Cambridge in the fall, somehow the nascent Lindsay-for-President campaign found me. The messenger, Louis R. Bochette, who worked for one of Lindsay’s chief political aides, Sid Davidoff, came up personally to recruit me. I liked Lindsay a lot, but Mr. Bochette took “unprepossessing” to new heights. He was short, bald, deaf, had a handshake like a dead fish, and looked like something out of Damon Runyon’s stories. In later years, when I came to a better appreciation of his warm heart and sharp mind, I learned that not only had he read Damon Runyon (among thousands of other books), but had picked out Nicely Nicely as the character he most resembled.

Somehow, by the time Louis left Cambridge, David Dubin, another former Urban Fellow then in Cambridge, and I were the Massachusetts coordinators for the Lindsay-for-President campaign. In this capacity I tried to recruit campus coordinators at other locations in the state. At Smith College, I presented my case to the student body president: Ed Muskie would win the Democratic nomination. But John Lindsay, attractive as he was, could garner enough strength to push Muskie to the left, especially on Vietnam war, which is why it was important for us to support him. Clearly, this fellow George McGovern was going nowhere. My audience, Cecilia Gardner, whom I had first met as a colleague in Registration Summer, remained unimpressed. She became the New England coordinator for the McGovern campaign. Those who know me well will understand why I remember the encounter with Cecilia.

My only other recollection of my other Massachusetts efforts for Lindsay involved Steve Brill, later well known as the creator of Court TV and the American Lawyer magazine, and an excellent investigative author. However, at that time he was a very young Lindsay operative, and so obnoxious that one of my associates offered to get in touch with friends from his tough Massachusetts home town, Fall River, who would, for twenty-five dollars, be very happy to put a permanent end to Mr. Brill. I demurred, partly on the basis of the fact that his sister, a very fine person, had been a classmate in high school. I don’t think Steve Brill was ever aware of my existence, much less of the fact that I spared his life.

At the beginning of October, taking advantage of my Indiana experience, the Lindsay campaign sent me back there to do “advance work” for the Mayor. This meant planning and arranging the stops Lindsay would make there to maximize their political impact. He would arrive at the Indianapolis airport, about twenty miles out of the city itself. Donnie Evans, a Lindsay aide, supervised me by telephone from back in New York City, although most of the time he communicated his orders through Walter Hinckley, who held some kind of Sanitation Department supervisory job in the Bronx. They told me that I had to build a big crowd to meet Lindsay at the airport, so the press could see the enthusiasm his campaign would generate.

Gordon St. Angelo and his staff, with whom I had become friends during the summer, helped me tremendously. As I recall, the Lindsay campaign paid for the buses, but St. Angelo’s contacts in the unions filled those buses, and arranged for the workers – mostly Indianapolis city employees – to get an hour off time off to come. I also called on all my campus contacts to get their classmates to show up. I worked for about two weeks to make all the logistical arrangements. Then Hinckley came in to town, and started riding me and nagging me, probably out of nervousness that he would look bad if we did not in fact produce a respectable crowd. When the day came, we arrived at the airport several hours before Lindsay was due. The first bus showed up three-quarters empty. Hinckley now accompanied his abusive language with a shove. I told him that if he touched me again, I’d end up in jail and he’d end up the hospital. But I had fail-safed the event: I counted on the failure of some of my promised bus loads to come through, and I had plenty of back-up. Lindsay arrived to be greeted by some 200 cheering Indiana citizens – a successful event.

Once he arrived, I stayed with him about eighteen hours a day, as I recall. We flew around Indiana in a Lear Jet, which held about six passengers. My contacts at Notre Dame and Bloomington helped us. My adrenalin was running so high that I never nodded off – except once, when, during a break, I opened the law book I had taken with me for my Corporations course.

Lindsay impressed me even more than he had when I worked for him. On little more sleep than I was getting, at the end of one of those eighteen-hour days, he charmed an aggressive press corps, answering all their questions with intelligence and wit. I remember taking him to his hotel room, talking with him as he took off his shirt. I still remember how incredibly thin he was. I don’t know whether that was the occasion I heard him joke about not being comfortable outside New York City, saying “I don’t trust any air I can’t see.” Maybe he said it in some other context, and I just read it. But it was characteristic of his wit and charm.

At the end of October, I returned to Cambridge, and concentrated on law school for a few months (along with taking Tae Kwon Do classes, playing squash a few times a week, enjoying an active social life, and a few other diversions). In February, though, the Lindsay campaign told me they needed me again, this time to prepare for the March 14 Florida primary. By then, it had gradually become clear that although Lindsay could generate appreciative crowds, as we did in Indiana, his charisma did not necessarily translate into votes. He had skipped New Hampshire and Iowa; Florida, with all its transplanted elderly New Yorkers, would be an important state for him.

I was sent to work out of a small local headquarters in North Miami, near Barry College, from which I was able to recruit some canvassing volunteers to ring doorbells. One student’s name, Cookie Mello, from Rhode Island, stayed in my memory, for obvious reasons. David Manley, a co-worker, had some sort of supervisory responsibilities, apparently because his brother was a prominent attorney. I had no money, so like many other campaign workers, I lived mostly on some kind of horrible Champale-like beverage that someone had donated to the campaign, and lost quite a bit of weight. Naturally, the political side of Lindsay’s entourage, the Sid Davidoffs, Al Ungers, and the like, dominated the campaign, with lower-level staff like Manley. This was not the more attractive side. The more exposure I had to these people, the lower my morale descended.

Lindsay was not doing well either. Enough of the New Yorkers who had fled to Florida came with a strong dislike of Lindsay, probably engendered during the teachers’ strike. Lindsay lost the primary, with only seven percent of the vote. George Wallace won overwhelmingly, but Humphrey, Muskie, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson all did better than Lindsay.

One night toward the end of my stay, before the primary, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps because of my disillusionment with the Lindsay campaign, it suddenly came to me that I should run for City Council back home in Queens. The notion seemed like an epiphany. My mind would do nothing but plan and review what I then thought were the details of how I would set up and run such a campaign. Somehow, the fact that my primary would take place in June, 1973, at the end of my third year of law school in Massachusetts, did not seem to pose much of a problem. I thought of myself as an experienced campaigner, a political professional, and could handle it.

I had become friendly with Leo Goldstein, a refugee from Hungary who ran a soccer program for young people for the Lindsay administration. Leo had little education or sophistication; even back in Hungary, I think he had focused his efforts on sports instead. He therefore gave much unearned respect to some of the disgusting political drones around Lindsay who gave Leo his marching orders. But Leo was a good man. Having no money for air fare, I hitched a ride with him back from Florida to New York, from where I would take a train or bus to Cambridge. Leo refused to let me drive, and we stopped each night at cheap motels – we needed two or three nights. Each night before we went to bed, I heard him say, quite softly, in his Hungarian-accented English, “God bless the United States.”