When the Regular Democratic Club of the Rockaways refused Rennie Feldman’s plea to join actively in the 1956 Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign, she and her allies, including Renee Schlitten, Jean Larkin, Florence Kaplan, and Seymour “Sy” Sheldon, became Stevenson’s volunteer force, and recruited others – including me, 7-year old Danny Feldman. On Election Day 1956, I stood at the corner of Cronston Avenue and 134th Street handing out Stevenson campaign flyers to neighbors on their way to vote at P.S. 114, the very same fine elementary school, P.S. 114, that had played a key role in inducing my parents to move to Rockaway, in which I was now enrolled in fourth grade, having skipped third grade.
Stevenson lost. But the local Stevenson volunteers became part of a larger movement. Starting in the late 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman led the effort to wrest control of the Democratic party in New York City away from Tammany Hall and the other old regular machines. People like Rennie and her Stevenson volunteers deeply admired Eleanor Roosevelt and Lehman, so in 1956 the ranks of the reform movement swelled substantially. Thus was born Rockaway Independent Democrats, the reform Democratic club of the Rockaways.
At the beginning of the 1960 presidential race, Rennie and most of her friends remained fiercely loyal to Stevenson, as did Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she greatly admired. Also, she was very aware that John Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, had opposed American entry into the war against Hitler, and was thought in many quarters to have been a Nazi sympathizer. Nonetheless, her support for Stevenson ended immediately upon her first encounter with John F. Kennedy. She went to a political rally for John Kennedy because she wanted to hear what he had to say, but it was fairly clear to me, even at age 11, that it was not merely what he said that inspired her. She was not the only woman in the United States upon whom he had this effect. The press reported “jumpers,” woman who kept jumping at his rallies to get a better look at him. . When she came home that night, she announced, “We’re supporting Kennedy for President.”
So in 1960, I was back at my old stand at Cronston and 134th Street, this time handing out leaflets for JFK. Kennedy would overcome substantial anti-Catholic prejudice in that campaign. Roughly half my neighbors at the time were Irish Catholic (the other half were Jewish) and I remember telling the Irish Catholics kids campaigning alongside me to remember and to support a Jewish candidate when one finally would run for President. (My mother – then, in 1960 – told me that the United States would have a black president before it had a Jewish president.) But JFK’s victory felt like a victory for us.
The local political scene, however, remained less than inspiring. From 1949 through 1966, J. Lewis Fox, a Democrat, represented the Rockaways in the New York State Assembly. He was one of the stalwarts disdained by Rennie and her allies whose incumbency the regular Democratic club feared to risk by supporting Stevenson. But in 1966, as the Merkel meat scandal unfolded, Fox’s involvement emerged, and he was indicted. District Leader Milton Jacobowitz did not rally to Fox’s side, announcing instead his candidacy against Fox for the Democratic nomination. Seeing the regular Democrats split, a reformer from the Bronx moved in. Rockaway Independent Democrats supported him, I stuffed envelopes with campaign materials to be mailed to voters after school, and the reform Democrats won a rare victory in local Rockaway politics.
At about this time, Sy Sheldon, a former Borsht Belt saxophone player and one of Rennie’s original crew of reformers, won election as district leader. Sy’s commitment to reform seemed to end upon his election, and for most of the next three decades he led the regular Democratic organization in Rockaway. One of my Belle Harbor neighbors, Max Galfunt, a Sy Sheldon acolyte, would patrol the voting booths at P.S. 114 during each election, cajoling or bullying each voter to support the “regular” slate of candidates. This was quite illegal, of course, as the law prohibited electioneering within fifty feet of the polls, much less inside the voting booths. But Sy rewarded Max, who became a New York State Supreme Court judge.
In those days, New York held its primaries in June. Of course, whoever won the Democratic primary was assured of victory in November. So when Herb Posner won his primary in June, 1966, the same month I graduated from high school, my political involvement in Rockaway was over, I thought. Off I went to Columbia College to begin a new chapter.