Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘Schumer’

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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Thinking About Congress

In National Politics on March 30, 2012 at 10:12 am

Sometime in late 1993 or early 1994, Schumer included a lunch meeting with me in his schedule for an Albany visit. At that time it seemed quite possible that Mario Cuomo would not run for reelection, given his weak poll numbers. More New Yorkers thought Cuomo should not run for reelection than thought he should, according to an April 1993 Marist poll.

Only five years after my primary run for Brooklyn District Attorney, voters would likely remember my name in large swaths of Brooklyn. If Schumer ran for Governor, I would run to fill the congressional seat he would have to abandon. Noach Dear, an Orthodox Jewish member of the New York City Council, seemed to be the most logical threat to my candidacy, should such a campaign come to pass. The burgeoning religious community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park included many of rapidly expanding wealth; Dear could raise tremendous sums of money from that group. Indeed, the New York Times noted his role as one of a small group of key fundraisers for Vice President Al Gore.  But Schumer assured me that despite his “fund-raising prowess,” in the Times’s words, Dear’s appeal was too limited for him to pose a serious threat to my candidacy; Dear could not get more than a fifth or a quarter of a Democratic primary vote in that congressional district.

Schumer’s interest in running for governor surprised me. I told him that I doubted that Moynihan, who had served as New York’s Senator since 1977, would run again in 2000, and that I thought Schumer would be the clear front-runner for that seat. Furthermore, Schumer had built a national reputation and power base in Washington. Why would he want to come back to Albany? He had a clear answer: “I don’t want to be one of 100 Senators shouting up. I would rather be the one in charge,” or words to that effect.

But when Cuomo decided to run, Schumer declined to fight him in a primary for the Democratic nomination. However, he did not wait for Moynihan to retire; he took on an uphill fight against Al D’Amato in 1998, thus opening his congressional seat to a successor that year.  Not only did Schumer win that fight, he did not become merely “one of 100 Senators shouting up.” He quickly rose to leadership, and within his second term became the second or third most powerful member of the Senate.

In some ways, Schumer’s decision not to run in 1994 gave me a sense of relief. Still-fresh memories of my 1989 campaign for District Attorney still pained me, so I had some reluctance to jump into another battle. But I did not want to end my days as the 80-year-old Assemblyman from Sheepshead Bay. Congress would offer fascinating new vistas. I salivated at the prospect of learning foreign affairs and the politics of Washington D.C. from that vantage point. When Schumer announce his candidacy in 1998, I had to run, or be forced to torture myself with “what if?s” forever after.

Fundraising for a District Attorney campaign

In NYC Politics on February 17, 2012 at 10:47 am

I had an important resource even for the fundraising part of the D.A. race: Louis Bochette. I had met Louis very briefly in the Lindsay presidential campaign in 1972 (see post #34). In 1977 when I started working for Schumer’s Subcommittee on City Management, I saw him again because our office at 270 Broadway was down the hall from that of Assembly Member and Education Committee Chair Leonard Stavisky’s office, and Louis worked for Stavisky. We renewed our acquaintance. In fact, Louis had just taken his master’s degree at John Jay, and recommended me to Eli Silverman, the public administration department chair at the time, to teach the administrative law class in which I had met Sheinkopf (see post #71). Stavisky, a highly intelligent legislator, had a difficult personality, so a few years later, Louis went to work for State Senator Joe Pisani, chair of the Senate Labor Committee, and, like Louis, a liberal Republican. Giuliani, as U.S. Attorney, won convictions against Pisani on eighteen counts, all of which, except those for tax evasion, were reversed on appeal.  Upon conviction, Pisani had to leave the Legislature, and I hired Louis for ten thousand dollars a year so that he would help me develop a strong pro-labor record, and incidentally help me get to know more of the leadership of organized labor.

Louis had started as an advance man for Nelson Rockefeller in the 1950s. He had grown up in Mechanicville, New York, a tough town near Albany, and although a small fellow, had played a lot of high school football. He spoke with a pronounced lateral lisp, wore a hearing aide, and was mostly bald by this time. You would first suspect that there was more to him than met the eye, or ear, when you met his wife of many years standing: an elegant, charming and articulate blond from Ohio, who held a significant management position at the Steelcase furniture company. As you got to know Louis, you would eventually recognize his considerable intellect and character. When my wife first met this paragon in my Albany office, he was walking around barefoot, offered her a limp handshake, and then spit into a cup. But after a while even Cecilia grew to love “Uncle Louis.”

His role in the D.A. race, however, was to torment me. That is, I needed to raise a lot of money for this campaign, and he knew how to do it. He would sit beside me in the tiny office at 16 Court Street that George Jaffee, a friend of Lupka’s, had let me use as a law office, and force me through hour upon hour of fundraising telephone calls. Using my desire to win as the stick, he made me call everyone I knew, everyone I had ever known, friends, relatives, enemies, and beg them for contributions. Then he made me call everyone I didn’t know.

This was much worse than subway stops. Most people there ignore you, but at least the process ends after a two-hour stretch, and it’s mindless enough to do in your sleep. Fundraising requires consciousness of what a boring and degrading thing you are doing. It’s not a question of selling out; it’s just a matter of projecting confidence, repeating the same pitch ad nauseum, tweaked appropriately to each calling target, and accepting a tiny success ratio. But I became sharply aware of the fact that had I spent my years in some sort of boiler-room telephone scamming operation, I would have been better trained for this than from the years I spent steeping myself in the details of public policy and the public interest.

Even so, I did not know how much I would be able to raise, or that I would be able to raise enough. What I did know, from my past campaign experience, that I could mail to Brooklyn’s prime voter list for about $35,000 a mailing. Prime voters are those who voted in three out of the last four primaries. They make up as little as a fifth or so of registered Democrats, depending on the district.  Most years, that list changes by only about fifteen or twenty percent. Therefore, campaigns save enormous amounts of money by mailing to only prime voters rather than to all Democrats. Of course, in Brooklyn, especially in those days, once you won the Democratic primary, you were pretty much guaranteed to win the general election.

To use electronic media successfully in a Brooklyn primary, you had to spend at least $250,000 on it. Otherwise, you would buy too little television or radio time for voters even to notice you, given the cost of media in the metropolitan area. Not knowing that I could raise that much, I felt forced to go the mailing route.

As it turned out, I raised about $500,000, and might have been able to go electronic. But I did not know that early enough. And in most years, it would not have mattered. But in 1989, with the candidacy of David Dinkins, the first successful black candidate for mayor of New York City, voters turned out in unprecedented numbers in the half dozen predominantly black Assembly district in Brooklyn. Based on the usual Democratic primary turnouts in those districts, I did extremely well – my vote total there would have constituted large majorities. Those voters had received my mailings.

But Hynes beat me in those districts two and three to one. Those who had never voted before in primaries had never heard from me, but they heard Hynes’ radio ads and saw his television commercials. Especially with the racist murder of Youssef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, coming on the heels of the Howard Beach case, his campaign had special salience.

Winning

In NYC Politics on September 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Schumer had endorsed Lupka, but not me, by mid-summer. My campaign printed joint leaflets and mailings with Lupka, including Schumer’s endorsement of Lupka and Holtzman’s endorsement of me. Lupka assured me that most voters wouldn’t read the material carefully enough to understand that Schumer had not endorsed me.

By the late summer, our campaign’s informal polls (we didn’t have the money to pay for formal ones, but ours turned out to be quite accurate), had me beating Margules two to one. Apparently Schumer had the same information. Now that I was virtually assured of victory, he endorsed me.

The day before the primary, the Margules campaign dropped another leaflet throughout the district filled with baseless accusations against me. Apparently, the leaflet scared our street-level campaign supporters, because a few voters must have asked them if the accusations were true. The street-level troops reported their fears to our captains. At that level, having perhaps each heard from two or three underlings, the captains got nervous. When the captains’ reports got to me that night, by that time concentrated and exaggerated through three levels of distillation, all the trauma of my previous defeats came back to me. Momentarily convinced that the voters would believe the lies, I literally writhed in psychic agony on the floor of the regular clubhouse on Coney Island Avenue.

Lupka, knowing no other way to run, had followed another valuable morsel of political wisdom throughout the campaign: run scared. Whenever I had gotten too optimistic, he had pulled me back to earth. But that night, he laughingly chided me that now, when victory really was about to be ours, I had finally decided that we would lose.

Having seen Larry’s somewhat scattered approach to organization, Lupka carefully chose a primary day coordinator from his own ranks instead. The primary day coordinator would have the assignment I had taken on in Liz Holtzman’s district leader race: assuring that our people covered the inside of polling places, to prevent cheating, and the outside, to hand out leaflet and beg for votes, in the hope of influencing those who waited until the last minute to make up their minds. The Board of Elections assigns voters to voting machines based on the “election district” in which the voter resides. The Assembly District included 104 election districts. Some polling places included only one voting machine, for one election district; other polling places could include as many as twenty.  Polling places could be the lobby of an apartment building, a library, a church, but most of the voting machines were in school cafeterias or gyms. Voters in the 45th Assembly District reported to about forty different polling places, all told.  The job also required a “pulling” operation: making sure that every voter we had previously identified as favorably inclined toward us, actually got to the polls to cast a vote.

Campaign experts know that these election day operations affect a tiny percentage of the vote – probably less than two percent. But two percent can make the difference in a close race. Also, the size and scope of the election day operation offers a good indicator of a campaign’s overall strength and efficiency: if the candidate has a lot of support and good organization, he or she will be able to mobilize more volunteers on election day (or primary day). Among the regulars, the reformers, my campaign people, family and friends, we had a fair-sized army.

The regular Democratic organization also had a tradition at this time with which I, as a reformer, was unfamiliar, called “walking around money.” The night before primary day, the club’s captains – thirty or so in number, all told – formed a line facing Lupka and Florence Campagna, the female leader. In turn, each approached the leaders and was given fifty dollars. Lupka told me that this would cover whatever expenses the captains incurred on primary day. I still don’t know what expenses those were.

Lupka made an excellent choice of primary day coordinator. To call Victor Barron a perfectionist would be an understatement. If Victor needed to confirm an assignment with a volunteer and the volunteer didn’t answer the phone at 8 a.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m., or 11 p.m., Victor would call at 3 a.m., or so it seemed. Lupka joked that if the volunteer tried to beg off, having broken a leg, Victor would ask why she couldn’t use crutches; if both legs, why not a wheelchair? Victor, in those days an attorney, would many years later become a hard-working and intelligent judge. Unfortunately, he would also go to prison for taking a bribe. But Victor ran our election day operation to a T.

A voter could not approach a polling place without being accosted by a group of volunteers handing out leaflets for Feldman and Lupka. Barron assigned Lupka’s wife and my father to the biggest polling place, Cunningham Junior High School, on East 17th Street between Avenue S and Avenue R. My 76-year old father, warm, kindly, and a shade under five feet tall, would ask each voter to vote for me so that he could “sleep well” that night. Quite a few voters told him that he would get a very good night’s sleep, and many eventually reported the story back to me as well. Lupka later insisted that his wife had been almost equally effective.

As the polls closed at 9 p.m. on September 9, 1980, we gathered at the Kings Highway Democratic Club on Coney Island Avenue to tally the results as our poll watchers brought them in from each polling place. No bad news came. In short order it became clear that we had won a smashing victory: about 10,000 votes for me, 5000 for Margules, 2500 for Rothman. The membership clamored for a speech. I thanked them for their enthusiastic and strenuous efforts. Despite my disapproval of Margules and his campaign, I could not help but express my sympathy at that moment: “I know what it is to lose,” I said, suppressing some rumblings among the crowd that wanted to take some joy in his defeat. But I took plenty of joy in our victory.

Assemblyman Charles Schumer

In New York State Government on July 29, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Sun Tzu referred to the saying, apparently well known in his time, that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Chapter 3, section 18, transl. of Sun Tzu on the Art of War by Lionel Giles, 1910, originally written 6th century B.C.

Most of us think knowing yourself is the easy part, but we are wrong. Politicians, including myself, tend to fall prey to self-delusion. Once I got into office, like many others, I would happily peruse my press coverage. On some level, consciously or not, I assumed that the voters absorbed the same information. Of course they did not – certainly not the vast majority.

Schumer never made that mistake. When he was a member of the Assembly, he managed to win more press attention, sometimes, than the rest of the Legislature put together. He also hit all the morning subway stops, all the graduation ceremonies from elementary school up, all the lobby meetings to organize tenant associations, every community organization meeting, and he was a loud and visible presence. His voice was so loud that it occurred to me once to think that perhaps he had a compact bullhorn implanted in his chest.

Nonetheless, I remember him storming into the office one morning, listing all the things he did to make himself known, and ranting that half the voters still didn’t know who he was – “they could be dead for all the impact I make on them!,” or words to that effect. We got some poll numbers: he was right that only about half of the voters recognized his name at that point – but other local elected officials had a fraction of his name recognition levels. This did not satisfy Schumer.
Everyone who has watched Schumer in action credits his enormous and varied political skills. Since most people underestimate the power of self-delusion, however, they underestimate the significance of his strong grasp on reality. When I worked for him, he was brash, shameless, coarse. He really did epitomize the old and unfair image of the obnoxious, pushy Jew. But he was quite aware of all this, took it into account, factored it into his calculations, and proceeded accordingly.

Some of his other skills drew me to him. He understood me better than I understood him at the time. He knew how to recruit to his service my passion for honesty in government. I expected that we would expose corruption, outrage the power structure, and lose our funding. After all, the Assembly Speaker, Stanley Fink, came out of the clubhouse of Meade Esposito himself, the Democratic County Leader of Brooklyn, and while I had heard good things about Fink in the legislative context, surely attacks on corruption would rile the established power structure, and therefore Esposito and his allies. Therefore, I thought I would work for Chuck for a year or two before he’d be forced to let me go, and I’d search for another job.

But Schumer knew better. He told someone once that I was an “unguided missile,” but he guided me. He had no problem with much of my agenda: having run the Summer Food Program investigation, I knew we would find good targets in New York City’s drug abuse treatment programs when I saw some of the same crooks in management positions. My instincts and background also led me to real estate issues, generally a fertile ground for financial shenanigans. But sensing my inability to resist a challenge, Schumer also kept me busy learning new fields, like rail freight and criminal justice system capacity, areas in which I could help him build his own expertise while perhaps diverting me from investigations that might prove more dangerous to Schumer’s ambitions.

We made a great team. I wrote solid and comprehensive reports both on the muckraking side and on the pure policy side, and Schumer converted almost all of them into great headline stories that got tremendous press coverage. The press coverage generated reforms: we closed the City unsalvageable drug abuse programs and cleaned up the merely dirty ones; we stopped the City from selling back buildings taken for tax arrears to the same sleazy landlords who had milked them dry and lost them in the first place; we even stopped a City University campus from cheating the State out of tuition reimbursements. Of course I took great satisfaction in all this. Reforming Government, my 1981 book referenced in an earlier blog, tells some of these stories, and they were good ones too.

Schumer drew me closer to him personally with great charm, intelligence, and humor. He could be extremely funny. I will never forget Schumer’s brilliant spot-on mimicry of a fictional argument between Ed Koch and Al Lowenstein, perfectly caricaturing the verbal tics and foibles of each. I think Schumer knew how much I admired Al, but Schumer’s performance was just too hilarious. Of course no one foresaw Al Lowenstein’s tragic demise a few years later.
We went out to dinner together, usually in Chinatown. A fair trencherman myself, Chuck gave me a good run for my money. I cooked Chinese dinners for him and his wife-to-be at my father’s house in Rockaway. I truly thought of him as my friend.
It quickly became clear that I had seriously underestimated Chuck’s political abilities. Not only did our subcommittee not get defunded, in less than one year, as of January 1978, Speaker Fink reconstituted it as a full committee, the Committee on Oversight & Investigation, with Chuck as chair and me as counsel.

Shortly before that, with my mother having died four years earlier and my father unable to deal as a co-resident with my brother’s psychiatric difficulties, my father sold our family house in Belle Harbor and moved to a small apartment in Rego Park in mainland Queens. I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan Beach. Coincidentally, Schumer’s Assembly district happened to include that neighborhood.

A few months prior, in the late spring of 1977, only a few months after I had started working for Schumer, Liz called me. The Assembly member for what was then the 42nd District, David Greenberg, once known as the hero police officer nicknamed “Batman,” had recently been convicted of fraud. Liz thought I might want to run for the seat. But I had no real connection to that district, centered at the time in the eastern half of Sheepshead Bay while Schumer’s 45th District included the western half. Also, my loss in 1974 seemed too recent for me to contemplate another run right away, and I was greatly enjoying my work with Schumer.