Daniel L. Feldman

Posts Tagged ‘State Senator’

Characters: Marty Markowitz

In NYC Politics on March 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Among the many, many speeches I gave during the District Attorney campaign was one to the 71st Precinct Police Community Council. Police community councils, enlisting volunteers who want to make sure that their local police contingent responds to the needs of the community as they see them, sometimes draw big crowds to their meetings when some incident or condition arouses that wider community. The neighborhood, and thus the crowd at the meeting, was one hundred percent black, except for three of the speakers: me, one of the police officials, and then-State Senator Marty Markowitz. Assembly Member Clarence Norman spoke, to polite applause. The police official spoke, to polite applause. Another black elected official spoke, to polite applause. I spoke, to polite applause. Then Marty Markowitz spoke.

Markowitz had represented a mostly Jewish district in southern Brooklyn. Almost without impact in Albany, Marty represented his constituents with fierce tenacity. I visited his office for some reason in the early 1980s, and heard him screaming at some commissioner on behalf of a constituent who needed some bureaucratic attention. I recognized the constituent: he was an obnoxious semi-lunatic who regularly annoyed his neighbors; Markowitz would have won more votes by insulting him publicly. But he was Marty’s constituent, and that was enough.

After the 1980 census, though, the Republican-controlled Senate leadership redistricted Markowitz so that his new constituency was almost entirely black. Marty stood in front of the crowd. “I know who I am,” he said. “I’m a short, fat Jewish guy. But don’t think that means I don’t understand your problems.

“My office is on Church Avenue, on the second floor. Some guys stand in front of it all day, dealing drugs. So I went down to talk to them. I said, ‘Look, I’m a State Senator. It doesn’t look right for you to be selling drugs right in front of my office.’ They thought about it, and answered me, sounding very reasonable. ‘You make a good point,’ they said. ‘You should move your office.’”

I’m sure my rendition doesn’t do justice to Marty’s performance. The crowd went nuts. They loved this guy.

The precinct council people tended to be older. When walking among younger black constituents, Marty sometimes carried a “boom box” with him, tuned to hip hop music. He seemed to become one of them, to the extent possible. I think he was sincere.

He was still single when we served together in Albany, although he was approaching 50. The legislative scene in Albany in those days included lobbyists’ receptions for legislators with enticing spreads of food and plenty of alcoholic refreshment, before the ethics laws restricted lobbyists’ ability to provide that sort of thing. Mary Lee King was not a lobbyist, but for decades ran the ZAP courier service, specializing in expedited delivery of memos to legislators for lobbyists facing some urgent legislative deadline. Mary Lee, a grandmother, still wore extremely short skirts. Six feet tall and gorgeous, she always made a strong and extremely pleasant impression. As I chatted casually with her, Marty sauntered over. From his five foot five inch level, he slowly raised his eyes to take in Mary Lee’s full dimensions. “What’s the use even fantasizing,” he mused very audibly, and walked away.

Marty’s years representing black Brooklyn won him enormous popularity. When he represented white Brooklyn, he solicited enough money from private sources to put on fabulous popular music concerts in Midwood and Brighton Beach, drawing thousands of people, at which he would give appropriate recognition – advertising – to the corporate sponsors. When he moved to black Brooklyn, he continued to preside at the original concerts, in his trademark white tie and tails, but added concerts in his black neighborhoods.

In 2001 [David Eichenthal and Howard Graubard corrected the mistaken date in the earlier version of this post] he ran for Brooklyn Borough President against Ken Fisher, a very intelligent white member of the New York City Council, and Jeanette Gadson, a very capable black deputy to Borough President Howard Golden. Golden of course disliked Markowitz for having tried to unseat him in previous years, before borough presidents were term-limited out. Toward the end of that race I had breakfast with Steve Cohn, my old subcommittee counsel (see post #57). Steve grew up with Ken, and considered him to be virtually a brother. I asked him how the race was going. “Well,” he said, “Marty will split the white vote with Kenny, and he’ll split the black vote with Jeanette.” Steve was too loyal to Kenny to say outright that Marty would win. But his meaning was clear enough.

The New York Times ran an endorsement in that race. After noting that Fisher “clearly prefers wrestling with global policy issues,” the Times endorsed Markowitz, suggesting that he “hir[e] technical experts to deal with complex areas” and thus “free himself to do what he does best, promote and help Brooklyn residents,” or, essentially, “The borough presidency is a job for an idiot. We endorse Marty Markowitz.” And Marty has in fact been a great borough president.

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Excerpts from Tales from the Sausage Factory: We Need the Legislature, Good or Bad – or Good and Bad

In New York State Government on September 30, 2010 at 8:51 am

By March 2010, one State Senator darkly joked that he longed for the days of “dysfunction” – at least it “has function in its title.”

It is hard to imagine, but about forty years earlier the New York State Legislature . . .was considered a model of institutional professionalism. In a 1971 report, it was one of four that received the highest ranking available from the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures. (The others were California, Illinois and Florida.)

Quinnipiac University polls New Yorkers’ attitudes toward “the way the state legislature is handling its job,” and regularly finds – urban, suburban or rural, male or female, upstate or down – that less than a third approve.

Does the Legislature deserve all the disapprobation that is heaped on it? Some say not. Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash, for instance, has said the idea that the New York State Legislature is dysfunctional a “myth.” According to Stonecash, “what takes place in Albany is just normal haggling over policy.” Long-time Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County, has asserted in The New York Times “Although in the last few years there have been things the Legislature has had to improve, most things we do well.”

Brodsky went on to attribute the New York State Legislature’s problematic reputation to bad public relations. “We’ve been very effectively Swift-boated as dysfunctional, ineffective and corrupt,” he said. “And it’s our fault. We have never gotten the message out in a coherent way of what we do well and right.”

Stonecash and Brodsky overstate the case. The legislature has been performing dismally, and is in major need of reform. But, to be fair, [Feldman and Benjamin remind us, drawing upon Feldman’s eighteen years of service in the Assembly and writing in his voice,] state legislators do some things well.

Good or bad – good AND bad – we need it

Legislatures are not simply arenas for rational problem solving. They are places in which society’s emotional and psychological needs are manifested, manipulated and addressed.

Efforts to change laws are meaningful. The bills introduced to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, for instance, and the widely publicized arguments by politicians who supported them – did constitute a kind of “official” response. The fact that some part of the government – the legislators advancing reform ideas – is “trying to make things better” can bring satisfaction to members of the public who want change. Society is stronger when we have faith in our democratic institutions.

I'm just a bill

On the other hand, efforts without outcomes over many years are delegitimizing, as we have seen in the corrosive effects of New York State’s persistently late budgets. A regularly demonstrated incapacity to reach a result inevitably undermines public confidence in government. Comparative high taxation, questionable state fiscal health, and regional unemployment also contribute to voter hostility.

As we seek to appreciate the Legislature’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, the institution defies definitive characterization. Like all political institutions, it continues to evolve – sometimes in mysterious ways. For those who care about government and policymaking, the mystery is part of the attraction.

The NY Attorney General Campaign

In New York State Politics on August 21, 2010 at 11:28 pm

As the heaviest part of the New York political season approaches, we find ourselves beginning to think about the upcoming primaries and general election in more specific detail.

The conventional wisdom, bolstered by polls showing her far in the lead among New York Democrats, has Kathleen Rice winning the Democratic primary for State Attorney General as the sitting District Attorney of Nassau County and the only woman of the five primary candidates.

The conventional wisdom may well be wrong, as Steve Greenberg of the Siena College Poll explained in remarks at a New York State Bar Association event at its headquarters in Albany last month. He pointed out that since Andrew Cuomo has no primary opponent for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and neither Charles Schumer nor Kirsten Gillibrand has a primary opponent for Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator, if history is any guide, turnout for the September 14 Democratic primary will be very low. When no one runs commercials or other high-decibel campaign efforts for the highest-profile jobs, most Democrats don’t pay enough attention to vote in their primary.

Under those circumstances, popularity among the mass of New York State Democrats means very little. What matters is popularity among those Democrats likely to vote despite the absence of primary campaigns for the top spots.

Which Democrats tend to vote under those circumstances? Answer: the most liberal Democrats, union members, and voters in neighborhoods where local candidates in primaries for the State Assembly and/or State Senate are pulling out their supporters. Greenberg noted that all three of those categories favor State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who has the most liberal support, the most union support, and many Democrats vying in primaries for nomination to legislative seats within his base of support in Manhattan and the Bronx.

State Senator Eric Schneiderman

On August 21, Schneiderman received the endorsement of The New York Times, the first, earliest endorsement the Times has made in this year’s races, giving Schneiderman plenty of time to trumpet the endorsement throughout the State. From the body of the endorsement, it appears that at least one other candidate came close to persuading the Times editorial board to do otherwise. His victory in winning the support of the Times reinforces the credibility of Greenberg’s prediction, and makes it less likely that other male candidates will dilute Schneiderman’s support against Rice.

If Schneiderman does win the primary, he will face Staten Island Republican District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan, Jr. On the surface, a current member of the much-reviled New York State Senate would seem to face a considerable disadvantage against an active and generally benign district attorney. Notwithstanding New York’s huge Democratic enrollment advantage – 5.8 million Democrats to 2.9 million Republicans – Donovan could have a chance, since New Yorkers sometimes like to pick one statewide official of the non-dominant party to keep on eye on the other officials (see, e.g. Democratic Comptroller Arthur Levitt throughout the years of Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller).

However, if Andrew Cuomo, as expected, rolls up a huge margin against his Republican opponent in the November 2 general election for Governor, the “keep an eye on the others” factor could be drowned out. Or, if more of the media beyond the Times actually recognize Schneiderman’s unusually strong personal credentials, as contrasted with Donovan’s good but not extraordinary credentialsother factors just won’t matter.