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August 28th, 2008


by Ed Gold

I’ve been in a fair number of political campaigns, particularly during the reform battles against Tammany, and each has its own character. There is always a winner, usually several losers. Some campaigns leave you euphoric, some result in pain, while others are bittersweet. Many are memorable for some special quality.

Here’s a mix of campaign experiences that have stayed with me through the years:

I was living in a DeSapio-controlled building in 1957 when Village Independent Democrats ran Herman Greitzer, a purist reformer, against the last great Tammany leader, Carmine DeSapio.

I had the temerity of running for county committee against my building owner, Irving Hartstein, a DeSapio captain. He didn’t appreciate my position and called me a “disloyal tenant.”

But he approached me one day with a proposition. It concerned Greitzer’s candidacy. “Mr. DeSapio is a very busy man,” he noted, “and really would like to avoid a district leadership campaign you can’t possibly win. I think we could arrange a judgeship for Greitzer.”

It was difficult not to break out laughing. Greitzer was the most zealous and rigid of reformers. I told Farbstein no thank you. Greitzer preferred meetings that lasted past midnight. He wanted every VID committee– I think 21 at the time–to give weekly reports. He suspected that teachers really held patronage jobs.

Hartstein beat me handily in a very strong DeSapio West Village district. Greitzer got 36 percent of the vote against De Sapio. But it was only the first round in our struggle.

In 1960, Assemblyman Bill Passannante was running for re-election. He was literally and figuratively brought up on DeSapio’s knees, but he was anxious to avoid a primary campaign against VID. He probably saw the wind blowing in reform’s favor. He also hated spending money on primaries.

So he invited VID moderates, me included, to DeSapio’s Tamawa Club meeting in the hopes of leading to a merger of the clubs.

I was introduced to a man in his sixties who exuded confidence and was identified as an expert on Democratic Party history. We chatted and at one point he said: “One person has saved the Democratic Party in New York State.”

“Who would that be?” I asked.

“Cardinal Spellman” was the surprising reply.

“How did he do that?” I asked with some amazement.

“He forgave Eleanor Roosevelt. He felt she had been anti-Catholic in her constant harping on separation of church and state.”

I was curious: “How did he forgive her?” I asked.

“The Cardinal went to Hyde Park and had lunch with her.”

I thanked the gentleman for his lesson on party history and made a hasty retreat. A year later VID beat DeSapio. Four years later, Passannante joined VID.

In 1961, Carol Greitzer, Herman’s wife at the time, was running for district leader as part of an anti-DeSapio slate. She was speaking at Father Demo Square in the South Village. I was in the audience and next to me was a friendly DeSapio aide whom I knew from a previous campaign incident. Two years earlier I had seen him give an officer at a polling place a five-dollar bill. The DeSapio aide came over, slightly defensively, and said that was standard practice. I told him VID only gave cookies.

As we watched Greitzer, he whispered: “Everything was alright here until you Americans moved into the district.” He realized immediately he had misspoken.

The whisperer had had hopes of succeeding DeSapio as leader. It never happened. That year began the downfall of the DeSapio regime.

I went to the Bronx in 1964 to campaign for Jonathan Bingham, a very dignified WASP with great foreign policy credentials who was running as a reformer against Rep. Charlie Buckley. Buckley was a DeSapio buddy, running for his 15th term in Congress, who also had been Bronx County Leader since 1953.

The reform operation in the Bronx was not encouraging. I had attended a few club meetings there; at one the chair refused to recognize a point of order. “We’ve had enough of those tonight,” he explained. In another meeting a vote was taken and a young man asked his father how to vote. That would not happen in Manhattan. Further, Bingham’s club was doing mailings from the phonebook.

Buckley also showed a really bad temper. According to political writer Richard Reeves, a reporter at the time, he was asked by his paper to interview Buckley. Herman Badillo, then a reformer and later a Republican, was seeking the Bronx borough presidency. He had labeled Buckley a “boss” and suggested he should step down. Reeves quoted Buckley’s response when he asked for reaction to Badillo’s comment: “You tell that f–ing sp–to shove it up his a–!”

But Badillo proved to be correct. Steve Berger, a professional campaign manager, ran the Bingham campaign and won a major upset victory. And Badillo served as borough president.

Tony Olivieri, an Eastside reformer out of Harvard who had won a State Assembly seat in 1970, decided to try for lieutenant-governor four years later. His opponents were Mario Cuomo and Marianne Krupsak. He was speaking at a Lexington Club dinner and sitting next to me was Frank Rossetti, a DeSapio protege, Manhattan County Leader, and a State Assemblyman. He was a Tammany man through and through, but it was clear he was very proud of Olivieri.When the speech was over, Rossetti turned to me and said: “See what can happen when you give an Italian boy a good education?”

As it turned out, Krupsak won the election. And sadly, Olivieri died of a brain tumor in 1980.

Having disposed of DeSapio, Ed Koch won an upset victory for City Council in 1966, then won five successive terms in Congress from the so-called “Silk Stocking” district in Mid-Manhattan.

At one of his victory celebrations he asked his campaign manager how the voting had turned out.

“You got 77 percent of the vote,” was the response.

Koch had a sense of humor to go with his vanity: “How could 23 percent of the people vote against me?” He would later win three terms as mayor.

It took a woman to beat old line Rep. Leonard Farbstein in Lower Manhattan. Bella Abzug, with the big, loud personality, did the trick in 1970 after four earlier reform efforts had failed, the last two by then Councilman Ted Weiss.

But in 1976, Bella decided to run for the Senate in a Democratic primary against Daniel Moynihan, who was heavily favored. Bella had bad luck. Two left Democrats, Paul O’Dwyer and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, turned out to be spoilers. The two got about four percent of the vote and Bella lost by one percent.

Running for her vacant Congressional seat in a district reshaped to make it more liberal was persistent Ted Weiss, who won with 83 percent of the vote.

Bella was not happy. She wanted her old seat back. Her friend, Lt. Gov. Krupsak, contacted Weiss and asked,Weiss told me, if he would relinquish the seat and take a judgeship. Weiss responded: “My mother didn’t raise me to be a judge. She raised me to be a Congressman.”

Fast forward to 2004. The Presidential campaign was on and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who had been mayor of Cleveland at 32, was addressing 100 people at the LGBT Center on 13th St. in Greenwich Village. I was there as a reporter for the Villager newspaper. After he finished speaking, he opened up to questions. Melissa Sklarz, the first transgender person chosen for a community board, asked: “Do you know you and I have something in common?” Kucinich was a bit flustered.

“We both were boy wonders.” Sklarz explained. The audience roared.

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