New York in History and Anecdote
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Smoke-Filled Rooms

Michael Rosano, City Hall Insider

The first month’s name honors the god Janus, whose two faces let him simultaneously contemplate past and future. I suspect most of us look backwards, contemplating time spent, which increasingly for me is marked by death.

In my college’s quarterly alumni newsletter, nearly 25 years after my graduation, an increasing number of familiar names appear among the obituaries. I was throwing out old papers in yet another failed attempt to clean my office when I noticed an obituary I had clipped from The New York Times. Michael Rosano, who was and still is my friend, died a little more than a year ago, on October 13, 2000. He was 42 years old. He was a rarity: a political animal who was also a human being.

I first met him 20 years ago this month. On January 1, 1982, I attended the inauguration of Andrew Stein as Manhattan borough president. I would work for Stein, on and off, for the next 11 years. (My rabbi, Walter McCaffrey, introduced me to the Stein staff. Walter is neither Jewish nor a religious sage, although one would always be better off for heeding his wise advice. According to Lardner and Reppetto’s NYPD, this use of the word “rabbi” is peculiar to New York, dating from the late 19th century when some Irish Catholic police officer first used the term to refer to the senior officer or politician, usually also Irish Catholic, who was his mentor, protector, and counselor.)

Anyway, I was by then a self-taught editor and speechwriter, so I ended up in the Borough President’s press office, where Michael’s desk was conveniently located in the far corner, out of the line of sight of anyone bursting in the door to see the press secretary. Michael and I both came from Albany County: he from the city of Albany and I from Latham, which is, as F. Lee Bailey once said in a courtroom speech, “an unincorporated hamlet.” Albany is the last fortress of upstate yellow-dog Democracy. Among the family legends is my grandfather’s explanation of an infected hand: he had brushed the GOP lever on a voting machine. Even Michael only once admitted to voting for a Republican, although he was excused his apostasy because she was a woman and an Italian, and she lost.

Michael was darkly handsome, gentle, and dryly humorous. He often claimed that, although born of Italian heritage and a gay man (someone once called him “the capo di tutti frutti”), his soul was that of an uppity Jewish woman from the Upper West Side. A few weeks ago, while watching Robin Bartlett’s wonderful performance in Richard Greenberg’s Everett Beekin, I found tears in my eyes because, somehow, her manner and intonation vividly reminded me of my friend’s manner of camping it up.

We both took politics seriously while taking politicians lightly, so we hit it off. He had studied English literature at New York University and written for the school’s daily paper. Occasionally, after the second or third drink, he murmured about interviewing Sid Vicious at the Chelsea Hotel. “Mr. Vicious,” as Michael insisted on calling him, had received Michael in the squalid room the singer then shared with Nancy Spungeon. Sid was nearly stupefied when he opened the door to the boy reporter, and his answers were increasingly tangential and then incoherent. Finally he fell asleep between one sentence and another. Michael called the musician’s name a couple of times. The only replies were snores. Michael picked up his notebook and stole silently away.

Michael entered politics in 1976, when he volunteered to work for the great Bella Abzug in her Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate against Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Michael was unusual for an 18-year-old in politics: he was efficient, hardworking, and enduringly patient, and Mrs. Abzug’s managers took note of him. After his graduation from NYU, Michael briefly worked at Channel 13, where, as in most not-for-profit organizations, the infighting might have tested the political skills of the Borgias. Then he came to the Manhattan Borough President’s office.

Michael was the first openly gay man whom I knew well. He told me that he had known from childhood that he was gay (I found nothing odd in this: I knew I liked women at the age of six, although I could not have told you why). His family loved him; his colleagues trusted and respected him. Nonetheless, he felt alienated, with a mild sense of always being the Other nearly everywhere save among his friends or among gay people. Despite his gracious manners and self-control, he bitterly resented anyone who did not accept his right to live as he wished without criticism or discrimination. In particular, he developed an antipathy to organized Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, although his relationships with individual priests and ministers were often quite friendly.

We have lived with AIDS as both a disease and a political question for nearly a generation. It first became prominent during the initial year or two of our friendship. Back when a citizen could still stand on the front steps of City Hall without the mayor’s prior permission, ACT UP, the gay and lesbian activist group, chained shut the Hall’s doors as protest against some forgotten municipal failure. I was then inside the building, sitting at a desk. In common with most folks in City Hall back in those days, I felt inconvenienced but not terrorized.  Politicians then understood that being the target of the public’s wrath was part of the job description. Probably we understood too that, at best, most City Hall politicos are hacks with good intentions. We would have laughed to think ourselves as important as city politicians seem to think themselves now—so essential to public life that they must be protected by effectively barring the people from City Hall.

Anyway, there was not much else to do until the guys from the Department of General Services appeared with the bolt cutters. The telephone rang. It was Michael. From my point of view, he was safely across the street in the Municipal Bldg.

“What’s happening?”

“Well,” I replied, “we’re being held hostage in City Hall by gay terrorists.”

“In your case, they have a good reason,” he replied, and hung up.

His experience of seeing friends die radicalized and hardened him. He believed that the government was responsible for solving the problem, in part because the public sector can throw an infinity of tax dollars at a problem, which many believe will solve it sooner or later; in part because he did not believe the free market would devise an affordable cure for the disease in time to save his friends; and in part because his political ideas were expressed through the rhetoric and legal precedents of earlier civil rights movements, all of which had relied on state intervention to further their agendas. He thus focused his talents on furthering government intervention by learning how one quietly amended statutes or modified budgets, the kind of practical political work that few ideologues bother to master because it often requires years of heartbreaking work.

As Michael gradually became an insider, he never forgot being an outsider. This meant his more radical acquaintances hurt him more deeply than they could have known when they called him a sellout. The best proof of Michael’s humanity was that he could tell these idiots to go to hell, and mean it, and still take their calls the following day.

He never lost his humanity. A Democrat clubhouse lawyer told this Michael Rosano story over drinks at Dusk on 24th Street. This guy intends to marry his girlfriend at a big formal event on Cape Cod in June 1991. He decides to go through a civil ceremony in front of a judge in November 1990 so the girlfriend might share his health insurance benefits. They get the license from the city clerk. Then the lovebirds realize they need two witnesses to the ceremony. For that matter, they need a celebrant. On the morning of the blessed event, this guy pokes his head into the office of the judge for whom he then works and asks whether she would mind performing the ceremony that afternoon. The judge, whose infinite patience is much taxed by this guy, replies, “Yes, I’ll do it. You really believe in advance notice, don’t you?”

The would-be bride talks her cousin, the pastry chef, into being her witness. The guy has a busy day and understandably forgets about getting his witness until about an hour before the big event. At the 11th hour, he knows there is only one man he can rely on. Like several thousand people who have outrageously imposed on Michael in the past, this guy is right.

He sprints from the Tombs to the Municipal Building, takes the elevator up to the 15th floor (there were no metal detectors in the lobby then) and sticks his head into Rosano’s office. Rosano, as usual, is on the telephone. This guy asks Michael to stand witness at his wedding in 15 minutes. “Sure,” Rosano replies. “Thanks for all the notice.”

The judge is conducting a murder trial when Michael, the pastry chef, and the blushing bride, in Dior suit and big hat with bouquet in hand, sweep up to the courtroom door. A court officer asked, “Who’s getting married?” The bride, who then and throughout her marriage is never at a loss for words, seizes Rosano’s hand and replies, “Michael and I are tying the knot.” Michael and the court officer arch their eyebrows into their respective hairlines. As the bridal party enters the courtroom where the judge is conducting a murder trial, the Assistant District Attorney asks the witness, “Is this the knife that you saw in the hand of the defendant?” Michael turns to the bride and pats her on the arm, murmuring, “So auspicious for our wedding, dear.”

He moved from government to lobbying and back to government, ending his career as deputy communications director to state Sen. Martin Connor, then the minority leader of the state senate. He worked harder than ever, and as do most who remain young in spirit, neglected his health, certain that he would live forever. When he was finally diagnosed with cancer, his condition was nearly untreatable.

Michael was as principled in death as in life: his estrangement from the church in which he had been born and raised was so profound that he requested no religious service over his remains. Last spring, his friends celebrated his life at New York University. Every seat was taken and there was standing room only in the hall. There was some rhetoric, which he would have tolerated, having written a bit of it himself. However, those who knew him best spoke of his hard work, kindness, wit, and blithe courage in the face of his own death, which takes some doing. One speaker called Michael a foul-weather friend, and quoted Maurice Baring’s “In Memoriam, AH,” which seemed right:

No one shall take your place.
No other face

Can fill that empty frame.

— January 8, 2002, New York Press

May 24, 2015   No Comments

How I Got Out of Politics

“Ah, Frank,” he said softly. “You’ve done grand things. Grand, grand things.”
“Among others,” Skeffington said.

Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah

Eleven percent of all eligible New Yorkers voted on Tuesday, November 2, 1999. I was among them. I was also among a smaller minority. I was a candidate myself—for Richmond County district attorney on the Right to Life ticket. How did an Irish Catholic regular Democrat come to this?

I was a professional politician for the first nineteen years of my working life. I wrote speeches, newsletters, press releases, and brochures for several city officials, most of whom I remember fondly.

On my first day in the Manhattan borough president’s press office, I used the men’s room. Like the rest of the Municipal Building back in 1982, it was something of a museum piece, with massive five-foot-tall marble urinals that Toulouse-Lautrec could have comfortably used as a shower stall. (It is there, legend says, that the great editor Gene Fowler once asked of the cliché-ridden politician standing beside him, “Do you view with alarm or point with pride?”) A colleague passed me, stepped up to the plate, and gazed down. “I feel so inadequate,” he sighed.

The director of communications was a florid ex-tabloid reporter. He still looked like one of your classic Irish muckers, with a beer in his hand and a “fuck” on his lips. But his drinking days were over. They had been the stuff of  legend. He had won a well-deserved award for reporting. Colleagues had helped him celebrate with enthusiasm, and he had come to consciousness in a Philadelphia house of carnal recreation—alone, I might add, and still in his clothes. He had $20 and a return ticket in his wallet, no recollection of the previous two days, and the kind of hangover that makes death an attractive option.

He had staggered from the Congressional Limited to the IRT #1. Emerging at West 72nd Street and heading for home, wishing West End Avenue a few blocks farther away, he’d passed the local laundry (ah! Anything to put off the inevitable) and picked up his shirts. He arrived home, finally, to find his wife fixing dinner. When she put down the knife and looked at him, he hefted the shirts and replied to her unspoken question, “He runs a great laundry, but the lines are so long.”

He was old-school, and his invective tended to be old-school. I never thought twice about it. But I recall once when he was ranting about a political opponent whom he kept referring to as “a cocksucker,” being surprised when another colleague—a quiet, reserved gay man—objected.

“I am a cocksucker,” he said, “and I really find this offensive.”

New York City politics seems sordid, petty and corrupt. Well, it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As Donald T. Regan has said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power is a real gas.”

Occasionally, this truth spills into a public forum like the City Council. (“The difference between the City Council and a rubber stamp,” former councilman Henry Stern famously quipped, “is that the rubber stamp occasionally leaves an impression.”) Once, when the late Ted Weiss closed a speech to the Council by urging colleagues to “do the right thing,” the Honorable Dominick Corso of Brooklyn weighed in. “You think that takes guts?” he jeered. “It doesn’t take guts to do the right thing. What takes guts is to stand up for what you know is wrong, day after day, year after year. That takes guts!”

Most politicians are gray men: gray in their clothes and temperament, blending into the background. It’s protective coloring. I worked for only one colorful politician, an imposing, avuncular municipal statesman. Once, the statesman and I were going to City Hall. This was in early 1986. The gay rights bill was before the City Council. My statesman polled his district, found his constituents opposed and came out against it. The local gay-bashers, enraged by oncoming defeat, lobbied him anyway.

We had reached the escalator to the Woodside stop on the 7 line when a local scholar, a woman, slipped between the statesman and me to rant about the bill. My boss, probably irritated at my failure to body-block her, played the jolly fat man, chuckling benignly as we rode up the escalator. A train pulled in. People crowded the down side of the escalator. We were within five feet of the top.

At this point his face flushed. He roared, “No, lady! I won’t buy cocaine from you!” and rushed for the train. I followed. She remained, stunned on the platform. It’s been 13 years. She may still be there.

The statesman was opposed for Democratic district leader by an affable right-wing candidate who had unsuccessfully sought office some ten times. The rightist and his wife had seventeen children. He and I were passing out literature at a corner as an older woman came up. She took my stuff. She took his. She noticed the photograph of the candidate, his wife, and their brood. She flung the flier into his face, snarling, “You pervert!”

This job lasted about a year, until the statesman’s driver and I had a disagreement. The driver belted me in the face after I called him an asshole. (He was: he couldn’t resist graphic conversations with his girlfriend, then a discouraged use of the airwaves, and the statesman’s car phone had been disconnected as a result.) In a fatal moment, I told the boss that the driver went or I went.

I went. Good drivers are hard to find.

I enjoyed many such adventures until that life ended on December 31, 1993, when my then-employer, the last City Council president, left office and his successor chose not to retain my services. He and I had tangled before: I had expected it.

I am intolerant of political appointees who whine when a newly elected official fires them in favor of his friends.  Having lived by the sword, I expected to die by it, and I did. Sic transit.

To a regular politician, silence is the paycheck’s price. If one’s opinions are not shared by one’s employer, remain silent or resign. But as a ronin, a masterless samurai, I now had no loyalties commanding discretion.

My opinions are largely conventional: I prefer solving immediate problems to enunciating long-range policy, most of which is bullshit anyway, and there is a lot of truth in the cliche that there is neither a Democratic nor Republican way of picking up garbage.

A few of my opinions, though, are outside the norm. For instance, I believe that despite the ranting about welfare, far more local government spending is largely the investment of public capital for private benefit, i.e., publicly funded improvements to privately managed facilities for immediate private profit and ill-defined public benefit, such as stadium projects for the West Side, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. This merely redistributes wealth from the working classes to the rich.

Issues represent not problems to be solved, but bloody shirts to inflame the rabble. V.O. Key Jr., in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation, wrote of the Mississippi demagogue James Kemble Vardaman—aka “The Great White Chief”—that “His contribution to statesmanship was advocacy of repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment, an utterly hopeless proposal and for that reason an ideal campaign issue. It would last forever.” In the same vein, adequately funding Social Security, passing a state budget on time, or resolving rent regulation are never resolved. The politicians would then have to invent new issues.

Too many political activists use their activity as therapy: a licensed release for frustrated ambition, hatred, and need to control others. Politicians manipulate these fools to get elected, and later patronize them with little plaques for civic work, unpaid appointments to meaningless boards, or even unimportant paying jobs. Meanwhile, the pols enjoy the perks of office while shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions so their own good times won’t end.

Expressing in mixed company my belief that unborn children are human beings entitled to the right to life quickly placed me in outer darkness. So be it. One step led to another. The laws permitting abortion on demand, being wrong, should be changed by constitutional means. These include peaceful agitation, which includes running for office.

So I became a candidate.

I had advised the Right to Life Party’s state chairman in February that I was available if the party wanted a candidate. One week before the July deadline for filing designating petitions, the local organization got back to me. The Staten Island Right to Life Party organization really isn’t. Organized. Seven or eight volunteers gather sufficient signatures on the party’s designating petitions to qualify its candidates for the ballot.

For the first day of filing, I was the only candidate in the book. Visions of lucky clerical errors danced through my wee little head. Then the others filed before the deadline. Damn.

The campaign was relatively quiet. William Murphy, the pleasant four-term incumbent Richmond County district attorney, had been nominated by the Democratic, Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties. If you went by his political support, he was running farther to the left and to the right than anyone since Norman Mailer ran for mayor on the slogan, “End fluoridation, free Huey Newton.” Catherine DiDomenico, the Republican challenger, though bright, spunky and articulate, was knifed before the campaign began by someone in the GOP apparatus who leaked that four or five other persons had turned down the nomination. And then there was me, Bryk, the lawyer.

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, a starchy, self-congratulatory professional organization, interviewed the candidates through a committee of self-important men and women. I chose not to participate. I found the questionnaire intrusive.

My lack of faith in the integrity of the enterprise was rewarded when a committee member leaked its confidential deliberations to Murphy’s campaign, who leaked it to the local media. The association approved Murphy’s reelection, and did not approve his Republican opponent. Somehow “Not Approved” became “Not Qualified” in Murphy’s newspaper ads. DiDomenico’s friends counterattacked with a full-page newspaper ad accusing Murphy of favoring the Atlanta Braves over the New York Yankees, which seemed a little desperate to me.

My friends, I found, remained my friends regardless of their opinions on abortion. And audiences were generally polite. In my case, this is probably because (a) I’m polite, (b) I’m articulate and (c) everyone knew that I was going to have my clock cleaned on Election Day.

With the other candidates, I spoke at community forums, from the Staten Island Coalition of Women’s Organizations to the New Brighton Citizens Committee. Murphy calmly recited his accomplishments in office. DiDomenico attacked him as a weak prosecutor and advertised her experience as a legislative counsel and crime victims’ activist. I briefly talked about my background and argued for competent administration and the prosecution of environmental crimes; I occasionally answered questions about the death penalty (I’m against it) and the narcotics laws (I favor relegalizing drugs).

On Election Day, Murphy polled 62 percent, DiDomenico 37 percent and Bryk 2 percent.

Say not that the struggle naught availeth. I had fun, and besides, every man in politics deserves his last hurrah.


New York Press, December 21, 1999

February 17, 2015   Comments Off on How I Got Out of Politics

Campaign Lit, Part 1

The use of the word “literature” to describe the campaign fliers and pamphlets that fill our mailboxes at this time of year has always intrigued me. Usually, the stuff reminds me of Talleyrand’s observation that language exists to conceal truth. Sometimes, though, the truth will out. Today’s example is a mail piece from the affable Bob Capano, a lawyer, long-time political appointee, adjunct professor, and genuinely nice guy who is presently the Republican candidate for the local City Council seat against the incumbent, who is a Democrat.

Like most local Republicans, Mr. Capano strongly supports the re-election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Capano’s literature complains that local residents are being bled dry with parking and sanitation fines. He argues that this is the fault of the incumbent City Councilman, who tends to oppose the Mayor. Mr. Capano suggests that he should be elected in place of the incumbent because, as he is more likely to get along with the Mayor than the incumbent, Mr. Capano is more likely to “sit down with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and get him to understand things from our perspective.” In other words, Mr. Capano can stop the ticketing.

There is a flaw in Mr. Capano’s argument. Ticketing was meant as a means of enforcing public order without invoking criminal sanctions. Better to ticket someone who parks when no parking is allowed or who fails to keep the sidewalk clean in front of his store than to haul them off in cuffs.

But for at least a generation, these laws and regulations have been abused into a mere source of revenue. Indeed, the City budget projects receiving a certain amount of income from such fines. Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that supervisors pressure their subordinates into filling a quota of tickets every month.

Mr. Capano’s argument is founded on the premise that excessive ticketing is oppressive. Indeed, extracting money unreasonably from a citizen sounds like tyranny to me. But who is the tyrant? Who heads the City government whose agents oppress those whom Mr. Capano would represent, the “middle class residents of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst”? None other than Mr. Bloomberg, whose re-election Mr. Capano supports.

Mmm. Am I alone in sensing a logical disconnect here?

October 26, 2009   No Comments

Requiescat L.D. Knox

On May 29, 2009, The New York Times published the obituary of L. D. “None of the Above” Knox, 80, a farmer and politician from Winnsboro, Louisiana who had crusaded for over forty years to make “None of the Above” an option on the Pelican State’s ballots.

In 1979, he went so far as to make “None of the Above” his additional middle name and used it thereafter whenever he ran for office.  The Times states:

His aim—allowing voters to call for a new election with new candidates by voting for “none of the above”—remained his main plank in subsequent elections.

“The people of this country have never had a free election,” he said in 1991.  “We don’t have a right to reject candidates.  We have to take the lesser of the evils.”

From his notices in papers across Louisiana, Mr. Knox seems to have been well-liked and respected, although most of his electoral defeats were one-sided blowouts.

Yet, as I argued in 2004, the “None of the Above” option has increasing appeal when many elections are effectively uncontested—as in the case of the upcoming New York City mayoralty, where billionaire incumbent Michael Bloomberg’s unlimited funds effectively push his opponents completely out of the public eye.

June 7, 2009   No Comments

Just Say “NOTA”


From New York Press, Janury 21, 2004

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to throw out the old papers piled up on my desk. I’m not a pack rat like the Bronx guy who spent two days trapped in his apartment under an avalanche of his own magazines and newspapers, but I’ve a weakness for letting interesting documents accumulate. So, late on the afternoon of January 1, 2004, I went to work.

One thing I turned up was the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s Voter Guide for the General Election of November 4, 2003. I kept it for laughs after reading the statements published in it by the candidates in my city council district. Although the Democratic incumbent, an affable party hack, seemed pleasant enough, his pompous,  jargon-ridden prose indicted him for bad thinking. His sole opponent, a Democrat who, having lost his party’s primary in September, had been nominated by the Republicans, was more interested in advertising his East Harlem restaurant—complete with directions—than public policy. I don’t know about his food, but publicizing one’s business with taxpayers’ money seems to betray bad taste, if not bad ethics. Neither man would have satisfied James Madison’s hope that our elections should feature candidates “who possess the most attractive merit.”

What to do about such losers? In New York, nothing. One of these guys was going to be elected. Furthermore, as we now know, despite their assaults on liberty and property (tax hikes of 18 percent on residential property and nearly 2000 percent on cigarettes, banning smoking in bars, and laws penalizing this newspaper’s street boxes), every incumbent city council member seeking re-election in November was returned to City Hall. Much of the reason wasn’t apathy. The incumbents were mostly unopposed at the general election, or opposed only by characters you would vote for only as a joke. The same was true of last year’s judicial elections in Manhattan. Nor is this a phenomenon peculiar to New York: in 2002, seventy-eight of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were uncontested by one of the two major parties, which usually meant no contest at all.

Mere elections—even honest elections—are no symptom of democracy. For example, a generation ago in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship held regular and contested elections. However, the only opposition candidates allowed on the ballot were wackos: the Filipino equivalent of our Prohibitionists, Greenbackers, and Lyndon LaRouche. Electable opponents had an odd way of being bumped off. And we all know now that Yugoslavia’s Milosevic repeatedly won freely contested elections on the road to ethnic cleansing. Democracy is more than a ritual we observe every November. At any rate, it should be.

A workable alternative to New York’s system of bad choice/no choice has been used in Nevada for a generation. One of the Silver State’s attractions (beside the absence of state income tax) is  its voters’ right to vote against all candidates. Since 1975, under The Nevada Revised Statutes 293.269, ballots for statewide office or for president and vice president must always include “None of these Candidates.”

Consequently, sometimes you can beat somebody with nobody.  In 1976, “None of these Candidates” won the Republican congressional primary with 47.3 percent of the vote, much to the embarrassment of the hack perennial candidates left far behind. Two years later, it won the Democratic  congressional primary. In the 1980 Democratic presidential primary, it outpolled Senator Edward Kennedy and nearly defeated President Carter. It won the 1986 Democratic primary for state treasurer, beating five real candidates, and beat Ralph Nader  in the 1996 Green presidential primary. Two years ago, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, “None of these Candidates” embarrassed the machine candidate (who openly favored raising taxes) by polling 24 percent of the vote to his 35 percent (a topless dancer came in third with 21 percent).

But Nevada law still lets the candidate with the most votes be elected or nominated, even if “None of these Candidates” wins. It’s a safety valve, not a barrier to the hacks. A better option would be to require a new election if “None of these Candidates” outpolled the candidates, with the losers barred from the ballot. This is the practice in Russia and a few Eastern European countries, where voters may simply reject all the candidates and try again.

newballotThe option of voting for “None of these Candidates” or “None of the Above”—NOTA for short—enjoys support on both left and right. The Wall Street Journal endorsed NOTA in 1996, after Representative Wes Cooley of Oregon was re-nominated despite being exposed as both a fraud and a  phony war hero. Although unopposed at the Republican primary, Cooley received only 23,000 votes while 31,000 voters cast blank ballots or various write-ins. The voters had no effective way to deny his re-nomination. This was two years after Representative Mel Reynolds of Illinois was re-elected unopposed following his post-primary indictment for raping a minor, possession of child pornography, and obstruction of justice. (Later convicted, forced to resign, and imprisoned, Reynolds was pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office so he could work as a youth counselor for the Reverend Jesse Jackson).

And the hits just keep on coming. Some of us remember the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial runoff between Klansman/hustler/racist agitator David Duke (now imprisoned for mail fraud) and the flamboyantly dishonest Edwin Edwards (now imprisoned for fraud, racketeering, and extortion). Then, it was a choice between vulgarity and obscenity. Governor Edwards, whose supporters proclaimed, “Vote for the crook. It’s important,” later quipped that the only folks who didn’t vote for him were one-armed people: they couldn’t hold their noses and pull the lever by his name at the same time.

Others may recall some local elections in New York, such as the 1987 Bronx district attorney’s race in which the effectively unopposed incumbent died before Election Day, requiring voters to elect a corpse; or the death of West Side Representative Ted Weiss in September 1992, which permitted the Democratic machine to anoint a loyalist assemblyman as his successor and then a party district leader as the assemblyman’s successor, all without a single primary.

Presently then, New Yorkers have three empty options in elections such as the one in my city council district last November: voting for one or another empty suit; writing in someone’s name (which will not be counted); or not voting. None of them matter. But adopting NOTA would let voters simply reject unacceptable candidates and try again. Even an unopposed candidate might lose if the voters found him unworthy, or felt they just didn’t know enough to make an informed decision.

Some oppose NOTA because holding a new election every time “None of these Candidates” won might be expensive. Against this is the possibility of defeating unqualified hacks who merely know how to game the system and whose incompetence would probably lead to inefficiency and waste at the taxpayers’ expense. More absurd is the possibility of a series of elections in which “None of these Candidates” wins, instead of allowing on the ballot better candidates who actually wage informative campaigns on relevant issues. (And some political puritans argue that the Nevada option would let voters avoid making hard choices: as if most Americans weren’t already avoiding such decisions by simply not voting at all.)

Of course we all understand that most of these arguments are mere eyewash to conceal the hacks’ self-interest. Having spent nearly fifteen years in City Hall, I speak from personal experience in suggesting that most politicians only pay lip service to democracy. For them, the paramount issue is controlling the system.  Anything that weakens that control is unacceptable. They don’t have to read Machiavelli to understand that.

Yet, as Dr. John Pitney suggests in “The Right to Vote No,” NOTA really may come down to first principles. If free government is really based on the consent of the governed, the people should have a clear way of effectively withholding their consent from candidates who are unworthy, unknown, or unopposed. Otherwise, they simply may passively withdraw their consent. Perhaps, by not voting, they’re doing that already.

June 5, 2009   1 Comment

Another Last Hurrah?

As becomes a citizen, I have occasionally run for public office. As Édouard Herriot, four times Prime Minister under the Third Republic, said whenever he was running for anything, from conseilleur municipal to Président de la République, “I have placed myself at the disposal of my friends and the service of the Republic.” In my case, I was simply doing my best to sabotage and annoy the office-holding element among The Wicked Who Prosper.

Most recently, I stood for Vice President of the United States in the New Hampshire primaries, which I wrote about in 2000.  It was all in good fun and as—much to my surprise and delight—I won, I found myself with yet another anecdote for dinner conversation.

So I was saddened when the May 1, 2009 issue of Richard Winger’s indispensable Ballot Access News reported that on April 22 the New Hampshire legislature passed a bill to eliminate the vice-presidential primary.  As Mr. Winger notes, “No other state has a vice-presidential primary.”

He goes on to point out that “Generally, no one who really has a chance to be chosen by a major party for vice-president ever files in this primary.” There is, in a sense, a reason for this. Since New Hampshire instituted the vice-presidential primary over fifty years ago, the contest had developed a laudable purpose uniquely its own: the potential embarrassment of an incumbent vice-president.  If, like myself, you believe that politicians are fair game, then the vice-presidential primary is simply a happy hunting ground.  Besides, until fairly recently, the vice-presidency was an absurdly empty job with its occupants as worthy of respect as the hapless Alexander Throttlebottom, the vice-president in Gershwin’s 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing.

All is not yet lost: the Legislature’s website indicates that the bill has not yet gone to the governor for signature. Though my stumping days are behind me, I for one fervently hope that it does not. While only one incumbent has actually been defeated (Dan Quayle, 1992, who did not have his name appear on the ballot, did not wage a subrosa campaign for votes as most incumbents do, and was overwhelmed by the unknown candidate who paid his filing fee and appeared on the ballot, never to be heard from again), the possibilities presented in 2012 by the loose-lipped Joe Biden seem limitless and irresistible.  It would be a pity if New Hampshire were to spare him that potential humiliation.

May 3, 2009   No Comments

McCain and Me

John S. McCain won the New Hampshire Republican Presidential primary on February 1, 2000. No one reported the result of the Republican vice-presidential primary. Even the victor didn’t know the results for a week, until he checked the web site of the New Hampshire Secretary of State on Tuesday, February 8 and then downloaded the results.

I won. I polled 23,808 votes. Russell J. Fornwalt, of New York City, polled 18,512. Ours were the only names printed on the ballot.

As New Hampshire uses paper ballots, casting a write-in vote is much easier than in New York. The write-in candidates and their votes included Elizabeth Dole, 9,492; Alan Keyes, 5,426; John S. McCain, 3,994; Steve Forbes, 3,822; George W. Bush, 2,659; Colin Powell, 736; Gary Bauer, 496; Orrin Hatch, 218; Bill Bradley, 129; Albert Gore, 73; Wladislav D. Kubiak, 40; and Sam Costello, 35.

Finally, there were 3,908 scattering votes: people writing in themselves, or Donald Duck, or Donald Trump, which is all much the same thing.

Obviously, someone persuaded Mrs. Dole or her sorority sisters to spend time and money on telephone calls and a pulling operation to show her desirability as a running mate. The same seems true for Keyes. The other numbers seem to represent the usual falloff from the Presidential primary. People vote for their favorites for both offices. Perhaps also, as one sensible woman speculated to me, “Maybe it’s ‘I won’t vote for you for President, but I’ll vote for you for Vice President.'”

Whatever. The New Hampshire vice-presidential primary is meaningless. No delegates are bound to vote for me. I am far likelier to win the lottery or be struck by lightning than to find myself in the winner’s circle at this summer’s Republican National Convention, the Presidential candidate and I with arms raised in victory, ready to lead the GOP into battle against eight years of Democrat corruption and dishonor.

Why did I enter the primary? I wanted to test how many people would vote for someone of whom they knew nothing. Gary Bauer uttered some kind words about the voters in his withdrawal speech after polling one percent of the vote in New Hampshire: “These are serious people here. They take their citizenship seriously. They’ve done a good job of looking at all of us.” This is untrue, of course. Bauer was being a good loser.

That kind of statement could otherwise come only from someone who either was punch-drunk or believed he had a future in politics. A republic, literally, is public property: res publica. Its owners, the public, must take an interest in its affairs or it becomes the property of anyone who takes possession—seizes power, if you will. That happens. Our political system is an insecure oligarchy, seeking periodic moral ratification from the people. Perhaps the best rejection of the system is withholding one’s sanction by not voting.

But I digress. By contrast with the presidential candidates who spent millions of dollars on television, radio, and direct mail advertising, I spent nothing beyond my filing fee. In fact, I returned to an old American custom: I waged a rocking chair campaign (unlike McKinley, who waged a front porch campaign because he had a front porch) and let the office seek the man. I did not even go to New Hampshire.

Vice-presidential primaries grew out of the reform impulse of the Progressive era: to smash the power of bossism by placing all nominations in the hands of the people. Apparently, some states took this to a logical extreme. Maybe it was a kind of philosophical idealism: even an office for which nominees are customarily chosen by their running mates should lie–or seem to lie–in the gift of the people.

The first presidential primaries as we know them were in 1908. New Hampshire adopted a direct primary law in 1913 and applied it to the selection of delegates and alternates to the National Convention in 1920. In 1952, the state added a beauty contest for President and, inexplicably, vice-president.

Now there are only two vice-presidential primaries: New Hampshire and West Virginia. Ohio and Maryland had them too at one time. They were usually uncontested. Often, some local elder statesman would have his name placed on the ballot as a favorite son. (In Ohio, several aging Civil War generals were put up to it.) H. L. Mencken considered entering the Maryland Democratic vice-presidential primary in 1912: he declined when a mayor of Baltimore, convinced the lightning would strike him, entered his name. Of course, Mencken’s candidacy would have been just a sick joke.

Parenthetically, the eventual 1912 Democratic nominee and victor, the dapper, witty Thomas Marshall of Indiana, is remembered only for a response to Senator Francis Newlands of Nevada, a would-be Cicero fond of stringing sentences beginning with “What this country needs…” “What this country needs,” the vice-president riposted from the chair he occupied as President of the Senate, “is a good five-cent cigar.”

In New Hampshire, at least one candidate usually enters each party’s vice-presidential primary. One such was Austin Burton, a Republican who won the 1968 vice-presidential primary while–or perhaps by–arguing that we should return the country to the Indians. (He campaigned in a feathered headdress and claimed to have been made “Chief Burning Tree.”) In 1972, Endicott Peabody, a one-term governor of Massachusetts, entered the Democratic vice-presidential primary, espousing the view that the vice-presidency was important. He won, without opposition, only to receive around 100 votes at the Democratic National Convention out of some 3,000 cast.

Fewer candidates enter the West Virginia vice-presidential primary, and in some years no one does. I briefly considered doing both: then I decided I could do better things with West Virginia’s filing fee for vice-presidential candidacy, which is $1,750. In 1976, Ray Rollinson, who opposes abortion on demand and favors the re-legalization of marijuana (not a bad platform, that), entered both primaries. He won New Hampshire. Alas, in West Virginia, he was soundly defeated by Dale Reusch, an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from Medina, Ohio.

Entering a primary in New Hampshire is simple. One fills out a short form, attaches a check or money order for the filing fee, and either mails it or files it in person or by representative. The filing period for the 2000 primary ran from November 1 to November 19, 1999. Many candidates appear in person to file. Indeed, the Secretary of State notes in his records whether a candidate appeared in person. I mailed mine, as did most candidates. Then I contemplated the great questions of the day from my rocking chair.

The only controversy involving my candidacy, and everybody else’s, was a complaint to the state’s Ballot Law Commission by one Joseph S. Haas Jr., an occasional candidate for state office. The gravamen of his complaint was that the candidates had violated the law by tendering checks in payment of the filing fees and must be disqualified because, under the state’s Coinage act of 1752 and an 1898 New Hampshire Supreme Court decision, State v. Jackson, the only money recognized by the state was coinage of gold and silver.

This seemed strange.  After all, most of New Hampshire’s taxpayers pay their taxes with checks rather than large sacks of coin.

Mr. Haas’s papers were even stranger.  Some were written in a crabbed hand; others were typed, with self-conscious eccentricities of usage such as “UN-answered” and “PAYment” or “‘pay’ment,” and annotated with hand-written corrections. And he signed his name as Joseph Sanders Haas Jr., Joseph S. Haas, and Joe Hass.  Maybe he was suffering from schizophrenia.  Maybe he was just a slob.

Maybe he wanted to create a Constitutional crisis on the cheap. The United States demonetized gold in 1933. A few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bond indentures requiring payment of principle and interest in gold coin were enforceable only as to require legal tender, i.e., paper money. And our last circulating silver coins were struck back in the 1960s.

In common with the other candidates, I ignored Mr. Haas. The Ballot Law Commission held a hearing on December 17, 1999. Mr. Haas first argued that the candidates had defaulted by not responding to his complaint. The Commission did not consider his motion. Then he argued that a check was not immediate payment, but merely a promise to pay.  The Hon. Richard Marple, a State Representative, also argued that checks were not legal payment and only gold and silver coins were legal tender.

New Hampshire’s legislature has 400 Representatives in its lower house; they are paid $125 a year which, if Mr. Marple’s capacity for self-delusion is an indicator, is excessively generous.

The Commission, after analyzing the Uniform Commercial Code, determined that a check was not a promise to pay, but an order, a written instruction to pay money signed by the person giving the instruction, acceptable as a payment, and dismissed Mr. Haas’s complaint. The Republic was saved from the spectacle of a primary with no candidates on the ballot.

The next interesting development came on January 25, 2000, when I heard from my opponent. An envelope addressed to Hon. William Bryk from Russell J. Fornwalt landed in my mailbox. Mr. Fornwalt sent me a small “Russell J. Fornwalt for U.S. Vice President” calendar printed in blue, red, and black inks on light cardstock. He included a reproduction of his advertisement from the Carriage Town News, of Kingstown, N.H., in which he promised to restore dignity and integrity to the office of vice-president and called himself “the choice of the voters,” inviting people to learn more about his campaign by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to his post office box.

Finally, he enclosed a press release, bearing a black and white photocopy of a color snapshot of a benign, grandfatherly man (Mr. Fornwalt, presumably), seated at a secretary with several papers before him. The release was unsteadily typed with a manual typewriter, and two errors had been neatly corrected with a blue ball-point pen. Mr. Fornwalt wrote the following:

Russell J. Fornwalt, Republican candidate for vice-president in the New Hampshire Primary Election on February 1, 2000, has only one goal: Get the Vice out of the vice-presidency and put Virtue back in.

What is “Vice”? (Dictionary Definition No. 1: moral depravity or corruption; wickedness; a moral fault or failing).

Among other things, Candidate Fornwalt says he will not stand for the pardon of terrorists. He will not use YOUR telephones in YOUR White House for political fundraising. He will not resort to any kind of funny-money monkey-business. He will not be the Bag or BEGman for any national committee…

Fornwalt points out that there have been 45 VEEPS, starting with an Adams in 1789, including an Andrew, an Arthur, an Adlai, an Alben, an Agnew, ET AL. Fourteen of these 45 (about one out of 3) later became Presidents (with or without “VICE”) one way or another.

Mr. Fornwalt’s campaign literature bore neither telephone number nor e-mail address. So I mailed him an acknowledgment and wished him well.

Two journalists tracked me down. A charming woman from the Press Trust of India, who combined a sultry alto with a pukka accent, was irresistible and knew it, which made her even more so. The other, Mr. Al McKeon of the Milford Cabinet, combined excellent questions about my motives with an appeal to help him meet his deadline. I couldn’t resist that, either.

Both harped a bit on my comparative obscurity. “I’ve talked to reporters on papers throughout the state,” the woman informed me, “and they say they’ve never heard of you.” I murmured something about censorship by the liberal media. The fellow was less combative. “They say people like you who run for President or Vice President—people they’ve never heard of—tend to be nuts.” I said I’d never heard of them, either, but that “I’d never make that kind of generalization–not even after reading the Manchester Union-Leader.”

I don’t believe either interview has seen print.

Primary Day and Night came and went. I periodically glanced over the newspapers and checked the Internet for the results, until the moment of glory came. One can’t say it was my Warholian fifteen minutes. No one noticed. And McCain hasn’t called me.

February 16, 2000,  New York Press

February 3, 2009   1 Comment

Mayoral Election Digest: The End of Ideology

[From New York Press, December 4, 2001]

The revolutionary left did not contest this year’s municipal elections. The Communist, Socialist, Socialist Labor, and Socialist Workers tickets were not on the ballot. Somehow the ballot seemed incomplete without the SWP’s striking emblem: a lightning bolt shattering the chains of capitalism wrapped around the globe. As for more idiosyncratic candidacies, one daily reported that Kenny Kramer, the Libertarian mayoral nominee, received 2620 votes, a shade less than one-fifth of one percent of the poll.

Kramer’s claim to fame is derived from Jerry Seinfeld, who used his appearance and personality in creating a character, also named Kramer, in his television comedy. Kramer is merely the latest attempt of the Libertarian Party (in most states, a party of ideas; in New York, a party of stunts) to gain attention by nominating a celebrity to high office. Some may recall the Libertarians nominated Howard Stern for governor some years ago. Stern withdrew from the race on learning that he would have to file public reports about his income and investments—something that all candidates for state office and many civil servants do as a matter of course.

The other minor celebrity in the mayoral race, Bernhard H. Goetz, subway gunman turned vegetarian activist, polled only 1300 votes as the Fusion Party’s candidate. Goetz failed to publish his platform in the city’s Voter Guide. If he had, he might have polled more votes: apparently, upon taking office, Goetz intended to appoint Rudy Giuliani his first deputy mayor and let him continue running the city.

When Kenny Kramer, whose activities largely involve milking his false celebrity, outpolls Bernie Goetz, there may be no justice in this life. At least Goetz performed a socially useful, albeit violent and unlawful, act by shooting four punks who were threatening him on the subway. Thus, for a few weeks, Goetz was among the most popular public figures in the city. Jimmy Breslin seems to have consistently argued that Goetz’s odd, nerdy demeanor at the time of the incident was an open invitation to the punks: that he wanted to be attacked by muggers so he might kill them, in self-defense, of course. Other than Breslin, no one taken seriously suggests this, and not even Breslin argues that a law-abiding subway rider, however odd his appearance, should be harassed with impunity.

The Fusion Party is controlled by Dominick Fusco, an elderly Bronx lawyer of considerable self-importance. His tiny party’s name has historical resonance. Fusion, in New York City politics, traditionally refers to the legal device by which a single candidate, nominated by several parties, aggregates the votes cast for him on each party line. Fusion became synonymous with the reform movement—something wholly different from the so-called Reform Democrats—which historically advocated honest, nonpartisan government in the interests of the wealthy elite. The other piece of any successful reform campaign was the Republican Party, which elects mayors only in coalition with some Democratic splinter group or reform-minded new party.

The City Fusion Party arose in 1933 in response to the scandals in city government revealed by the Seabury hearings. Fiorello La Guardia, nominated by the Republicans and the City Fusionists, polled nearly half his votes on the new party’s ticket. However, the Fusionists had no interest in patronage—the loaves and fishes by which one builds a permanent mass movement. Enthusiasm flags in the absence of a paycheck. By the 1950s, the party had nearly faded away. Its tattered remains—largely the right to use a four-leaf clover as a ballot emblem—became the property of Counselor Fusco, a Republican turned Democrat turned Perotista. No election since the late 1960s has been complete without Fusco or his friends somewhere on the ballot. Fusco last ran for citywide office in 1997, when he polled fewer than 1000 votes running for mayor as a Fusionist. This year, he ran for comptroller on the Fusion ticket with Bernie Goetz and polled 6989 votes. From the Little Flower to the Subway Gunman—what a fall was there, my countrymen. As far as ideas are concerned, Fusco’s remain a mystery: he, too, published no platform in the city’s Voter Guide.

Last and least of the mayoral candidates was Kenneth B. Golding, the nominee of his one-man machine, the American Dream Party. Probably the Board of Elections was too busy running the primary, runoff, and general elections within a few weeks to notice that the very name of Mr. Golding’s party was illegal under section 2-124 of the Election Law, which forbids the use of the word “American” in a party name. But, then, no one noticed Golding, including the voters. I met him briefly on election night, when I was going home from the gym: he was standing near the top of the escalator leading down to the E and F trains at 53rd Street, distributing his fliers and urging people to vote. His platform seemed a tissue of idealism and gentle good will. This didn’t count for much in an age of anxiety: Golding polled 583 votes to come in ninth of nine candidates.

During my ride home, a panhandler entered my subway car, demanding alms because he didn’t rob people or use drugs. The reappearance of the permanent homeless on subway benches seemed somehow symptomatic of the Mayor’s loosening of the reins as he moved toward the end of his second term. Instead of maintaining general public order, the police power seemed focused on punishing ordinary citizens for the crimes of terrorists by forcing us through intrusive personal searches. Liberty—one of the ideas for which this country supposedly stands—is a negative thing. It is simply the right to be left alone in the peaceful conduct of one’s affairs. That right has been destroyed with no effective protest.

One saw it coming even before September 11. Earlier this year, a police officer prevented me from leaving the building in which I work. He simply told me that I couldn’t leave the building. I attempted peaceably to go my way. Then his sergeant came up and said I couldn’t leave the building because the President was in the vicinity. I attempted to step past him. He threatened me with arrest.

Now, I had been convicted of no crime, made no disturbance and was not subject to any court order restraining my passage on a public street. I had not consented to the restraint. However, as I told the sergeant, I obeyed him because he had a gun. Naked force counts for a lot with an unarmed man.

Now some Neanderthal security guard can paw through my briefcase when I enter a public library as well as when I leave one. Deputy U.S. marshals examine my clients’ papers when I enter a federal courthouse. I am compelled to offer the contents of my pockets for examination on entering the Brooklyn and Manhattan municipal buildings. Amidst all this, I keep remembering Ben Franklin’s epigram: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

If one can be so cynical as to suggest someone can earn a public office in the gift of the people, then within the context of New York City’s political system Mark Green had earned the mayoralty. As commissioner of consumer affairs and public advocate, Green had held city offices giving him publicity without power, which meant he made no serious mistakes while becoming and remaining one of the city’s best-known politicians. I had been acquainted with Mark Green for more than two decades, since we opposed each other for a Democratic congressional nomination in 1980. I found him arrogant and condescending. He seemed compelled to prove his intellectual superiority by insulting people. Nonetheless, I voted for him at the 1980 general elections, being a good loser, and voted for him again when he ran for U.S. senator in 1986, as he seemed more qualified than his opponents.

Over his decade in public life, as he ducked and weaved from left to center, he reminded me of the suggestion of Pierre Laval, a brilliant French politician of the years between the World Wars. He once told a youthful rightist, “You’ve made a strategic mistake. When you are young, you should go to the Left. Go as far to the Left as you can. And spend the rest of your life coming back. They’ll think you’re a statesman.” Laval began his career as a revolutionary socialist. He ended up against the wall, shot as a traitor. With Green, one’s distaste stemmed from the sense that his politics had moved to the center from calculation rather than maturity or conviction. This is the sort of thing that weakens one’s faith in a politician’s sincerity. You should believe in something, even if you only believe you’ll have another drink.

Perhaps Green believed—his arrogance can rise to the level of delusion—that his independence of the usual Democratic Party constituencies would enable him to govern without having to pay off the leadership of the unions, the teachers, the blacks and the gays. As we now know, however, you have to win the election before you can govern, and if your party’s constituents don’t turn out for you, you will lose.

This is a kind of institutional veto, and not a bad thing. As a longtime regular Democrat and clubhouse lawyer put it to me as we leaned on the brass rail at Dusk on W. 24th Street, “Mark Green,” he remarked, before pouring most of his Maker’s Mark down his throat, “is a man who has no friends. We”–gesturing grandly to encompass the entire city–“would have been fucked.” The election of Green’s opponent doesn’t guarantee that we won’t be. It proves we knew enough to try to avoid it.

December 4, 2001, New York Press

December 4, 2001   Comments Off on Mayoral Election Digest: The End of Ideology