How I Got Into & Out of Politics

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    "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, Nov. 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 19 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 Bldg., it was something of a museum piece, with massive 5-foot-tall marble urinals Toulouse-Lautrec could have used for a shower stall. It was here, legend said, that the great editor Gene Fowler, while standing next to a cliche-ridden politician, asked, "Do you view with alarm or point with pride?" A colleague passed me, stepped up to the plate, so to speak, gazed down, and sighed, "I feel so inadequate."

    The director of communications was a florid ex-tabloid reporter. He still looked like one of your classic muckrakers, with a beer in his hand and a fuck on his lips. But his drinking days were over. There was another legend that when he won a well-deserved professional award for reporting, his colleagues helped him celebrate with enthusiasm. He regained consciousness in a Philadelphia house of carnal recreation (alone, I may add, and still in his clothes) with the kind of hangover that makes death an attractive option, $20 and a return ticket in his wallet, and no recollection of the previous two days.

    He staggered from the Congressional Limited to the IRT #1. From W. 72nd St. he crawled home, wishing West End Ave. were only a few blocks farther away. He saw the local laundry (ah! Anything to put off the inevitable) and picked up his shirts. Finally he opened the door. His wife was fixing dinner. She put down the knife by the sink and looked at him. He hefted the shirts and said, "He runs a great laundry, but the lines are so long."

    Once he was raging about a political opponent of our employer, repeatedly calling the bad guy as a cocksucker. A colleague, a reserved man, interrupted.

    "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. After all, as Donald T. Regan said, "Power corrupts. Absolute power is a real gas."

    Occasionally, this truth spills into a public forum like the City Council. When Henry Stern was in the council, he quipped, "The difference between the City Council and a rubber stamp is that the rubber stamp occasionally leaves an impression." The late Ted Weiss closed a speech to the council by urging his colleagues to "do the right thing." The Honorable Dominick Corso of Brooklyn replied, "You think it takes guts to do the right thing? That doesn't take guts. 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. Nonetheless, 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 this gay rights 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. I don't think she's still there.

    The statesman was opposed for Democratic district leader by an affable right-wing candidate who had unsuccessfully sought office some 10 times. The rightist and his wife had 17 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: the statesman's car phone was disconnected at least once because the driver couldn't resist graphic conversations with his girlfriend, a discouraged use of the airwaves.) 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 Dec. 31, 1993, when my then-employer, the last City Council president, left office and his successor, the present public advocate, chose not to retain my services. He and I had tangled before: I had expected it.

    That is life. 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. Over the next three years, though, I realized people whom I had blithely assumed were my friends were not, and they made apparent they didn't consider me worth a returned telephone call, let alone a helping hand.

    That is life, too. It is better to learn this when one is still resilient, even though no longer young.

    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 amorphous public benefit, such as the 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." Thus, for example, 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 activity, 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 good times won't end.

    I quickly learned that expressing my belief that unborn children are human beings entitled to the right to life 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.

    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 knows that I'm going to have my clock cleaned on Election Day.

    In earlier life, I had once been denounced as a hitman for my employer (probably a mild exaggeration). In recent times, other than occasional hissing, which is to be expected, I recall only one incident, at a forum sponsored by the Staten Island chapter of the NAACP. One Shoghi Fret, a squat, humorless Trotskyite with bad skin, a 21-year-old college student running for public advocate on some Socialist ticket, praised Cuba as the model for the socialist state he wanted to erect within our city. Then he denounced me as a fascist and oppressor of women. He hadn't even seized power and he already wanted to purge me.

    This year my campaign was 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. 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 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 was rewarded when a committee member leaked its confidential deliberations to Murphy's campaign. 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.

    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.