Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abe Beame

Remembering Herman Badillo

Herman Badillo died yesterday at the age of 85. He was a trailblazer in New York City politics, the first Puerto Rican to be elected a borough president (of the Bronx), and the first to be elected to Congress. It was my privilege to have worked for him as his press secretary in 1976 and 1977 during his last run for Congress and his 1977 mayoral campaign.

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Herman Badillo died yesterday at the age of 85. He was a trailblazer in New York City politics, the first Puerto Rican to be elected a borough president (of the Bronx), and the first to be elected to Congress. It was my privilege to have worked for him as his press secretary in 1976 and 1977 during his last run for Congress and his 1977 mayoral campaign.

Herman was very much a self-made man. Orphaned at five, he came to New York at age 11, speaking not a word of English. But he graduated magna cum laude from City University and first in his class from Brooklyn Law School. He was also a CPA. To fund his education, he worked as a dishwasher, pin spotter in a bowling alley, and as an elevator operator. (I remember him telling me how all three of those job categories essentially no longer existed, having all been automated by the 1970s.)

He very much wanted to be New York’s first Puerto Rican mayor, but never made it. That was not for want of trying. In 1969 he finished third in the Democratic primary, behind Mario Procaccino, a party hack from the Bronx backed by the Democratic machine, or what was left of it, and former mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. Herman always felt that had it not been for novelist Norman Mailer, running on an ego trip and getting five percent of the vote, he might well have won.

In 1973, he finished second in the Democratic primary, behind the machine candidate Abe Beame and lost to him in the run-off election. Beame was an absolute disaster as mayor—probably the worst mayor of the 20th century, which is saying something—and the city lurched into bankruptcy. We cannot know how history would have been different had Herman made it to Gracie Mansion, but there is little doubt it would have been very different and far better.

His 1977 campaign, woefully underfunded, began with a betrayal. He had agreed to back Congresswoman Bella Abzug for the Democratic Senate nomination in exchange for her backing him in the 1977 mayoral campaign. But when she lost the nomination—thank God—to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she decided to run for mayor herself, airily telling Herman, “The people want me.” They didn’t. She finished fourth.

Working for Herman was an education. He was one of the smartest men I have ever met, with a sly sense of humor and a remarkable command of facts. And thanks to him I learned an awful lot about my beloved New York City. I’m a native New Yorker, but mine is a private-school, Upper East Side New York. Herman’s was the then-devastated South Bronx, which looked, quite literally, like a war zone in the 1970s. In 1976, Herman, running for his third term, was opposed for the Democratic nomination for Congress by the odious Ramon Velez, whom Herman—perhaps coining the word—called a “povertician,” someone who exploited poverty programs for his own political (and monetary) benefit. That summer I saw a part of New York that I had hardly known existed. The following summer, in the mayoral campaign, we were all over the city, from Riverdale to Bed-Stuy to Harlem to Jackson Heights to Bushwick to the Lower East Side.

At the height of the campaign, during a brutal heat wave, the great blackout of 1977 happened. I went to Herman’s congressional office in the South Bronx and we spent the day driving around the district in a convertible. It was a vast block party, only with looting. People would come out of stores, carrying cases of liquor and television sets, see us, and yell, “Hey, Herman! How are you? I’m voting for you, man!” Herman would wave back, campaigning through the chaos, there being nothing else to do. I was a long way from the Upper East Side and I loved every minute of that summer.

As the Democratic Party drifted leftwards, Herman did not. He became a Giuliani Republican. He instinctively knew that the solution to poverty was not more poverty programs, but education and work. Perhaps Herman’s most lasting contribution to New York was one of his last, when he served as chairman of the board of City University. It had been known as “the poor man’s Harvard” in his day, where people like him could get a first-class education at minimal cost. But in the 1970s it initiated “open enrollment,” where anyone with a high school diploma could enroll, regardless of how ill-prepared they were for college work. As board chairman, he ended open enrollment, and CUNY began its long climb back to educational respectability.

I’ve had a fortunate life and have known many famous and remarkable people. It was an honor to have known Herman Badillo and to have worked for him.

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RE: The Real Lindsay

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

Jason, your post brings to mind one of the most blistering paragraphs of William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, his account of his failed 1965 mayoral bid against Lindsay (and Abe Beame).

A modern Justine could, in New York City, wake up in the morning in a room she shares with her unemployed husband and two children, crowd into a subway in which she is hardly able to breathe, disembark at Grand Central and take a crosstown bus which takes twenty minutes to go the ten blocks to her textile loft, work a full day and receive her paycheck from which a sizable deduction is withdrawn in taxes and union fees, return via the same ordeal, prepare supper for her family and tune up the radio to full blast to shield the children from the gamy denunciations her nextdoor neighbor is hurling at her husband, walk a few blocks past hideous buildings to the neighborhood park to breathe a little fresh air, and fall into a coughing fit as the sulphur dioxides excite her latent asthma, go home, and on the way, lose her handbag to a purse-snatcher, sit down to oversee her son’s homework only to trip over the fact that he doesn’t really know the alphabet even though he had his fourteenth birthday yesterday, which he spent in the company of a well-known pusher. She hauls off and smacks him, but he dodges and she bangs her head against the table. The ambulance is slow in coming and at the hospital there is no doctor in attendance. An intern finally materializes and sticks her with a shot of morphine, and she dozes off to sleep. And dreams of John Lindsay.

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