It’s My Turn

Democratic Politics in the Rockaways, 1950s

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Rockaway extends the south shore of Long Island to a narrow peninsula 12 miles long south of Brooklyn and Queens, perhaps a mile-and-a-half wide at its widest point near the Nassau County border at its east end, but sometimes only three or four blocks wide for much of its western length until it narrows to the tip of Breezy Point about a mile south of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, where Jamaica Bay opens into the Atlantic Ocean.

Rockaway’s beaches drew sweltering summer visitors from other parts of New York City from the nineteenth century, especially after the 1880s, when the Long Island Railroad opened a Rockaway line, through the 1930’s, when my mother’s family rented a house there for the summer. New York City Mayor Abraham D. Beame, among others, still summered in a Rockaway rental in the 1970’s.

By then, however, Rockaway had become a year-round community for most of its residents. After World War II, with a housing shortage nationwide, landlords turned the cheap summer bungalows in the mid-Rockaway neighborhoods of Arverne, Edgemere, and Seaside into year-round residents for many returning soldiers and others with limited budgets. My parents, living in the Bronx in 1949 when I was born, discovered that Belle Harbor, further west on the peninsula, not only had better houses built for year-round occupancy, but also boasted the elementary school with the highest reading levels in New York City. In 1950 they made the move, along with many others like them in the 1940s and 1950s.

It didn’t take long for my gregarious mother to become active in Rockaway community life, quickly becoming involved in the Beth-El Temple synagogue congregation, becoming president of the local chapter of American Jewish Congress, and, along with some interested friends, creating the Rockaway Music and Art Society. As an idealistic New Deal Democrat, she also needed an outlet for her political passions, and joined the Regular Democratic Club of the Rockaways.

Years later, in the 1990s, Milton “Mike” Drucker, then an administrator at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, insisted that Rennie Feldman, my mother, who had died in 1973, was “the best captain in Rockaway.” A “captain,” in the political terminology of New York City, was the Democratic club’s key manager for a neighborhood. This generally involved walking house to house, block by block, ringing doorbells and talking to the occupants of each, in a day when people were likely to open the door even to a stranger. In Rennie’s case, she already knew a good many of her neighbors by the time she was appointed captain. Like other captains, she was responsible for getting petition signatures to put the Club’s candidates on the ballot, and for making sure the vote turned out.

Her territory was Belle Harbor and Neponsit.

Rennie had been less complimentary about Mike. When Queens District Attorney Thomas Mackell was indicted in 1973 for hindering prosecution of a swindler, Mike was his executive assistant. Rennie’s immediate reaction: “Couldn’t have been Tommy. Too stupid. Must have been Mike.”

Rennie’s disdain for the “regulars” had taken some time to build. When we first moved to Rockaway, the major political powers were the Crisona brothers, Frank and James.

James had served in the Assembly in 1946, in the State Senate from 1955 to 1957, as Queens Borough President in 1958 and 1959, and as a New York State Supreme Court judge from then until 1976. Frank, an assistant district attorney, was found guilty of ten counts of wire fraud in the 1960s. Rennie said that there was never any discernible differences between the two in terms of ethical standards.

In 1952, Rennie was a loyal captain, because the Club provided an outlet for her enthusiastic support of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president. Sometime during that period, she later told me, my father’s company went through a dry period, and when his firm didn’t generate enough revenue, he and his brothers paid the employees, but not themselves. My mother was able to get the Club to give him “half of a hole inspector” job for $2500 a year, which was a substantial income supplement at the time. Officials in New York City government parceled out several dozen “pothole inspector” jobs to each regular Democratic club. [Possible correction: Mr. Dobelis asserts that these positions originated with the Con Edison Company, although the political clubs gave them out.] For $5000 a year, the recipient of such a “job” was supposed to report to the City each pothole he or she happened to see while driving on local roads, purportedly so the City could schedule the potholes for repair. The clubs often split the “responsibilities,” so they could bestow more such “half a hole” beneficences on worthy recipients.

By 1956, Milton Jacobowitz had succeeded Frank Crisona as Democratic district leader of the Rockaways. I remember “Uncle Milty” from his appearances in our neighborhood. He looked like a Jewish version of the first Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago: short, bald, incomplete in appearance without a cigar in his mouth.

Many years later, in the mid-1970s, when I served on Queens borough-wide judicial screening committee for the umbrella organization of reform Democratic clubs, the New Democratic Coalition, Jacobowitz, by then ousted by subsequent waves of regulars, tried to appeal to us for a judicial nomination.

His pitch – to these reformers! – went as follows, in his gravelly Queens inflection: “You guys support me and you can NAME my law secretary!”

In 1956, though, Jacobowitz and his minions were not in any way solicitous of the intellectually oriented reform wing of the Democratic party. Fearing that their local creatures such as Crisona might suffer from unpopularity by-association with Stevenson against the enormously popular incumbent, President Eisenhower, they decided to abandon the top of the ticket. Rennie Feldman was not pleased. (To be continued.)

Daniel Feldman, who blogs at “Tales From The Sausage Factory.,” is a former Rockaway resident.

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