New York’s Bean Counter

Will the Votes Add Up for Alan Hevesi?

Sweaty commuters surging out of the Carroll Street subway station in Brooklyn on a recent Monday evening encountered Alan G. Hevesi, three of his campaign workers, and State Assemblywoman Joan Millman. The candidate's supporters handed out flyers with Hevesi's picture. 'That's me!' Hevesi told the subway riders. 'I'm Alan Hevesi. I'm running for mayor.'

Nearly every passerby looked blankly at the 61-year-old man in wire-rimmed glasses, baggy charcoal suit pants, and rolled-up shirt sleeves. Even most of the commuters who stopped to shake Hevesi's hand seemed unsure who he is—that he has been the city's comptroller since 1994, that he spent the previous 22 years in the state assembly, and that he will be on the ballot in the Democratic primary for mayor.

"Are you a Republican?" asked one passerby.

Hevesi: “I always poll badly. I have a strange last name that’s hard for people to remember.”
photo: Julia Xanthos
Hevesi: “I always poll badly. I have a strange last name that’s hard for people to remember.”

"Did you grow up on Carroll Street?" asked another subway rider, confusing Hevesi with public advocate candidate Stephen DiBrienza, whose television ads mention the road.

With two weeks left until the Democratic primary, Hevesi is scrambling to raise his name recognition and recover from a bruising time on the campaign trail. While many Democrats thought Hevesi had a good chance of being the front-runner in this mayoral race, polls have consistently put Public Advocate Mark Green in the lead. Everyone else—Hevesi, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone—is battling for second place. If none of the candidates receives more than 40 percent of the vote in the September 11 primary, there will be a runoff two weeks later between the top two contenders.

"I always poll badly," Hevesi says. "I have a strange last name that's hard for people to remember." To boost his spirits, he likes to reminisce about a poll conducted 10 days before he won the Democratic primary for comptroller in 1993. In that poll, Hevesi finished behind his two opponents. "I had two percent name recognition with a three percent margin of error," he says. "I gave new meaning to the word 'obscure.' "

Like the rest of the mayoral candidates, Hevesi has been spending his days crisscrossing the city. Over the previous weekend, the comptroller tried to woo voters at the India Day parade in midtown Manhattan, along a Staten Island boardwalk, at a dinner dance in Brooklyn, inside a Queens bakery, and at a basketball tournament in the Bronx. This evening's subway visit marked Hevesi's 22nd campaign stop in 56 hours. By now, fatigue had set in and his smile appeared forced.

After 45 minutes of glad-handing outside the Carroll Gardens subway station, Hevesi and his entourage headed across the street to Frank's Luncheonette. Hevesi walks like an aging athlete—slow and slightly pigeon-toed. He has bone chips in his right elbow and scars from two knee surgeries. A starting center on his college basketball team, Hevesi played semipro ball and was once scouted by the Boston Celtics.

Ten minutes and one cheese pizza later, four men squeezed into the comptroller's Grand Marquis. Hevesi was in the front seat next to his driver. In the back, a 25-year-old campaign worker pressed a cell phone to his ear, while a bodyguard stared at a map. The next stop was a candidate forum already under way at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights.

Hevesi's career in politics began in 1962, after he spied a poster advertising internships in the New York State legislature. The flyer hung inside a building at Columbia University, where Hevesi was then pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. The Ford Foundation sponsored five $4000-a-year internships. Hevesi, who graduated from Queens College, applied and won one. In Albany, he spent a year working for the senate majority leader.

Hevesi won his own seat in the state assembly in 1971 at age 31. By then, he had a wife and two babies in Queens, a Ph.D., and seven years' experience as a legislative staffer. "He was not your normal local politician," says John Sabini, now a Queens city councilman, who remembers Hevesi campaigning near his high school.

Many of Hevesi's peers in Queens' political clubhouses saw the state legislature as a place to pass a few years while angling for a judgeship. "He wasn't following that career track . . . unlike others at that time, who were basically lawyers looking to fatten their income," says Sabini, a Democrat who has endorsed Vallone for mayor.

In the assembly, Hevesi fought for many progressive causes: Medicaid funding for abortion, decriminalizing marijuana, improving prisoners' rights. Over 11 two-year terms, he wrote 108 laws. Many of these laws are well-known—including the nursing-home reform act and the "Son of Sam" law, which prevents felons from profiting from their crimes—but most people do not associate them with Hevesi.

In Albany, Hevesi still has a reputation as a talented debater and strong health-committee chair. "People in Albany say wonderful things about him," says Assemblywoman Millman, a Brooklyn Democrat, who has endorsed Hevesi. People talk, she says, "about how he raised the level of debate in the assembly, and that he was the conscience of the legislature on abortion rights and the death penalty."

After trying and failing to become the Assembly Speaker, Hevesi began to focus on city politics. He ran for city comptroller twice—in 1989 and 1993—before he finally won. In his new role, Hevesi headed an 800-employee agency. The comptroller oversees $90 billion in pension funds—the largest system of pension funds in the U.S. after California and New York State.

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