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.

As city comptroller, Hevesi has had a fairly low profile. "The culture of the comptroller's office was to be laid-back, not to be in the normal political combat," Hevesi says. "We almost never did Sunday afternoon press conferences because it was a slow news day. We never opted to fight with the mayor or anyone else when we could negotiate an agreement."

For an example, Hevesi likes to talk about his 1997 audit of the city's domestic-violence hotline. After receiving complaints about the hotline, staffers in the comptroller's office made 500 calls posing as victims or batterers. They uncovered myriad problems: Three-quarters of callers were not given proper health care referrals; male batterers received no advice on where to get help; Spanish- and Creole-speaking callers found no one who spoke their language.

"So I have this dramatic, front-page tabloid story," Hevesi says. "I have battered women and the telephone tapes, and [can] attack the administration. [But] I know what Rudy's like. This is not going to accomplish anything except a big fight. So . . . I go to the mayor and tell him what we have. The end result is he . . . implements 312 new beds in the [shelter] system. Fourteen new staff people [are] hired. [And there are] new protocols for how you communicate with battered women. . . . Ultimately, the 312 beds became 340 beds. And I think we saved some lives."

Hevesi and the mayor announced the improvements together at a press conference, which few people likely remember. "I don't know if it was [page] B6 of the Times[or] page 35 of Newsday," Hevesi says. But "that's the culture of journalism. If I had attacked him and called him names, I would've been on the front page."

On the mayoral campaign trail, Hevesi has been battling not only low name recognition, but also the perception that he is too bland and wonkish to excite voters. Such comments rile State Senator Dan Hevesi, the comptroller's 31-year-old son, who has been campaigning on his father's behalf. "They may be confusing the substantive nature of his job with his actual personality," Dan says. "He's the ultimate charmer and kibitzer. But it's hard to elicit hilarious laughter when you're discussing deep-discount bonds and municipal financing." Nonetheless, Dan insists, "We absolutely do not have an Al Gore problem."

There have been several other problems, however. In this year's Democratic primary, when the four candidates hold similar views on many subjects, each candidate's relationship with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has become a campaign issue. While Green has always cast himself as the anti-Giuliani, Hevesi's relationship has been less easily defined.

Critics have charged that the comptroller has been, at times, too cozy with the Republican mayor. They fault him for staying silent during the months when police brutality was front-page news and Giuliani displayed little sympathy for its victims. As a candidate, Hevesi seemed to hear his critics; he captured the endorsement of Abner Louima, who joined him on the campaign trail.

In recent days, Giuliani himself has joined Hevesi's critics. A front-page New York Poststory on August 17 quoted the ex-employee of a Hevesi friend accusing the comptroller of accepting a $6000 bribe. While Hevesi denies this charge, he has acknowledged that he did do his friend a favor. He asked a staff member to call Bell Atlantic on behalf of the friend, who hoped to do business with the phone company.

At a hastily arranged press conference the day the Poststory broke, Hevesi angrily denounced the bribe accusation. "This stinks to high heaven," he said. For a few days, the news story seemed to die, until last week when Giuliani publicly denounced Hevesi for helping a friend, who was also a campaign contributor. This incident, the mayor said, "cries out for an investigation."

Even before the bribe allegation surfaced, Hevesi had already been having a rough month. On August 6, the Campaign Finance Board voted to withhold $2.6 million in matching funds from Hevesi's campaign. Hevesi had struck an unusual arrangement with Hank Morris, his campaign consultant and longtime friend. Morris was volunteering his services as a consultant, which the CFB said appeared to be an attempt to skirt spending rules. Eventually, the CFB released the matching funds after Hevesi's campaign agreed to pay the consultant $250,000.

To gauge how his campaign is going, Hevesi tunes into NY1 every morning. He wakes at 6 a.m. and spends nearly an hour exercising—on a stationary bike and doing stretches—while watching television. In the evening, he returns to his house in Forest Hills, Queens, around 10 p.m. Hevesi spends the next two hours reading newspapers, catching up with his wife, and perhaps watching Law & Order. To ensure he gets six hours of sleep, the candidate goes to bed at midnight.


On this Monday evening, Hevesi arrived at the candidate forum at Medgar Evers College around 7:30 p.m. Ten percent of the auditorium's purple seats were full. Ferrer was speaking behind a podium on the stage as Hevesi walked in. When Hevesi's turn came, he decided to deliver his speech Oprah-style. He walked onto the stage, picked up the microphone, and returned to the floor, staking out a spot in front.

"I'm the first in my family born here in the United States," Hevesi said. "My parents were immigrants from Poland and Hungary." Hevesi mentioned his three children, but he did not talk much about his family, though he has an interesting story. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of Budapest. Fifty-five of Hevesi's relatives perished in Auschwitz. An uncle survived and also became Budapest's chief rabbi.

The comptroller dove into his favorite issues: reforming the public schools, stimulating job growth, building affordable housing, and eliminating police misconduct. Hevesi appeared at ease as he spoke, delivering detailed answers to every question. At times, Hevesi sounded like the professor that he is. For 33 years, he has taught, first at Queens College and now at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

When Hevesi promised to abolish Giuliani's decency commission and remove the barriers around City Hall, the audience applauded. The only glitch was when the moderator referred to Hevesi as "Mr. Ferrer."

After 30 minutes, the forum ended; Vallone and Green did not show up. Students with questions crowded around Hevesi as he tried to walk out. The president of the student government association pressed the candidate to commit to hiring an African American police commissioner. Local residents shook Hevesi's hand. Meanwhile, one attendee gestured toward the candidate and asked, "What's his name?"

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