Here’s one more ode to Olga Mendez, the battling former state senator whose funeral was held yesterday at a little church on East 101st Street on the edge of the East Harlem neighborhood she represented for so many years.
Mendez was justifiably proud of being the first Puerto Rican woman elected to any legislature anywhere outside of the island itself. She had been a Democrat her entire career until at the end when someone gave her some bad advice — that she could switch to being a Republican and still win election in her overwhelmingly Democratic district.
That was 2004 and it quickly became her last hurrah. Papers like this one took a sudden interest in her performance. Mendez, it was reported, had been steadily steering state funds to a nonprofit group employing her brother. She had failed to file several campaign statements. Those she did file somehow omitted hefty contributions.
She took it all with grace and humor.
“I have to compliment you, it is fair,” she said after one story appeared. “I was not responsible for any of this but the buck stops here. I have always functioned beneath the radar of the press. I didn’t develop a thick skin.”
She then went on, as was her fashion, to reminisce about herself, her family, and other interests. These musings never made it into any story. But when Mendez passed away late last week at the age of 82, I pulled up the old notes to have a look. And in honor of a sometimes madcap but always great lady, these free-form comments are offered here:
“My mother in law was named Isabel. She was the only Puerto Rican during World War II allowed to serve as a spotter for enemy planes. Her post was the roof of Daily News building on 42nd Street.
“Did I mention to you that I read poetry? I write it too, in Spanish and English. I started to write a novel. I wrote two chapters. I was taking a look at two families of Puerto Ricans: One who came to the barrio, the other who stayed in PR. I was looking at the family that didn’t lose faith. That was becoming more economically successful. I wanted to write about the kids of the two families.
“I always define myself as an unorthodox politician. Why do I say that? I never thought about running for office. I was active in the League of Women Voters. I founded a Puerto Rican and Hispanic chapter. It was very active. I left it to a friend and she ran it down.
“I had a very bad opinion of politicians. But God punishes us with silk gloves. I ended up being a politician. You have no idea how badly I thought of them. I was very active in East Harlem. When kids were going to be expelled from school, the mothers would call me. They were referring all the Puerto Rican kids who didn’t know any English to special classes. They said they were morons. I had one of those kids. He has a Phd in English.
“I lost my husband in 1970. He was the only son of Tony Mendez Sr. You know he was the leader of the regulars in East Harlem for the Democratic organization. For years and years. I decided I wanted to run for the Democratic convention in Miami. I went to my family and said, ‘I want to be a delegate.’ They said no problem. I said, ‘But I want to run as a McGovern delegate.’ They thought I was crazy. McGovern was with the reformers, the liberals on the West Side. They said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because I think his economic policies are good for everyone in the country.’ My father in law said to me: ‘I have always been a regular but if you want to go with those reformers alright.’ So he pulled out of the regular machine to support me. I went to interview on the West Side for the delegate’s position. They said something about my father in law being with the regulars, with Tammany Hall. I said, ‘I don’t have to make any excuses for my father in law’s beahavior. I want to be a McGovern delegate.’ So they took me and I was.
“I play straight. It would’ve been very easy for me to stay Democratic. I would win with 90% of the vote. But I go for something I believe in. I wasn’t going to do what Espada did [even then!] — be a Democrat and take the goodies. I go all the way or nothing.
“I am at stage of life where I don’t need recognition. I don’t need to go for the blah blah blah. All I want to do is the best job I can representing those people there in my district who have faith in me.
“I am listed in the phonebook. People call me all the time. If I change it I feel I am betraying them. They call at 1:30 in the morning. They have a crisis. What am I going to do? Hang up?
“I asked President Clinton how did it feel to be married to a brilliant woman? He told me, ‘It has been the most humble experience of my life.’ Women in politics can make it in two ways: by jumping from bed to bed or by knowing how the system works. When I am asked to speak to women, I say to them that if you are going to go into a field that has traditionally been controlled by men, you first have to learn the rules by which the guys have played. And then you play the same way. If you hold your own you will see how they open their arms. You cannot be one day a little timid violet who needs their protection, and then be Joan of Arc who wants to change the world.
“One of the greatest compliments I ever received was this: A senator said to me, ‘You are an attractive woman,’ he said. ‘You have a masculine mind.'”
“I think there is something in my family — the women have come out being strong and the men have been so weak. Look at [name deleted in fairness]. I haven’t called him since December. Now he married this woman and she thinks she is the descendant of Elizabeth the Second. He came to me one day and said she wanted to run for the city council. I said, ‘Forget about it! I won’t support her!’ He knew why. It is because she treated poor people with no respect. I wouldn’t support her. No way Jose! How could I do that? She had no feeling for the working poor. In Puerto Rico we say she came from a ‘good family’. You know what that means there? It means there is no black blood in the family.
“Do you want to write my book? I have a lot I want to say.”