We’re supposed to be two bitterly divided camps right now: the Tea Party’s ferocious rage on one side; disheartened Democrats on the other. But for a special breed of New Yorkers, this current tough slog is just business as usual. They have no time for malaise or unfocused anger. They go to work every day in the city’s streets and neighborhoods where victories are rare, and where the kind of violations that put so many of us in such a lather—government abuse, private greed, public indifference—simply come with the territory. They don’t bother with rants on the Internet or the radio. They’re too busy putting their shoulders to their tasks, moving the stone up the hill one step at a time.
Much of that hard work is hidden from public view, which is why the late Voice writer Jack Newfield made it his business to give a yearly shout-out to those who labor behind the scenes to bring dignity and fairness to this city. He called his Thanksgiving-week story his “Honor Roll,” and we’re honored to continue the tradition. This is just a handful of the many New Yorkers deserving of a holiday tribute.
Valery Jean is fighting to even the odds between low-income residents and the tsunami of new, high-end development that has swamped downtown Brooklyn in the Bloomberg era. Her group is called FUREE—Families United for Racial & Economic Equality—and its focus is those who lived in the area long before the glittering new high-rise condos with their meaningless, market-tested names like Toren and Forté.
Jean is the face of that other New York: She is 33, the soft-spoken daughter of Haitian immigrants, raised in Brooklyn, and the mother of two young children. Her Willoughby Avenue offices, bustling with a steady stream of dues-paying members, are across the street from her old high school, St. Joseph. She attended Hunter College and joined FUREE four years ago. She’s helped public-housing residents of Ingersoll, Whitman, and Farragut houses press the city’s Housing Authority for adequate repairs and a role in renovation. When city officials decided to level the nearby Albee Square Mall for a massive new high-rise, FUREE was the sole advocate for those pushed aside, the scores of merchants forced to relocate, and tenement tenants left in limbo. Last week, federal Housing and Urban Development officials paid the group the ultimate compliment, visiting FUREE’s headquarters to answer questions from the group’s board, composed of leaders recruited from the ranks. “New York City is an increasingly segregated place, based on how much you earn,” Jean says. “We’re creating victories by bringing low-income families to the bargaining table.”
‘You Can’t Stop’
Father James Kelly has been booming a message of social justice for the past 50 years from the pulpit of St. Brigid’s in Brooklyn. He delivers it in the same Irish brogue he brought from his native Limerick. Last spring, he marked a half-century of celebrating Mass there, a golden jubilee marked by a brass band and mariachis, echoes of the mostly Latino parishioners who fill the pews these days. When Kelly arrived at the red-brick church on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood in the spring of 1960, it was mostly German and Italian families with their own problems. On nearby Troutman Street, factions of Joe Bonanno’s crime family shot it out. Kelly was in court so often for local kids—”juvenile delinquents,” they were politely called then—that he decided to get a law degree from St. John’s. “I was going to court with these kids getting in trouble, and I got fed up with being told, ‘You can’t say anything. You’re not a lawyer.’ Now I’m a lawyer, but I am no smarter than I was before,” he says. Then, as now, the issue was immigration. “Immigration is the overwhelming problem. I did it with the Italians, now I do it with the Mexicans, the Dominicans. They’re going after people on deportations, people who got duped by phony labor certificates. They break up the families. It’s wrenching for everyone.” Kelly’s snowy white head is a regular sight amid the ranks of marchers protesting these policies. “You can’t stop,” he says. “If you stop, you’ll fall apart.”
Taking Down Espada
Gustavo Rivera provided one of the few hopeful notes in a gloomy political season, thanks to his gutsy decision to take on a statewide embarrassment, Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada. The race was no slam dunk, and Rivera’s win is no small victory. Even incumbents like Espada, who used his office as a personal fiefdom, regularly coast to re-election. Until Rivera stepped forward, it wasn’t clear whether voters in the north Bronx district would buy Espada’s claim that outsiders were invading. But Rivera, 34, a professor of political science at Hunter College and an Obama campaign veteran, was no outsider. Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived in the district for 10 years in a rent-regulated apartment. Espada lives miles away in the suburbs. Rivera’s backers were unions, housing advocates, and Senate progressives like Liz Krueger. Espada drew his campaign support from the real estate titans he championed as chair of the Senate housing committee.
Rivera patiently introduced himself to voters. They were glad to meet him. “You’re the one running against Espada? I’m for you,” was the standard greeting he heard on street corners. “I didn’t set out to run for office,” he says. “But I am committed to public service, and I’m going to make sure this position serves the people, whether I’m here for two years or 20 years.”
Matt Cowherd and Lincoln Restler are two other bright new stars in a dim political firmament. Inspired by their work in the Obama campaign in 2008, they helped form a group called New Kings Democrats. They had the novel idea that Brooklyn’s Democratic Party could become a vehicle for common good, not just a feeding trough for a favored few. When they sounded out party chairman Vito Lopez, they got more than a brush-off: He told them to get lost.
But they weren’t about to go away. First, they ran for the party’s long-neglected base, the county committee. Then this year, they took things up a notch, running as candidates for District Leader. Restler, 26, ran for the post representing north Brooklyn. Raised in Brooklyn Heights, he has been plugging away locally since graduating from Brown University. He served on the community board and worked with the growing antiwar group, Brooklyn for Peace. Restler won in a squeaker, beating the son of the party’s top courthouse patronage winner, helping define what was at stake.
Cowherd, 34, grew up in Georgia and graduated from the University of Chicago. His main interest was literature until he saw how politics affects people’s lives. He went to law school, volunteered in the 2006 midterm elections, and then again for Obama’s campaign. A true political trooper already, he is buoyed by victories and not dismayed by defeats like the pounding Democrats took this year. “Miscommunication won the day,” he says. “I think we’ll do better next time.”
Gus Reichbach was elected to civil court in 1990 and soon found himself mocked in the tabloids as “the Condom Judge” for giving rubbers to prostitutes appearing before him. Reichbach rightly called it AIDS prevention. Today, the city hands out its own brand of prophylactics like chewing gum. No one even blinks. Reichbach stepped up to State Supreme Court in 1998. He has since become one of the city’s great jurists, walking proof that even Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn boss who helped promote him, gets it right sometimes.
Reichbach, a card-carrying radical in his Columbia Law School days in 1968, is an equal-opportunity offender of powerful interests. In a bench trial this fall, Reichbach, son of a union organizer, angered transit union officials by giving a 20-year sentence to a man he’d convicted of killing a bus driver in a rage over the fare. The union wanted the max, 25 years. Last year, in sentencing a rabbi for molesting two teens, he noted that none of the dozens of letters he had received on the rabbi’s behalf acknowledged the teens’ pain. “I find that shameful,” he said.
In 2007, he rebuked the FBI for its devil’s pact with a murderous mob informant. The news was that the D.A. had dropped homicide charges against a decorated FBI agent after the Voice contradicted the key witness. But Reichbach focused on the FBI’s willingness to collaborate with mob hit man Greg Scarpa. “Did the information Scarpa gave save more lives than he took? I am confident the answer is no,” the judge stated.
Winning Lost Causes
Joel Rudin is an attorney for lost causes. His diligent lawyering has produced remarkable triumphs, none more so than last spring, when he won the release of Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with. The motion Rudin filed in federal court on Collins’s behalf contained a list of jaw-grinding prosecutorial abuses by the Brooklyn D.A., including a 9-1-1 tape never delivered and secret arm-twisting of key witnesses. “Shameful,” said federal judge Dora Irizarry as she ordered Collins released and barred his retrial. Then she said it again.
Rudin, 57, has specialized in wrongful-conviction cases since graduating NYU Law School in 1978. He won reversals for former Bronx day-care workers convicted during a wave of sex-abuse hysteria. Last year, he won the release of another inmate, Danny Colon, convicted on perjured testimony in a shooting that left two dead. That case took six years and was denied by two judges before the Court of Appeals finally agreed that there’d been a miscarriage of justice. Rudin blames “the pressure to get convictions in outrageous cases. The crime is abhorrent, and so prosecutors don’t want to take any chances by trusting the system to get the right results. So they rig it. It happens much more than people realize.”
Ellen Nachtigall Biben and Linda Lacewell are prosecutors who get it right. They were the engine behind Andrew Cuomo’s remarkable drive to expose fraud and influence peddling in the state’s multi-billion-dollar pension fund. The roll call of those convicted is an index of how deeply woven the scheme was into the fabric of our politics—and how hugely profitable and well-hidden: the upright former state comptroller Alan Hevesi; the ultimate political insider Hank Morris; the former head of the Liberal Party Ray Harding; the billionaire West Coast GOP fund-raiser Elliott Broidy.
All told, there have been eight guilty pleas, $158 million recovered, and 16 settlements with the industry’s biggest players, who agreed to end their trolling for public dollars by using politically connected brokers. Biben and Lacewell were such a durable team that they came to be known in the office by a single name: “Ellinda.” Both brought a decade of prosecutorial achievements with them to the attorney general’s office. Biben had worked under Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, where she handled racketeering and fraud cases; Lacewell was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who brought down an international ecstasy-smuggling ring. Neither knew Cuomo when he hired them to oversee public corruption for the attorney general’s office. They made it on old-fashioned merit. And it paid off.
Gene Clarke is a carpenter, not a prosecutor, but he has long been exposing corruption in his union, the New York City District Council of Carpenters. The federal government had largely declared victory in its effort to purge mobsters from the union’s ranks when Clarke complained in 2001 that union officials were manipulating the hiring list on behalf of favored contractors, ignoring those long out of work. Clarke, aided by lawyer Jim Wasserman, wrote to the federal judge overseeing the union under a 1993 consent decree. The case was reopened, and assistant U.S. attorneys Ed Scarvalone and Ben Torrance found Clarke’s charges a roadmap to other abuses. A lengthy investigation followed, with many stops and starts. Former police corruption prober Walter Mack was named to investigate, but union bigs maneuvered him out after he zeroed in on the culprits. Fortunately, the probe caught the attention of a spitfire prosecutor named Lisa Zornberg, who last month won the conviction of the mobbed-up leader of the largest employers’ association. Last week, Clarke was in court to see former District Council Chief Mike Forde get 11 years for taking bribes; eight others were also convicted. Clarke, 71, who started pounding nails in the Bronx as a teenager, says there’s more work to be done. “I’m still active,” says Clarke, who beat cancer a couple of years ago. “Every time I go on a job, they try to throw me off because they don’t want me around. But I’m not going anywhere.”
Jane LaTour can rattle off the names of rank-and-file battlers like Gene Clarke in most of the city’s unions. She’s interviewed them all. For the past 30 years, she’s made it her business to chronicle their wins and losses. LaTour, now a reporter for Public Employee Press, was a teenage runaway who found work in factories in New England and New Jersey. She also found a fascination with working life. She was an organizer for the old District 65 (the union that represented the Voice years back), before returning to school for a master’s project on union democracy. She put in stints at the Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, followed by the Association for Union Democracy, the inspired Brooklyn-based group that counsels union members. In her spare time, she helped put out Hard Hat News, the country’s only newsletter about struggles inside construction unions. In 2009, she published another work of love, a massive homage to women in blue-collar jobs called Sisters in the Brotherhoods, an oral history of women like fire-department pioneer Brenda Berkman, and Janine Blackwelder, the first female ironworker on city skyscrapers. “Every one of them is an inspiration, and their stories deserve telling,” says LaTour.
Nancy Wackstein says she feels “like an aging warrior,” but we should all be as vigorous and perceptive as she is. She has been advocating on behalf of the poor since 1983, and if the problems haven’t gone away, we can still be thankful that there are people like Wackstein who understand both the depth of the dilemma and the obstacles to the cure. She started out working for the Citizens’ Committee for Children, analyzing the causes of the city’s then-growing wave of homelessness. She spent her days in the deplorable old hotels like the Martinique in Herald Square, where families of four and more camped out in a single room. Later, she crossed over to government and served as the first director of the Office of Homelessness and SRO Housing under David Dinkins. She succeeded in moving families out of the squalid hotels, only to see a new wave take their place. Still, it was a brief era of peace between those fighting for more services and City Hall. After Dinkins, Wackstein moved on to run one of Manhattan’s largest social service groups, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. In 2002, she became director of United Neighborhood Houses, the 90-year-old umbrella group representing the city’s great settlement houses, the original refuges for the poor and needy. “We continue in the settlement house tradition,” says Wackstein, “fighting for the people who have no influence and no affluence.”
George Adams, Linda Levine, and Mark Kronman first united around one common element: mutually graying hair. Together with Levine’s late husband, Larry levine, they founded Gray Matters, a collection of older New York professionals looking to put their talents to work for worthy good causes. Kronman, Larry Levine, and Adams all brought their legal talents as attorneys to the table; Linda Levine is an educational anthropologist and teacher. There is also the director of a prominent medical school, a top marketing firm director, and a successful architect. “Small nonprofit groups are frequently clueless about what goes on with leases, for instance,” says Kronman. “We can help with the more mundane aspects of functioning.”
Gray Matters has kept its own requirements simple. It doesn’t bother with an office; it gets referrals by word of mouth, with a big assist from Community Resource Exchange, an all-purpose nonprofit organization. The name is a good one, says Kronman. “There is hopefully wisdom, maturity, and general savvy that comes with the years; that’s something a small group might use.” There’s a payback, too, says Linda Levine. “It is a source of constant renewal for us assisting these community organizations. We learn from them about the city.”