Bella Abzug Helps Quixotic NYC Attempt to Divorce Itself From Albany


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September 9, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 36

The divorce proceedings for the 51st State
By Robin Reisig

In a room improbably decorated with six huge maps of Staten Island, an American flag, a photograph of Richard Nixon, the would-be founding fathers and mothers of the 51st State are finishing their labors. It’s last Wednesday night, and they are frenetically collating petitions, punching holes, counting signatures, checking election districts, and praying — praying there weren’t too many petition signers who said they were registered when they weren’t, praying there aren’t too many people who wrote “St.” for “Street” or nicknames for names, praying there aren’t too many handwritings as hopelessly mangled as New York City’s relationship with New York State.

“Tony is registered as Tony!” comes a jubilant shout. “Thank God!” says Bob Tendler, fervently, for that means some thousand signatures Tony Brandau witnessed are validly witnessed. And the campaign for the 51st State will need every valid signature it can get. It collected 55,398 signatures, giving it a borderline margin for invalid signatures at best. Forty-five thousand valid signatures will be needed to place a referendum on statehood for New York City on the November ballot.

Why didn’t the campaign receive more signatures? It met with silence or opposition from some groups that might have been expected to support independence from Albany, among them the executive council and the New Democratic Coalition, which held back endorsement by one vote, Herman Badillo who worked against it, and the Times, which diagnosed it as economically unfeasible. And during most of the last month of the drive, Congresswoman Abzug was off in Israel and Europe.

Mayor Lindsay’s contribution to the battle against the farmers in Albany was less than overwhelming. Several of his assistants met with representatives of the statehood drive and agreed to arrange for circulation of the petitions in city agencies. But Tendler, Village Independent Democrats president, who coordinated the campaign, observed, “The city delivered shit. Maybe 500 or 600 signatures. Dealing with the city cost us maybe 2000 signatures in man-hours spent.”

Not that Lindsay’s benediction would necessarily have helped. People on the streets who refused to sign the petition would frequently ask, “What are we going to have? More Lindsay?” recalled Sandy Gottlieb, a Brooklyn contributor of the campaign. Other workers recall virulent opponents who’d ask, “What do you want — the first nigger state?”

The statehood campaign announced that the petitions would arrive at the city clerk’s office at 2 p.m. last Thursday. It’s 2 p.m. The petitions are late. Ten weddings take place in the marriage chapel down the hall while the cameras wait. Congresswoman Abzug arrives. Abzug in a “Free New York” button. Abzug smiling, exuding energy that can almost make you believe the campaign is a massive victory. Abzug explaining: “We’re dying on the vine and we gotta do some self-help.”

The petitions arrive and at 3.20 are carried, past a morass of marriage license offices, through a door boasting “Divorce Decrees Examined Here,” into the office of the city clerk. During the ceremony a girl who worked on the campaign has her wallet stolen, a television newsman makes off with Congresswoman Abzug’s copy of the petition, and shortly before everyone leaves the last two packages of petitions finally arrive, their deliverers having just escaped from a traffic jam.

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