Election ’79: The Cohnheads Are Restless
Led by Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman and his law partner, Roy Cohn, and backed by patronage from the court of Surrogate Marie Lambert, a horde of minor politicos is seeking to topple the reformers who have dominated the Manhattan Democratic Party in the past decade. These people are the leftovers of the old Tammany machine, reinvigorated by amoral young hacks like Gary Nicholson and William Todd.
Most people pay no attention to intraparty contests for district leader and judicial delegate any more. With Ed Koch as mayor — and for some time before — the romance has left the reform movement. Reform Democrats have become a local symbol of lesser evilism, elitism, and hypocrisy. This year the Cohnheads are poised to take advantage of Democratic apathy and thus gain power and patronage for themselves. Roy Cohn denies any personal involvement in Manhattan politics.
Cohnhead methods, as developed by Lambert, Nicholson and their troops, emphasize the last-minute smear, the appeal to ethnic prejudice, and the judicious use of patronage. One longtime regular leader in Manhattan, who has little use for reformers, told me that he’s frightened by the Cohnheads’ influence on local politics. “These people are haters. They’ll stop at nothing and they’re crazy.”
A longtime reform kingmaker, no friend of the regular quoted above, said much the same thing last fall. He called a judicial campaign engineered by Nicholson and Todd “the dirtiest thing I’ve seen in 20 year of Manhattan politics.”
The idea of a countywide effort by the Cohnheads is no paranoid delusion. One day last week, several candidates — Nicholson, Todd, Charles Bayor from the East Village, Cora Shelton from East Harlem, and Scott Stringer from Washington Heights — all represented by Cohnhead attorneys went to the Board of Elections to keep opposing candidates off the September ballot and insure their own positions. The group sat together, consulted together, and used the same lawyers — Harry Pollak and Vincent Catalfo. Like most good Cohnheads, Catalfo and Pollak both worked overtime for Marie Lambert’s surrogate campaign in 1977. Both have received court patronage from her since. Readers may remember Catalfo as the attorney who admitted forging his client’s signature to legal document and a check. He was suspended from practicing law for two years — a lenient sanction. Last year Catalfo got more than $20,000 in Lambert’s court, most of it awarded after he went to court to avoid testifying about her campaign methods before the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. (The largest chunk of Lambert patronage received by Catalfo, incidentally, came from a million-dollar-plus estate, of which one executor was Roy Cohn.) Catalfo is Nicholson’s campaign treasurer.
After a long day with their political problems at the Board of Elections, Catalfo and Nicholson adjourned to Lambert’s Surrogate’s Court across from City Hall. Around 7 p.m. they accompanied Lambert herself down the courthouse steps to a car parked nearby. Engaged in serious talk with the distinguished judge — who has herself done quite a bit of election law — all three got into the car and Nicholson drove it away. Of course, judges are not supposed to be involved in politics. No doubt Nicholson, Catalfo, and Lambert were discussing the weather.
Manhattan Democrats who will be voting in the September election ought to know something about the backgrounds of their district leader candidates, something more than their literature is likely to disclose. This is particularly critical with regard to the Cohnheads, since their literature tends to be filled with distortions, omissions, and outright lies. So here is a brief examination of some of the Cohnhead candidates, by district.
Know Your Cohnhead
The man who dreams of becoming Manhattan county leader is Gary L. Nicholson, who hails from the upstate town of Oxford. Nicholson is in a three-way race for district leader in Chelsea. His devotion to the politics of ethnicity and religion is best demostrated by his latest ploy: Nicholson is billing himself as a Catholic; he has even begun attending mass. Those who know him well, like the pastor of the United Church of Oxford, remember Gary as a Protestant who came to church for organ practice.
But religious “conversion” may be the least of Nicholson’s offenses. He has to his credit, in a young career, two of the most offensive judicial campaigns in recent memory. In 1977, Nicholson managed Marie Lambert’s successful campaign for surrogate, a race marked by strong-arm funding solicitations from lawyers who practice in Surrogate’s Court; misleading and irrelevant ethnic campaign mailings; and a schizophrenic hypocrisy on issues of court reform. Last year, though ultimately unsuccessful, Nicholson outdid the excesses of the Lambert campaign when he helped manage Helen E. Goldstein’s campaign for a Manhattan Civil Court nomination in the Democratic primary.
Goldstein, who lives in Brooklyn, allowed Nicholson to put out vicious mailings calculated to appeal to bigotry and Jewish fear, under the phony rubric of the “Manhattan Chapter of the Zionist Committee for Israel.” The mailing’s attack on reform candidate Shirley Fingerhood, for belonging to the National Lawyers Guild, was reminiscent of McCarthyism at its worst. And Nicholson’s use of a phony name and address, not only on the literature itself but on Post Office documents, appears to have violated the law.
Nicholson signed his own name to a bulk-rate postal form for the phony Zionist committee. The delegate slate which used this mailing was endorsed by another phony, “non-political” outfit, the “Committee for Integrity in Judicial Selection.”
Lately Nicholson has spent a lot of time at the Board of Elections, accusing his opponents of submitting election petitions “permeated with fraud” and “forgeries.” Not so long ago, Nicholson himself was facing similar charges of fraud after he had collected petition signatures for a candidate and it was discovered that he had voted in two places the same year. Because Nicholson had voted in his hometown of Oxford that year, a court referee found that “Gary L. Nicholson was not a duly registered voter in the 70th Assembly District at the time he witnessed signatures and gave his own signature on the … designating petition.” By stating that he was a duly registered voter on the petition, Nicholson left himself open to charges of fraud.
Nicholson’s source of income for his current campaign is mysterious. His most recent “employment” was a no-show job in the office of former Assembly Minority Leader Perry Duryea — a Republican patronage job provided to Democrat Nicholson by Vincent Albano. Albano is a good friend of the Cohnheads, and his lawyer cronies have been suitably rewarded with patronage by Marie Lambert. Nicholson’s no-show with Duryea, for which the taxpayers lost $250 a week, ended when Duryea was replaced by James Emery as minority leader.
By press time, Nicholson’s campaign committee had failed to file a financial disclosure statement with the Board of Elections; one was due more than a week ago. Last spring he held an unheard of $50-a-head fundraiser at the posh Galleria on 57th Street, but not that many people showed up.
Yet somehow Nicholson can afford the constant legal attention of Vincent Catalfo to help throw his opponents off the ballot, though Catalfo has stated in Surrogate’s Court papers that his time is worth $125 an hour. At one point, Nicholson and Catalfo even brought in a handwriting expert at a cost of $80 per hour. This expert told Nicholson’s opponents that he has worked for Roy Cohn.
Nicholson is facing two primary opponents thanks to his contempt for the voters: After living in Chelsea less than a year, he came to one of the local Democratic clubs and demanded nomination as their candidate for leader against the incumbent reform leaders. The club refused and eventually expelled Nicholson. He offered them a deal: He would run for male leader, and they could nominate the female leader. They told him no.
Gary Nicholson has been challenging a subpoena from the Commission on Judicial Conduct for more than a year. Enormous sums of money have been spent so that he won’t have to testify under oath about apparent violations of judicial ethics committed in the Lambert campaign. During the litigation surrounding his refusal to testify, Nicholson complained that the commission inquiry might “chill” a person’s interest in politics. Unfortunately, it didn’t chill his.
Working most closely with Nicholson in many of these endeavors has been William F. Todd, although Todd has always taken the back seat. Ironically, Todd is almost certain to be a Harlem district leader now because incumbent leader Matt Turner dropped out of the race under mysterious circumstances. (Nicholson’s race is anything but settled, and he is considered likely to lose.)
Todd began as a volunteer in the Lambert campaign, handing out literature. The Cohnheads promoted him to a paid position in the Goldstein campaign a year later, giving him the title of campaign manager although Nicholson was really running the show. At $150 a week, wasn’t paid much, either. He had another source of income, though: He was on home relief.
Todd’s welfare status was discovered last October, when he was about to go on the payroll of Manhattan borough president Andrew Stein — another Cohnhead friend — as a “business development specialist” at $14,000 a year. When Stein learned that the able-bodied Todd had been getting welfare checks since 1976, he withdrew the job offer. At the time of Todd’s firing, his file at the St. Nicholas Welfare Center was still active. It no longer is.
Running for district leader on the Lower East Side is Mitchell Mund, brother of Gary and son of Walter. The Munds were among the most active workers in the Lambert campaign; they contributed money, and Walter and Gary received legal patronage from Lambert. Walter Mund prepared a lengthy opinion on the question of soliciting campaign funds. Eventually, Gary Mund also received a $17,000-a-year job in the Surrogate’s Court from Lambert. According to the petitions filed by Mitchell, his brother Gary collected more than 100 signatures on June 19 — a Tuesday when he was supposedly working in the court. Under questioning by an opposing attorney, he couldn’t remember whether he had gone to work that day.
The Cohnheads’ man in Washington Heights is Scott Stringer, the offspring of former councilmember Arlene and former Beame counsel Ronald. His mother’s losing primary campaign in 1977 was closely allied with the Lambert effort, and his own campaign for a state committee post in 1978 was enmeshed with the Goldstein campaign. In fact, Scott’s campaign received a $2000 fee from Goldstein for its work on her behalf, and the Stringer people helped mail out the “Zionist Committee” smear piece against Shirley Fingerhood.
Cohnhead allies running in the next district below Stringer, south of 181st Street on the West Side, Hansi Pollak and Harry Fotopoulos. Pollak and her son were diligent campaign workers for and contributors to Lambert, and the son received Lambert’s patronage. Fotopoulos is a wealthy insurance broker who has previously run for office as a Republican-Conservative. He only recently became a Democrat.
Apparently affiliated with the Cohnheads in the East Village are Charles Bayor and Theresa Bussichio. Bayor and Bussichio are trying to oust the incumbents Phil Wachtel and Katherine Wolpe. Bayor is a longtime friend of and contributor to Lambert. He and his wife, Rita, who once lived in the same building as Lambert, worked hard for her victory. On the night before the primary last fall, Nicholson took care of the printing for a last-minute smear of Carter Burden which was handed out by members of Bayor’s club, the East Village Community Democrats.
Bayor is also a member of Community School Board One, where he has run true to Cohnhead form, using ethnic tensions to bolster himself. As usual, this has only hurt the community: a large federal grant for bilingual education was rejected by the board, although a huge number of Board 1’s kids speak Spanish.
This isn’t a complete picture of the district leadership races in Manhattan — to give that would take much more space than is available, and would probably bore anyone but the most fanatical politico.
The reason for writing about these races is not that they have net importance, nor that the reformers are a wonderful group deserving of eager support. It’s that the Cohnheads are dangerous, lacking any political ideology or morality other than desire for influence and patronage. They out-reform the reformers, making unfounded accusations of corruption; they out-regular the regulars, telling old-line district leaders they have the backing of Carmine DeSapio, the mob-linked leader of Tammany Hall. Rarely, if ever, do they raise an issue, and when they do it’s likely to be spurious. Unless they’re defeated, this borough’s politics are about to become sleazier. We can’t afford that. Politics in New York are sleazy enough.
Heeling the Wards
District Leaders are small fry, but they matter. From among themselves they elect the county leader. They also select members of the party’s judicial screening panels, which in turn examine and select candidates for the bench. They represent the Democratic party in each neighborhood, which can be very significant in trying to solve a community problem, in sanitation, housing police or fire protection. In a Democratic city where neighborhoods have terrible problems, a good district leader may make the difference. A bad one doesn’t, because he or she is too busy making deals to climb higher. A bad district leader spends more time getting judges appointed than worrying about dirty streets or decaying parks. Sometimes, as Wayne Barrett revealed about Stanley Friedman’s Bronx leaders (Voice, August 13), the worst ones don’t even live in New York City, let alone the neighborhood. That’s an indication of what can be expected from the Cohnheads.
One good district leader is Kathy Freed, now seeking re-election in the Lower Manhattan area. She has been aggressive in pursuing her constituents’ complaints about poor services, rapacious loftlords, and lack of parks and other amenities, even while she tried unsuccessfully to win last year’s primary race for the Assembly. Freed has been more devoted to her constituents than to the party line, an attitude which hasn’t been politically rewarding for her. She’s more interested in issues than in patronage.
Of course, that’s not the only kind of decent district leader in Manhattan. The more traditional type is represented by Jim McManus, who has led the Eugene E. McManus Democratic Club in Hell’s Kitchen (named for his father) since 1963. McManus sees the main task of the leader as “delivering the vote for the party’s candidates.” In his neighborhood, that means “getting down to the nitty gritty: a personal favor here, a personal favor there.” But nobody doubts McManus’s concern for the people who live in his neighborhood. And the difference between a “personal favor” and a “neighborhood problem” is sometimes slight.
Judicial delegates run on slates, usually in tandem with a candidate for district leader. After they’re elected, the delegates from Manhattan join with those from the Bronx to nominate candidates for Supreme Court in New York’s First Judicial Department, which includes both counties. Last year, Stanley Friedman’s Cohnhead allies in Manhattan ran on judicial slates all over the borough, hoping to give Friedman and Cohn control of the judicial convention. They were badly defeated, and the reformers retained control of the Supreme Court nominations. Right now, it seems unlikely that the Cohnheads will do much better this year. But they’re making gains. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 14, 2020