Election ’79: The Cohnheads Are Restless

Cohnhead methods em­phasize the last-minute smear, the appeal to ethnic prejudice, and the judicious use of patronage: “These people are haters. They'll stop at nothing and they're crazy.”


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