At the age of 37, Manes became the 16th Queens
borough president – the youngest in the county’s history. He was
appointed to the position by the Democratic county leadership when
Sidney Leviss stepped down to become a Supreme Court judge. Manes’
close friendship with Queens Democratic Party boss Matthew Troy
propelled him to the borough’s top job.
When Manes went to work on his first day in
office — a Saturday — he discovered that the doors of Borough Hall
were locked for the weekend. He pried open a window on the first floor,
entered the building and got to work. This kind of activist image would
forever change the way the office of bough president would be perceived.
Prior to Manes, the beep’s job was viewed as
nothing more than a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, proclamation-signing
sinecure for aging party functionaries waiting their turn for the reward
of a judgeship. Manes aggressively used his power as a voting member of
the Board of Estimate to work concessions and gain projects and funding
for borough concerns. He filled his staff with savvy governmental
operators and helped shape a strong community board network across the
In 1975, Manes assisted then-mayor Abe Beame
and then-Governor Hugh Carey in deposing his mentor as Democratic county
chairman. Holding the twin hats of borough president and county leader
enabled Manes to wield unprecedented power over the borough and in City
affairs in general.
The Adlai Stevenson Club in Flushing — which
Manes had founded in the mid-1960s — became his center of power
patronage. Through his votes on the Board of Estimate and his position
of county leader, Manes controlled every piece of municipal work in the
county with the largest Democratic constituency in America.
In 1985, Manes found himself in a growing
controversy over two pet projects for Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. When
a former top aide resigned to take over an operation pushing for a Grand
Prix auto race in the park, investigative reporters were starting to cry
foul. Local community leaders raised a howl over the proposal, and the
first serious opposition to a Manes project emerged.
But Manes was able to push the scheme through
the local borough board process and it seemed headed for an inevitable
run. His plan for a giant domed sports stadium in the park was heavily
opposed by businessmen in the Willets Point area, where the arena would
have been erected. When proposed developer Donald Trump failed to get a
football franchise, the stadium idea died.
Controversy also emerged over Manes’
selection of three firms to wire the borough for long-awaited cable
television. When Manes rejected a proposal by the Queens-based
Ortho-O-Vision company for a franchise, and instead awarded contracts to
mega-companies Warner Communications and Time-Life, as well as a cable
firm owned by Percy Sutton, community leaders were in an uproar. The
storm died down as cable arrived in the borough in 1985, and the
long-awaited service finally became a reality to Queens residents.
The Calm Before...
In 1985, Manes won another landslide election
for an unprecedented fifth term of office. In January 1986, he secured a
major political victory by engineering his own choice, Peter Vallone, to
receive the needed Council votes to become the majority leader of the
Two days later, Manes hosted a reception for
the new Israeli consul general in the conference room at Borough Hall.
His voice was scratchy, he appeared pale and was sweating profusely. He
made a few remarks, then returned to his office. He walked outside
Borough Hall and told his driver that he would be taking the car
Manes drove off down Queens Boulevard and,
unbeknownst to him, was followed for part of his drive by the chauffeur.
No one knows for sure what Manes did in the
ensuing hours. There were reports of his meeting someone in the La Shea
restaurant near LaGuardia Airport. Other reports had him driving
aimlessly through the dark night in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
But what the City awoke to find out the next
morning was that at 1:45 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 10, a Highway 3 patrol car
spotted the dark blue Ford driving erratically in the vicinity of the
94th Street exit of the Grand Central Parkway. The patrol car put on its
flashing red lights and siren and followed the car until it pulled over
at 126th Street and Northern Boulevard.
When Police Officers Thomas Ievolella and
Joseph Byrne asked the car’s driver for identification, Manes
apparently took his foot off the brake, sending the car forward into the
nearby parking lot fence. When Manes opened the door to give the
officers identification, they reportedly noticed that his coat was
drenched with blood.
The officers radioed for assistance and an
ambulance, but soon determined that it was necessary to take Manes
directly to the hospital.
By the time police were given access to Manes,
the borough president reported a bizarre tale of abduction. Two mystery
men had been waiting in the car and ordered him at knifepoint to make a
right turn at Union Turnpike from Queens Boulevard, and then held him in
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. At some point during the five hours, Manes
remembers getting cut by the men.
Many Queens officials expressed support for
Manes and his story, and Ed Koch and other officials said that they gave
“Donny the benefit of the doubt.” But the police had the report of
the chauffeur, who saw no abductors in the car ahead of him.
A shaken Borough Hall, to which Manes would
never return, tried to figure out what had suddenly gone so terribly
wrong. A few days later, Manes read a brief statement to a select pool
of journalists who were called to his hospital bedside. “The truth of
what happened to me on the night of Jan. 9 is as the police have said.
The wounds I received that night were self-inflicted. There were no
assailants, and no one but me is to blame,” Manes said.
But the real story was beginning to become
First, in a column by Jimmy Breslin there were
hints of pay-offs and illegal goings-on by cronies of Manes. When
Bernard Sandow, operator of a collection agency, was confronted by FBI
agents with taped conversations in which he boasted of bribing City
officials to get ticket collections and towing contracts with the
Parking Violations Bureau, he decided to cooperate.
It wasn’t long before the whole story
unfolded about the other side of Manes. He had allegedly used
appointments and favors as the source of mammoth kickback schemes
involving personal bureaucratic feifdoms such as the PVB. Zoning
franchises and cable TV franchises were being investigated, and some of
Manes’ appointees and associates were indicted or forced to resign.
News of the scandal spread nationwide. Time,
Newsweek and the network newscasts all carried extensive coverage
in the widespread way that had always eluded Manes and his good works.
Newscasters who had always mispronounced his name (calling him Manes, as
in “names”), finally got it right as daily news of the scandal made
the Queens borough president a household name.
After spending nearly a month in lonely
seclusion at his Jamaica Estates home, one night in early March, Manes
went to his sister’s home for dinner. On arriving home, he got a phone
call from his psychiatrist, who discussed with Manes (and his wife on an
extension phone upstairs) additional psychological care. The
psychiatrist was called away from the phone and, while on hold, Manes
reached into his kitchen drawer, pulled out a large kitchen knife and
plunged the eight-inch blade into his heart.
His daughter screamed for her mother, who came
down to find Manes on the floor in a pool of blood. Marlene Manes pulled
the knife from his heart as the daughter frantically called 911. He was
pronounced dead on the scene.
Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Ed Koch and hundreds of mourners attended Manes’ funeral at Schwartz Brothers Chapel on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills. Then-assemblyman Alan Hevesi described him as a skilled and talented public figure, whose ability to negotiate and lead “changed the landscape of Queens.” Hevesi called on the family, friends, city employees and politicians in attendance to “reject any imagination you may have that conjures up a picture of Donald’s troubles if he had survived. That’s not reality. Forget that. Donald Manes was an outstanding public figure.”