Politics Can Help Cities to Prosper If Leaders Wise
By HENRY STERN
Fifty years ago, I was appointed and sworn in as Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan. That elegant title did more than justice to my actual duties, which were those of a staff assistant to the Borough President of Manhattan, at the time Edward R. Dudley.
Judge Dudley had won the Democratic primary for Borough President over Assemblyman Lloyd Dickens in a race that was a sidebar to the city-wide contest for the Mayoralty which followed Mayor Wagner’s break with Carmine DeSapio, leader of Tammany Hall, the regular Democratic organization. Mr. Dickens is the father of Inez Dickens, a City Councilmember from Harlem who has been mentioned as a candidate for Council Speaker in 2013.
The Liberal Party, under the leadership of Alex Rose, supported Wagner and was influential in his primary victory. The Democratic county leaders had supported State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, a regular Democrat from Kings County. Dudley ran on Wagner’s ticket, which carried Manhattan easily.
When it came time to select the staff for his new term, Dudley found a dispensable Democratic district leader, Florence M. Ferguson of Inwood, who held the title of Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan. Ms. Ferguson, an affable woman whose husband was an optometrist from 207th Street, resigned, leaving a timely vacancy. To fill it, Dudley chose a 26-year-old government buff who at the time was serving as law clerk to a State Supreme Court Justice, Matthew M. Levy. That is how I entered the full-time profession of politics.
To fill Ms. Ferguson’s spot, Borough President Dudley relied on several members of his senior staff. Perhaps the most influential was Jerome L. Wilson, his press secretary. Wilson, a man of unusual ability and high principle, was later elected to the State Senate, representing East Harlem and Yorkville. He served two terms in Albany, but his career in elected office ended when he lost a race for Congress in 1966 to incumbent Ted Kupferman. Wilson later became a successful attorney in New York City. A reform Democrat who was also a reasonable person, he would have made a fine County Leader.
The small Liberal Party, which had supported Dudley, was divided in its choice. The executive director of the Party favored an official who had been his employee at party headquarters. Wilson and younger staff members, as well as the Liberal Party vice chairman, liked me. The Borough President made the final decision, and did not regret it.
Two years later, Dudley was elected to the State Supreme Court. He advanced in the court system and remained until he retired. He was succeeded, eventually, by Constance Baker Motley, a civil rights attorney who had been elected to the New York State Senate. In 1966, she became the first African-American woman to become a United States District Judge. She was appointed to the bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Secretary of the Borough was one of a staff of about a hundred who conducted the business of the office. Some were ‘political,’ others were civil servants. They varied in ability and industry but were loyal to their work and to their employer. Over the years, the Borough President’s office was sharply reduced in size as its line functions were transferred to operating agencies, primarily the Department of Highways. The maintenance and repair of streets, a function of the Borough President for a century, was in the process of professionalization and depoliticization, a task that would take years to complete.
By 1962, much of the Borough President’s work dealt with community relations, and acting as liaison between community boards and public agencies. The Borough President is also involved in city planning, economic development, and zoning issues. I both represented the Borough President at meetings and reported to him on community sentiment.
Public service is a privilege. If it is done honestly and well, it can substantially benefit the people. Over the years, that is what I have tried to do.