On the Deaths of Fat Men
FROM GATEMOUTH’S FACEBOOK PAGE (1/6/11): It may be rude to say this, but I wonder if there are any good Italian restaurants in hell. (If there are, he will surely be holding court in one).
NEW YORK TIMES: Former Assemblyman Anthony S. Seminerio, a onetime correction officer who served 30 years as a state lawmaker from southwest Queens before pleading guilty in 2009 to influence peddling, died Thursday at a federal prison hospital, less than a year into his six-year sentence. He was 75.……First elected to the Assembly in 1978, Mr. Seminerio built a persona as a streetwise, tough-on-crime, conservative Democrat, opposing abortion rights, favoring the death penalty, and making high-profile endorsements of Republicans like George E. Pataki and Rudolph W. Giuliani.
But federal prosecutors said he secretly abused his office for more than a decade, soliciting a stream of payments that exceeded $1 million, exerting his influence to benefit clients and sometimes threatening those who resisted his demands.He resigned in June 2009 and pleaded guilty to a single fraud count, admitting that in 2008 he “promoted the interests” of Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in connection with state business.
Prosecutors said he did not divulge receiving payments from the hospital of more than $300,000, for which he helped the hospital get state financing and lobbied state officials on behalf of its effort to take over other hospitals.
He was also accused of using his status to extort payments from the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and of accepting $233,000 to persuade hospitals to hire a company operated a convicted racketeer.At sentencing last year, Mr. Seminerio’s lawyers asked for leniency, citing his years of service and health problems, including artery disease and hypertension.
Wiretaps captured the profane Mr. Seminerio saying that he saw himself as a “godfather.”During a meeting in 2007 that was secretly recorded by Brian M. McLaughlin, a former assemblyman and union official who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, Mr. Seminerio explained that he had tired of helping people without charge. He added, “From now on, you know, I’m a consultant.”
NEW YORK POST: The 75-year-old Seminerio, who often boasted that he was "John Gotti's assemblyman," was nabbed after a sting operation in which he brazenly brought an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman looking for state contracts onto the floor of the Assembly.
W SMITH: One of the many infamous quotes from Seminerio was when he said in the State Assembly if Native Americans didn’t like their life in the US then they could walk back across the Bering Strait to Russia.
EMAIL FROM ROSCOE CONWAY (1/7/11): Subject Line: He went back to Russia, where he came from...
By the way, I had the honor of being present in the Assembly Chamber for both the "go back to Russia" outburst and his heckling of Cuomo's State of the State. Good times, those...GATEMOUTH (11/8/06--after the Queens Democrats blew a winnable State Senate race by doing noting for their Party’s candidate): Special mention must also be given to “Democrat” Assemblyman “Fat Tony” Seminerio who endorsed Maltese and should now be forced to wake up and smell the coffee (but if he did, would probably just send out for some doughnuts). Fat Man, The Times They Are a Changin’. Your district’s Archie Bunkers have been replaced by the Bumblebee Man, Apu and Borat; the neo-Nazis you used to have to run against are now a distant memory, like the last time you saw your toes. It is time you experienced some new cuisine reflective of the people you now fail to represent; try it; you’ll like it. And try being a real Democrat, or your new constituents may just decide to retire you to Staten Island. The only useful partisan purpose served by Seminario's performance was to make the lame efforts of the Queens Organization look good by contrast.
GATEMOUTH (10/19/08--after reading some Republican idealist on “Urban Elephants“ speculating if they could pick up Seminerio‘s seat now that he’d been indicted): In Queens’ 38th Assembly District, voters looking to express their outrage at indicted DINO (actually, more like HIPPO) Tony Seminerio will have four choices on the ballot--they can vote for Seminerio as a Democrat, Republican, Conservative or Independence candidate. In fairness to the Republicans, this may actually be an improvement, since in the 90s they tended to run neo-Nazi skinheads (a description, not a value judgment).
GATEMOUTH (12/23/08): Coincidentally, on election day I drove by the building housing Seminerio’s district office and it had a “For Sale” sign on it
Death has been on my mind recently. This weekend features the shiva for the grandfather of one of Dybbuk’s school friends, the memorial service for the late Brooklyn District Leader Bill Saunders, surely one of the sweetest men to ever grace such a sour profession as politics, and another shiva, for the late Federal Judge and Brooklyn Law School Dean David Trager.Trager was perhaps the last of a dying breed of Javits Republicans who once graced the life of our City, state and nation. Though I knew him both from his educational activities and from the Synagogue where Dybbuk attended nursery school, I am far better acquainted, with his wife, Roberta Weisbrod, a lovely woman, who makes her living consulting on maritime and other economic development issues which have had a great impact on our neighborhood. Even a pretty good Times obit cannot do justice to the service Judge Trager rendered to all of us.
Over the years, I’ve come under some criticism from those who feel I have dealt too cavalierly with the issues of illness, death, and loss. And there may be reason for this. Looking over my history, it is clear I haven’t always granted the end of life the reverence some others (even atheists) feel it deserves.
It is well known that my irreverence towards this mortal coil has been the trigger for my being angrily berated by even some of my dearest friends for the crime of not giving the Harpo Marx treatment to the sins of those who’ve come to the end of their days.
In February 2006, I caused one of my first web-based brouhahas because of comments I’d written on a Politicker thread following the death of Bob Dryfoos, the then recently deceased former Councilman and lobbyist for the New York Junior Tennis League.
I said Bob Dryfoos, was smart, funny, and capable of exuding great charm, and that he’d served his district and his clients quite aggressively. I also said I was sad to hear that he died a death which appeared to have been quite painful. But I thought his legacy deserved an objective analysis.
In January 1986, a leadership vote took place to choose the new Majority Leader of the City Council (the position now known as Speaker). The candidates were Peter Vallone of Queens, backed by the members of the delegations from Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, and Sam Horwitz, of Brooklyn, backed by his home delegation, and that of Manhattan. If the Boroughs had voted in that manner, the vote would have been 18-17 for Horwitz.
There were originally four candidates. The Brooklyn Delegation was divided into factions loyal to County Leader Howie Golden and his rival Tony Genovesi, with Golden backing Horwitz and Genovesi backing Herb Berman. The Bronx was mostly backing Mike DeMarco. Deals already reached by each side had promised the drop-outs the Chairmanship of the Committee on Finance.
There was always a question whether Manhattan would stick together. I remember the moment Carolyn had told me that the Manhattan delegation had pledged to unite behind Horwitz. Alliance-wise, it just did not add up. Dryfoos was close with the Queens claque gathered around consultant Marty McLaughlin, and by that extension, with Queens County Leader Donnie Manes. I Looked at Carolyn and asked, “Even Dryfoos?”
As the weeks went by, after every meeting, Dryfoos would be planting doubts into Carolyn’s mind, encouraging her to make new demands.
Just before the vote, the Manhattan delegation met at the offices of then Councilwoman Carolyn Maloney. As they sat at a table, County Leader Denny Farrell, myself , and a few other council aides watched as each member raised their hand, and each pledged to cast their vote for Sam Horwitz. As they gathered to leave for the walk across the street, I shouted “Take No Prisoners.” Ruth Messinger, for nearly the first time in her life, cracked a smile and repeated the joke.
They then walked across Chambers Street to City Hall. The roll call began, and when it got to Bob Dryfoos, Dryfoos pulled a speech out of his pocket, and explained why he was voting for Peter Vallone.
According to Vallone himself, Dryfoos was committed to vote for him from the very beginning. Despite this, however, Dryfoos proceeded , again and again, over the course of several months, to sit in a room with his fellow Manhattan members and lead them down the garden path, letting them enter into a self defeating pact he himself could have scuttled simply by not signing onto it.
He’d sat in on all the meetings, reporting on them to the other side (as was later documented through phone logs revealed in an unrelated legal proceeding), while pouring pestilence into Carolyn’s ear and using her to create a diversion to disguise his own efforts.
At the time I made my comments, the 2006 Council had just been through a similar leadership battle, which never came to vote. Members surely would have shuddered to imagine one member single-handedly forcing a DeBlasio-Quinn showdown on the floor of the council, which could have been avoided, simply to have had the opportunity to cast the deciding vote and elevate his own importance. That is what Dryfoos did in 1986.
Was it any wonder that, even a decade later, Howie Golden felt compelled to throw Dryfoos out of Brooklyn Borough Hall (at a party for the induction of their mutual friend, Judge Gerry Garson)?
The merits of Horwitz v. Vallone can be argued ad infinitum. Vallone was smarter and somewhat more independent. Horwitz was somewhat more liberal and had agreed to implement a series of serious process reforms.
Perhaps Dryfoos's vote was the better one for the City; the Times said so at the time, in an editorial Dryfoos later used to his defray anger from constituents. But, one must remember that, in retrospect, Vallone looks far better today than could have been anticipated at the time. This is because the downfall of Stanley Friedman and Donald Manes (who first attempted suicide a few hours after the vote took place) liberated Vallone in a manner no one could have predicted. But, when Dryfoos cast his vote, Vallone appeared to many to be the wholly owned subsidiary of the City's worst bosses, and Horwitz the lesser evil.
Vallone was more impressive personally than Horwitz, but that hardly made it game, set and match. Vallone seemed the tool of Friedman and Manes, was less open to commitment on process reforms, and was a social reactionary.
The number one issue before the Council at the time was the gay rights bill, and Vallone opposed it (Horwitz ultimately shepherded it to passage). In Vallone's bio, he clearly agonized over even allowing it to come to a vote (to his credit, he did, and Dryfoos later claimed that he'd extracted this from Vallone; it certainly provided Dryfoos cover with angry constituents that Vallone did so).
Vallone's ambitions ultimately led him to become a timid supporter of gay rights and choice, but while he mouthed the right words, he never could really dance to the music. If carefully prepped, Vallone regurgitated his talking points, but if something new came up, he fell back on what he really felt; at one point in his 1998 governor's race, he was caught off guard during an interview and came out for school prayer. That was the real Peter Vallone, and the Manhattan delegation never felt comfortable with his sincere sanctimony.
By contrast, Horwitz's social instincts were timidly liberal. He often lacked guts on such issues, but one never needed to worry about what he really felt in his heart.
Those who accused the other Manhattan members, by supporting Horwitz, of selling out their consciences for committee chairmanships, should understand that the Manhattan members were really more comfortable with Horwitz. If they knew they didn't have the votes, they may have jumped on the Vallone bandwagon, but that is when they would have felt that they were selling out.
Nonetheless, I think the choice of Vallone turned out to be better for the City. In my analysis, I'm comparing Vallone to (a) Tom Cuite, who came before him, and (b) the likely potential of a Golden controlled Horwitz. In regard to (a) Vallone was clearly superior. In regard to (b) Sam was a nice and decent man, but not strong a leader.
By contrast, Vallone was a strong leader, dedicated to competence, and incremental improvements in mayoral policy. He left the City and the Council (especially the Council) better places than they were before he assumed leadership.
However, if Bob Dryfoos knew in advance of Manes' suicide and Friedman's conviction, he wasn't sharing that info with the rest of his delegation. Without the unknowable knowledge that Vallone would soon be liberated from the bosses who controlled him, there was no basis to believe that the vote was anything but a choice between two hacks, and by no means was it clear that Vallone was the preferable one. To many good people, the opposite seemed clear.
So, bottom line, Dryfoos maneuvered his delegation into an avoidable ambush solely to elevate himself on behalf of a candidate who was ideologically inferior and under the political control of folks who were members of the criminal class. That the ultimate results of his efforts inured to the good of the City is a delicious irony, but could hardly have been anticipated at the time.
To say that Dryfoos deserves credit for this is like saying that someone who won the lottery did so because they were made of superior moral fiber.
Surely, this was legitimate territory to cover in a thread about Dryfoos’ life. In retrospect, I regret only the characterization of it: “as baldfaced and self serving an act of political treachery in NYC history. In a profession too dominated by selfish folks with little sense of honor, Dryfoos still managed to achieve a new low. And, even as political treachery has become more sophisticated, his despicable conduct in the 86 leadership fight has yet to be matched by anyone. You would think it would be impossible to keep a straight face after hearing Denny Farrell and Howie Golden denounce someone for their lack of principles. But, in the case of Bob Dryfoos, even they've earned the right of moral outrage.”
I regret it not because it was wrong; it wasn’t. But, under the circumstances, it surely would have been better to put all the facts on display and let them speak for themselves. But, I certainly don't regret having put the facts out. The thread was the proper place (perhaps the only place) to do so, and this was the proper time. Still, the same purpose could certainly have been accomplished with somewhat more subtlety and sensitivity, which would have been a little nicer AND somewhat more effective as well.
At least some of those who complained the loudest had rarely shown the living (who might actually feel some pain from their remarks) the same courtesies they demanded for the dead. However, since their pain was clearly real, I can’t really blame them for their anger.
But the Dryfoos thread raised some interesting issues. Perhaps unfairly, some folks are judged by a single moment in their long lives. When Rabbi Abraham Hecht dies, his Times obit will say "called for Rabin's Assassination" (actually, given some of the other things Hecht's said and done, this might not even be his worst moment). Building a great schul on Ocean Parkway might get passing mention in paragraph three, as will his laudable efforts to rescue Syrian Jews.
During the 60s and 70s, one of the brightest lights in Congress was Frank "Tompy" Thompson of New Jersey, named one of the "Ten Brightest Congressmen" by "New Times" magazine, and one of the founders of the Democratic Study Group, a great force for reform. During the late 70's Tompy, who had a drinking problem, walked into an FBI scam and turned down a bribe several times. Mel Weinberg, the gentleman conducting the operation, kept telling his operatives "give Tompy another drink", and eventually, half in the bag, Tompy took the money. Despite his two decades of meritorious service, that is the one moment for which he is remembered today.
Another of the ten brightest was Brock Adams of Washington, later Secretary of Transportation and US Senator, but remembered today for an ugly sex scandal involving a minor. And let's also remember Brooklyn's great DA, Gene Gold, now a bad punch line (“What kind of Gold comes in little boxes?” “Eugene”) because of a similar incident. Perhaps these "gentlemen" had committed similar transgressions before; perhaps not; but, even if these were the first and only times, can anyone be blamed for judging their lives by these incidents alone? Consider these examples;
“One act, no matter how one defines it, horniness or reckless stupidity, does not define John Profumo's life; those who think that it does did not really know the man.”
“Genocide, no matter how one defines it, ethnic cleansing or population transfer, does not define Slododon Milosevic's life; those who think it does did not really know the man, his good fellowship, wisdom, and good works on behalf of the Serbian Junior Tennis League.”
One moment can define a life. In the end, a few thousand bucks, here or there, for youth tennis might impact a few dozen lives, but Dryfoos's 1986 vote shaped the destiny of an entire city. It may have shaped it for the better, but if this is so, it was purely a happy and unlikely accident.
I have no doubt that Bob Dryfoos accomplished much good in his life; in fact, I know he did. He also was a great deal of fun. And certainly, I'd striven to be objective about the ultimate (and unexpected) impact of his actions. Unlike, say Howie Golden, Abe Gerges or Stanley Michels, I was not ready to put on my tap shoes and dance upon Bob's grave.
In some ways, I was actually a little soft. I failed to discuss or even mention the scandals alluded to by some others which eventually drove Dryfoos from office (Dryfoos decided not to seek re-election in 1991 after The New York Times reported that he had failed to file federal income-tax returns for three years; accepted a loan from a developer whose projects he had promoted; and used an expense fund for personal bills; he was never charged with a crime).
And I ignored the fact that Dryfoos's conduct, was not merely political treachery, but suggestive of a psychological disorder. Instead I’d halfway painted Dryfoos as a lovable Skeffington type scoundrel when something darker was clearly afoot.
The more I think of the 1986 vote, the more I think it was aberrational; so out of place with what usually passes for political treachery; it was really sui generis, the way the Abner Louima case (The rare case where the blue while of silence didn’t hold; apparently the young cop who turned decided that when he signed up for the blue wall of silence, it didn’t include protecting perverts who’d put a nightstick up someone’s ass) was so aberrational that Norman Siegel at first didn't believe it actually happened.
I am willing to believe that the 1986 vote was an aberration for Bob; unfortunately, there are times when the aberrational moment in a man's life defines him for the world. I'm glad his friends got to see a different side of him; in the end, there's a good argument to be made that what a man's friends feel about him is more important anyway.
But Bob's legacy, like, for instance, that of the Judges Garson, ultimately comes down to one moment, and all the wisdom, humor and member items in the world can't change that.
Further, if a political blog wasn't the place to have such a discussion, where was? This sort of talk would have been crass at a shiva call. And certainly, shortly after the death is pretty much the only time to have such a discussion; to paraphrase a great Rabbi, "if not then, when?" I suggest that the funeral is the proper place for eulogies, and that sites like “The Politicker” and “Room 8”are the appropriate place for other commentary. Political blogs are generally considered free speech zones. If we wanted to be tasteful, we'd be elsewhere.
As such, I’m unmoved by complaints about the pain such posts might cause to the bereaved, partially because I’m dubious that many so situated choose to surf the web looking for comfort. If so, perhaps they should cover their monitors as well as their mirrors.
Bob Dryfoos's name will barely ever be mentioned again except among the few readers of Vallone's book; as a footnote in articles during future Speaker's races; and as an occasional reminiscence during budget times. This is sad. Frank discussion of all aspects of the man's life gave him his due. He was once a significant figure who played an important part in City history. A frank debate concerning his role seemed to me the best way to honor his memory.
If Bob Dryfoos had never done anything to offend anyone, he probably wouldn't be worth commenting about. Bob certainly would not have shied away from such a discussion; he would have relished it. His response to how he felt about such criticism was always the same; he'd say "I'm a big boy" and then he'd laugh.
Most of what I just said comes from an unpublished notes I wrote (based on the Dryfoos thread, which has since been lost to history) about my history as a blogger.
And, it accurately describes how I felt.
Yes, on poltical blogs, death is the time for the truth.
But I'd gotten the truth a bit wrong.
Now ,I realize that while everything I said was factually accurate, and perhaps even a bit soft, it made to appear as villainy something which was merely an extreme example of bare knuckles politics.
Tony Seminerio was something far, far worse.
So, unlike in the case of Dryfoos, the ugly truth about Seminerio deserves no caveats or apologies.
I do not say this because I disdain old fashioned, socially conservative, Queens Italian Democrats who empasized lunch-bucket issues and constituent service over liberal purity.
If someone wants to throw a dinner in honor of George Onorato's service, send me an invite and I will buy a ticket.
I do not say this because a former Assembly colleague of his, Murray Weinstein, once told me how Seminerio used to delight in regaling his (presumably white) colleagues about how back in his Corrections days, when a new bunch of prisoners came in, he used to take the biggest toughest black guy in the bunch, manacle his hands behind his back, and beat the shit out of him as an example to others, or the fact that, even when representing an district where people of color had become politically significant, Seminerio still had no compunction about expressing his ignorant bigotry in public as well as private.
I do not say this because, except on the floor of the Assembly (where he usually did as the leadership demanded), Seminerio was functionally and aggressively a Republican, working for their candidates, on a local, City, state and national level, and sponsoring shockingly reactionary legislation like a bill which stated that a marriage would be "absolutely void if contracted by two persons of the same sex, regardless of whether such marriage is recognized or solemnized in another jurisdiction."
I say it because of comments like this one on the NY Times thread about Seminerio’s death:
LIBERALMEL: “But federal prosecutors said he secretly abused his office for more than a decade, soliciting a stream of payments that exceeded $1 million, exerting his influence to benefit clients and sometimes threatening those who resisted his demands.”
…. and how is this different, or any better than, anyone else in the assembly or state senate????
But it is different.
I may be naïve, but I believe most politicians went into the business, not only out of ego (certainly always a factor), but for motives good. I say this about virtually all of them, left, liberal, moderate, conservative and far right.
I even say it about those with no discernable ideology.It certainly is the reason I went into the business (and the reason why I eventually became disillusioned with it) . In this link I discuss some of the perils of such a life. Many people who embark upon such a course lose their way, but even most of them probably believe they are in the business to do good.
I also think society often has unreal expectations. The realities of the system alone require compromises to achieve good, which many, if not most, normal human who care (itself a possible contradiction) probably find distressing.
The distorted view of the public, as refracted subsequently by the media and prosecutors, sometimes results in what some politicians claim is an effort to “criminalize politics.”
Many times this complaint is nonsense; sometimes it is justified, and perhaps most often, it is part of a fuzzy gray ambiguous haze.
But there was nothing ambiguous or fuzzy about Fat Tony Seminerio.
Seminerio’s case was not about the “criminalization of politics.”
Tony Seminerio politicized criminality.
Seminerio justified a cynical belief that “they are all crooks.’ Such a belief, when widely held, only makes things worse.
If one believes they are all criminals, nothing shocks. If one believes they are all criminals, government can never be justified as a means for doing good.
That is Tony Seminerio’s biggest crime.
And even if all the anecdotes were charming, rather than repulsive, they would not make up for the damage he has done.