Richard Gottfried is a remarkable amalgam of two beliefs that many people these days would view as hopelessly contradictory. He is a lifelong progressive and a committed institutionalist.
As a born and raised West Sider, his progressivism (known previously as reformism and liberalism, etc.) may well be, if not exactly natural, then at least the result of powerful neighborhood nurture since childhood.
But his legislative institutionalism ws something he says he came to as a young member of the New York State Assembly, where he represented Chelsea, Hells Kitchen and part of the Upper West Side for, breathtakingly, 52 years.
On his retirement at the end of last year, he was the longest serving member in the history of the New York State Legislature.
Gottfried and his Stuyvesant classmate Gerald Nadler, where among those carried into office by the insurgency stirred by the Vietnam War. Gottfried was elected to the Assembly in 1970.
For those amazed by the wave of young people entering elected office these days, it is an interesting historical reminder that Gottfried was, on his election, 23 years old and still a law student at Columbia.
But it was in Albany that his education really began. Albany was a very different place back then.
For one thing, Republicans were largely in charge. For another, Democrats recognized they had to band together to accomplish much of anything, a complication with the arrival of Gottfried and his reformers, who wanted to change much of everything.
“When I first arrived in the Assembly I was a very adamant capital R reformer and had a very low opinion of the whole concept of legislative leadership,” Gottfried recalled over coffee the other day at the diner on 69th and Broadway, not far from the apartment building he has lived in most of his life.
The Reformers did renovate the Assembly in many ways, changing the rules to make the Assembly more “small d” democratic as it also grew increasingly Democratic.
“The minority leader at the time, Stanley Steingut, for reasons I’ve never been entirely sure of, kind of took me under his wing and decided he really liked me,” said Gottfried. “and spent a lot of time trying to explain to me why I shouldn’t be hollering about x and how important it was for member to stay united as a bloc.”
Gottfried did not tailor his progressive (nee liberal) politics, but he did alter his view of legislative leadership. There was no democracy without democratic process.
“Part of what I came to see early on is that the world is filled with people who think they know better than we do what we ought to be doing,” Gottfried explained. “Whether it is the governor or the front page of The Post or the New York State Business Council or what have you. The world is filled with people who are trying to pick off Democratic votes and control what we are going to do. And that if you want like minded Democrats to be able to stand up to a governor, or the New York Post, or to the Business Council, The Democratic organization in the Assembly needs to be strong.”
So the insurgent critic of political bosses became a legislative leader.
“So I would always fight as strongly as I could in the Democratic conference for my agenda. I also understood from early on that it was important to support ultimately the will of the Democratic conference.”
He rose to chair the Health committee and, more significantly in a political sense, that conference of Democratic members of the Assembly.
The Governor, said Gottfried, meaning any of the nine Governors he served with, “wasn’t going to bargain with me. The Governor was going to bargain with Steingut and if I wanted Steingut to be strong on behalf of things that I cared about I needed him to be strong even if on occasion he wasn’t leading the fight for my agenda.”
A new wave of insurgents has poured into politics, some of them even identifying themselves as Socialists for the first time since the 1920’s, when the Assembly actually expelled some members for being Socialists.
Some are nearly as young as Gottfried was, but more female and, as he says, of multiple colors. But have they taken on the lesson of his career, that results come from being part of the team?
“Not entirely,” he allowed, “They don’t arrive understanding all of that because nobody grows up thinking that. Because the legislature is such a strange world.”
It is popular to compare legislating to sausage making. Gottfried says there are times that it is apt, like the last night before the budget is adopted. But he has an image he feels is more precise for the day-to-day work of the Assembly, which he has described to those decades of incoming colleagues as a maze lined with flypaper.
“Meaning,” he explained, “not only is it a circuitous route for your bill to become law. But at any given point it could get stuck to the wall and whoever stuck it to the wall is not going to call you up and tell you.”
Gottfried isn’t the sort to go play golf. He is running for judicial delegate, which also happens to be the first first office he was ever elected to, more than half a century ago.
He devotes a good amount of time to his study of Chinese calligraphy, a passion he developed about half way through his legislative career.
Continuing in retirement his role as coach on legislative process, he is preparing to send one of his works of calligraphy to all his Democratic colleagues. He says it is a 2,000 year old Chinese lyric: When the waters of the river are clear, I wash the ribbons of my hat. When the waters of the river are muddy I wash my feet.
“Which is to say, depending on the circumstances, I accomplish what I can. If I can get my feet clean, I’ll get my feet clean...I think if I needed a motto for my legislative career that might be it. Get done what you can get done. Come back for the rest later.”