Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Former District Leader Herman Gerson was surprised with a 95th birthday cake, or cakes, at V.I.D.’s 50th anniversary celebration. From left are former Councilmember Miriam Friedlander; Peggy Kerry, partially obscured behind Herman Gerson; his son, Councilmember Alan Gerson; Marilyn Apelson; and Hal Friedman, a former V.I.D. president.

V.I.D. celebrates 50 years of progressive politics

By Ed Gold

Friends of Village Independent Democrats, including at least 16 former club presidents and a bevy of elected officials and judges, turned out last Thursday to celebrate the reform club’s 50th anniversary. The event, at the Manhattan Penthouse on Fifth Ave. at 14th St., was marked by hugs and kisses, touching reunions, much nostalgia and a conviction that reform politics would continue to flourish in Greenwich Village.

More than 100 people, including club alumni going back 50 years, paid between $125 and $500 each to participate in the buffet dinner lovefest.

On hand were top city and state officials, including Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Comptroller William Thompson, along with Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, State Senator Tom Duane and City Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Among the judges was Supreme Court Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam, who is remembered for her strong decision in favor of community interests in the granting of liquor licenses in residential areas.

Others toasting V.I.D. included former Councilmember Miriam Friedlander; District Leader David Reck of the Downtown Independent Democrats; State Committeewoman Rachel Lavine; former City Councilmember and Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who ran on the Liberal Party slate but used to get V.I.D. endorsement; Democratic County Leader Denny Farrell, who originally was chosen with V.I.D. backing, some of the club neophytes believing they had voted for an Irishman; Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer who lost to Gotbaum for public advocate; and Jerry Skurnik, who makes a good living selling name lists to political candidates.

Among the most loyal alumni were Sue Harwig, who has been a club activist for almost 50 years and who, as usual, was handing out literature for some humane cause; Mary Jean Chilcote, a very shy early member who blossomed during the civil rights struggle, went to Mississippi to help register voters and, as an art director, worked on putting out club literature; and Peggy Kerry, who missed out on being “first sister” when Bush beat brother John, butremained in good spirits even though Ed Koch hasn’t forgiven her for not supporting him for mayor in 1973.

For some of the older alumni, Fran Baskin, the Celebration Committee chairperson, had set up, overly optimistically, two tables for club “founders.”

In reality, only two founders actually showed up, including the writer and Jerry Koenig, known for his encyclopedic memory of political events, who recalled that the initial V.I.D. gathering had been held in December 1956.

But other early luminaries filled the reserve section, easily identified by canes, graying hair and receding hairlines. The group included Miriam Bockman, county leader during the Koch administration; Stanley Geller, the only club president actually drafted from the floor, who was called the “Jewish Abe Lincoln,” thanks to his eloquence and his tall, lanky stature; Sarah Kovner, one of the true political pros in the club, who actually won the first battle against the old-line Tammany Leader Carmine DeSapio by beating a DeSapio-backed candidate for State Committee in 1960. The following year, Kovner served as campaign manager when V.I.D. whipped DeSapio by 1,300 votes in a district leader primary election that brought out 11,000 voters.

Kovner was just beginning. She married a West Side reform district leader, Victor Kovner, worked in the Clinton administration for eight years and she and her husband are now looking for candidates who can increase the Democratic majority in the Senate next year.

Others deserving mention at the “founders” tables include Margot Sklar, who met her husband, Stanley, at V.I.D., helped in his judgeship quest and is now the proud wife of Supreme Court Justice Sklar; Charles Persell, who was a confidante of long-serving Assemblymember William Passannante; and Arnie Weiss, a fiery president in 1968 who led the club to a neutral position in the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race, only to be reversed by the membership in favor of Humphrey as Election Day approached.

The formal portion of the V.I.D. affair included opening remarks by the club’s district leaders, Keen Berger and Brad Hoylman. Berger noted that she was continuing the tradition set by her husband, Martin, who had been V.I.D. president and district leader in the turbulent ’60s. Hoylman was all smiles and affection as he presented Berger with a bouquet, to loud audience applause. They both had reason to be in a good mood, Berger having led a community fight to get the Parks Department to spell out its plans for Washington Square Park, and Hoylman, who it appears will be the likely new chairperson of Community Board 2.

Perhaps the surprise of the evening occurred when a birthday cake was presented to Herman Gerson, once a district leader, and still active at 95, as the crowd joined in a “Happy Birthday” salute.

The formal program included a nostalgic session called “Looking Back,” emceed by Chad Marlow — an energetic and creative club president just a few years ago — who noted he had set a club precedent by marrying while in office.

He introduced a group of speakers familiar with microphone appearances, including the writer; Koenig; Tony Hoffmann, who was president and district leader and an early anti-Koch figure in the ’80s; Hal Friedman and Carol Feinman, former club presidents, and Catherine Abate, former state senator who worked on civil rights for the Cuomo administration, and continues as a potential candidate forpublic office.

This nostalgic section was followed by a “Looking Forward” speech by David Pollack, co-chairperson of the New York State Democratic Committee, who was given a warm introduction by Assemblymember Glick. Pollack emphasized recent Democratic strength in unexpected places in the state, pointing out that the party was riding high with the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats, but warned that complacency, as in the past, could cause the party to falter and lose its progressive direction.

The anniversary atmosphere was so warm and collegial that several V.I.D.ers expressed disappointment that early club icons were no-shows. They mentioned Ed Koch, a club founder, who rose from district leader to become a three-term mayor, but who had failed to respond to invitations. Similarly, they were disappointed that Carol Greitzer, also a founder, club president, district leader and former councilmember, and John LoCicero, club president, district leader and Koch’s chief political aide at City Hall, decided not to attend. No doubt, it was because they felt they had been rejected by the club during their extensive political careers. In the ’80s, V.I.D. had backed Cuomo over Koch for governor and David Rothenberg over Greitzer for City Council.

The reunion also reminded participants that club activity had led to lasting relationships, including marriage. Hoffmann and Kovner had both found mates in the reform movement. Hoffmann’s romance was ignited when he discovered thatNadine Katz was a County Committee member from an East Side reform club. The relationship was solidified on their first date as Hoffmann took her to V.I.D. to help get out a mailing.

Occasionally V.I.D.ers married each other. Lyn Peters, club president during Koch’s first mayoral election, married the club treasurer, Philip Schwartz, and they came up from Maryland to share last Thursday’s festivities.

Baskin wore several hats as celebration chairperson. She researched and contacted club alumni, then used her editorial skills to put together a journal that included a number of essays on club history and many photos showing V.I.D.’s continuing activism in fighting for women’s rights, racial equality and opposition to both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. A large screen in front of the hall carried photos of V.I.D.ers in action over the club’s 50-year history.

Katharine Wolpe, the club’s current president, had the last word, noting that good intentions were not enough to assure progressive government, and that conspicuous activism, which had begun 50 years ago, would continue to guide V.I.D. in the future.

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