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Herman Farrell dies at 86; state assemblyman exemplified ‘the best of politics’

The former Democratic assemblyman known as “Denny” represented Harlem from 1974 to his retirement last year.


Herman "Denny" Farrell represented Harlem and other parts of Manhattan in the New York State Assembly since 1974. Photo Credit: Newsday / Ken Sawchuk

Former Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, who represented Harlem and other parts of Manhattan in the Assembly since 1974 with grace that earned him deep respect from fellow liberals and conservatives alike, died Saturday. He was 86.

No cause of death was immediately released, although he was in failing health since late last year. Farrell was known for his velvet touch in a hard-nosed political position as Ways and Means Committee chairman, from which he retired last year.

In that top job that impacted all legislation and spending, he astounded members of the chamber with his detailed defense of state budgets, often in shifts that lasted 12 hours or longer. His annual iron man display was always capped with repeated and lengthy praise in floor commentary from the Assembly Democrats as well as its most conservative Republicans.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who knew Farrell since childhood, ordered flags around the state flown at half-staff in memory of Farrell.

“Denny exemplified the best of politics,” Cuomo said. “He was a true public servant who taught all of us what it means to be in elected office. He was fearless in his pursuit of justice.”

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua), called Farrell one of New York’s “most distinguished public servants” and “a credit to the institution of government.”

“Denny was universally respected by all who were fortunate to serve with him, regardless of political party or conference affiliation,” Kolb said Saturday. “His intelligence, demeanor, and grace were rare and refreshing traits that transcended political divides.”

Always with good humor, Farrell sought to find something to respect in all his political foes and usually found it. He grew up in a mixed-race family feeling the pain of being ostracized at times by white as well as black friends.

He was a policy wonk long before the term came into fashion for a hardworking, detail-oriented legislator. His landmark legislation included consumer protections in banking, neighborhood preservation and tenant rights.

His energy was renewed with the birth of his daughter, Sophia, in 2005 when Farrell was 72. He would bring her to Albany sometimes, where she was treated like royalty by all sides of the usually contentious legislature.

An avid car enthusiast, Farrell kept several sports cars at a time and drove from his Manhattan home to Albany with the top down. Always impeccably dressed, he wore a small white-haired ponytail well into his 70s — a reminder of his rebellious beginnings in the civil rights movement.

He was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 2001 to 2006 and in 1985 ran for mayor, losing to incumbent Ed Koch.

He is survived by Sophia, award-winning playwright son Herman Farrell III, and daughter Monique Guidry.


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