Trying to balance the personal and the political

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

I opened the Villager three weeks ago and read both about the birth of my second daughter, Jordyn, and about my divorce being almost final and about how I planned to continue living in my “11th St. townhouse,” a building I bought a long time ago for what people now pay for a one-bedroom co-op.

I read on over the ensuing weeks and found my name repeatedly popping up in articles. A newcomer to the Village political wars published a letter claiming that district leader candidate Cynthia Smith was my puppet running a campaign financed and orchestrated by me. The Villager endorsed her opponent, in part, because she was “independent” of me. (I had always thought that it was a good idea for district leaders to be able to work together.) I found an inaccurate story about how last spring I tried to force V.I.D. to endorse me without a membership vote, and some chest-thumping from the political newcomer about how Keen Berger’s win was a victory over “Arthur, Tom, Chris and Giske,” (referring to state Senator Tom Duane, City Councilmember Christine Quinn and State Democratic Party Vice Chairperson Emily Giske). This was political news — but it was way, way off, because, in actuality for personal reasons, I was largely absent from Village politics this year. I thought: How can I talk about this without revealing even more about my personal life than I really want to?

But it’s important to those I serve to know something about what is going on in my life — both to judge my ongoing work, to assess the accuracy of what is reported as news, and, maybe, to make things better in the future.

Those who can remember back eight years may remember a piece I wrote in The Villager in January 1995 about my decision to run for district leader. My son, Jacob, was only 7 and my daughter, Rebecca, was 4. I was a lifelong peace and civil rights activist and a union-side labor lawyer. I had organized parents to fight for attention and money for our local parks and playgrounds and, thanks in large part to then-City Councilmember Duane’s support, had helped clean up and rebuild half a dozen local parks and playgrounds including Bleecker, J.J. Walker and Seravalli playgrounds. I joined the community board and Tony D’Apolito asked me to be vice chairperson of his Parks Committee. But electoral politics meant more time and a lot of unknowns — time that would be taken from my wife and my children. I agonized about what to do for six months. I saw a therapist. I decided to run because I wanted to be an advocate for children — my kids and my neighbors’ kids — in the political arena. Most important, I thought that I could so something to make Jacob and Rebecca’s lives better.

After eight years, the results have been mixed. I think that I have achieved a lot for local kids: I sued the state and won a rooftop field and indoor soccer space on Pier 40. I got the Board of Ed to fund after-school athletic programs at Lab School. I helped stop a major cut in funds for the Carmine Recreation Center. I got the Parks Department to hire a full-time attendant at Bleecker Playground and play a major role, until earlier this year, in shaping the Village segment of Hudson River Park. I helped get a new Y on 14th St. instead of Costco. I got to play with my kids in the renovated Bleecker Playground, managed three Little League teams playing on top of Pier 40 and rode bikes with my teenagers on the Hudson River bikeway. But the politics got nasty, far nastier than I thought it would be, and the meeting time, and campaign time and the emotional energy needed to stay in the mix politically took me away from my kids too much, and hurt my marriage irreparably.

Divorce isn’t fun. (So many people do it, you’d think it was.) The process is emotionally grueling. Somehow, after completing that process, Claire and I remain fond of each other and we remain friends. She has found a new love and so have I. But it’s been very hard on our now-teenage children. For the last 20 months, they have shuttled back and forth, unsure of what was going on with their lives. Three evenings per week, I cook dinner and help with homework. Those were three evenings I am now unavailable for politics or work.

In January, my fiancée, Kelly Craig, found out that she was pregnant. Not long thereafter, she found out that she had a serious, pregnancy-related heart problem, which required full bed rest. Now I had dinner responsibility every night, along with two or three doctor visits per week. In June, my mom, who is 81, had hip-replacement surgery at St. Vincent’s. A planned four-day stay became a 28-day stay, as complication upon complication arose. Lower Manhattan Alliance for Progressive Political Action had negotiations with Village Independent Democrats, but politics was pretty far from my mind. And, in the middle of all this, Aubrey Lees removed me as chairperson of Community Board 2’s Waterfront Committee and undercut years of careful work. Aubrey’s timing was brilliant; I had to fade from the fight.

Luckily, my mom got better and Jordyn was born, very healthy, on Aug. 19. But Kelly didn’t do so well, and her heart, already in trouble, got worse. She’s kept her chin up as she nurses a new life into toddlerhood, and is now doing a lot better. It was ironic, that as I plunged even more into my personal life, cooking dinner, shopping, cleaning, helping with the baby and figuring out how to integrate my older children with my new one, and build a new life with a new partner, I was being excoriated as the behind-the-scenes politician raising money and pulling Cynthia Smith’s strings. (Or as Jim Brennan recently put it, I was being “demonized by a vocal minority.”)

I am not through with Village politics. I’m down, but I’m not out. The job I set out to do is not done, and I have another child’s interests to look out for. But that child’s interests cut both ways. She needs to see her dad. With that in mind, I have a plea to my fellow Democratic Party activists. Let’s cut out the nastiness and the backbiting. Let’s cut out the time we waste fighting with each other. I didn’t control Cynthia Smith. I did far less for her than I would have liked to. Cynthia was, and is, a marvelous independent-minded person who came very close to being district leader and who deserves to hold elected office. (If I hadn’t asked Tom Duane, as a friend, to try to end the V.I.D. leadership’s boycott of me, which went back to its endorsement of Aubrey Lees against Chris Quinn for City Council, Cynthia would have been district leader now.) Keen Berger’s victory is not a “defeat for Tom Duane and Chris Quinn,” it is a tribute to Keen’s years of hard work on the school board, and to her dedicated band of friends who worked the grassroots for her. V.I.D. should take off its Web site that our community could be better served by someone other than Chris Quinn and me. V.I.D.ers should think about what our political differences are: I am general counsel to several of New York City’s most progressive unions and spend all my time, at work, fighting for working people, poor people and against racism, sexism and homophobia (unlike the political newcomer, who works as a corporate lawyer). Chris Quinn is one of the foremost progressive leaders in our city and the rising star of the City Council. It’s time to move off the animosity of the past. It’s time for V.I.D. to move beyond its endorsement of Aubrey Lees against Chris Quinn in 1999 (the event that led to the LaMAPPA split). The animosity has never been productive in the past and it certainly isn’t helpful now.

It is easy to be glib and nasty. It is easy to build minor personal differences into mountains of distrust. I stepped back from that world this year simply to survive. I have lots left to contribute. I’d like to contribute and be a good husband and father at the same time. I look at Keen Berger’s victory as giving me an opportunity for the first time, in years, to work with a fellow district leader to improve our community and strengthen the Democratic Party here. Keen and I have already met and have started to work together. I invite everyone to work with us.

Schwartz is male Democratic district leader for the 66th Assembly District, Part A.