V.I.D., the club that toppled Tammany, turns 50


By Ed Gold

It’s hard to believe that Village Independent Democrats, which made history by turning out of office the powerful Tammany leader Carmine DeSapio in the ’60s, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

’s formation flowed from the disappointment in the 1956 presidential election when Adlai Stevenson, the hero of reform-minded Democrats, was routed once more by the war hero Dwight Eisenhower, while receiving only lukewarm support from the dominant old-line Tamawa Club in the Village, where DeSapio called the shots.

A group of dejected Stevensonians from the Village Stevenson campaign gathered in late 1956 or early 1957 and decided the Village deserved better than Tammany leadership.

I believe about 40 or 50 of us could be considered founders but some of the survivors of that period put the number closer to 100.

The early decision was to draft a constitution providing for democratic club rule, an extremely anti-patronage policy and the intention of contesting the party leadership in a race against DeSapio — easily the most important Democrat at that time in the state — in the 1957 party primary.

Unofficially, some of us set a minimum of getting 30 percent of the vote in the district leader race to help keep the club afloat.

There was early discussion about naming the club. Some thought Village Democrats would do but reconsidered when it was realized that V.D. might not sound too good.

From the beginning there was a division in the club between the purists, sometimes called the “hardheads,” and the moderates or pragmatists. An early leader of the purists was Herman Greitzer, an attorney and former husband of Carol Greitzer, who would later spend 22 years in the City Council. Herman apparently didn’t find Eleanor Roosevelt pure enough, since she once referred to him as that “rude young man.” But he stuck to his guns and ran against DeSapio in 1957, getting 36 percent of the vote.

In 1961, when I was president, he once accused me of “rushing through a meeting,” which had begun at 8 p.m. and wound up at 11:30. “That’s the last time you’re going to end a meeting before midnight,” he warned.

And when Senator Herbert Lehman persuaded Mayor Bob Wagner to abandon his mentor, DeSapio, and run under a reform banner, Herman, leading about a third of the club, voted against running with Wagner.

There were occasional splits on club policy, some bordering on the ridiculous. One conspicuous example took place during an Executive Committee election. Two lawyers in the club had done pro bono work and their firms had received $50 payments. The purists railed that the payments were a form of patronage and opposed their candidacies; they both withdrew. One was Len Sandler, who later became a State Supreme Court judge in the Appellate Division; the other, Charlie Persell, today is chairperson of the board of directors of Village Care of New York.

Another headache developed in 1961 when an anti-DeSapio ally from Murray Hill donated 40 folding chairs to the club. But she hated Wagner and when we endorsed him she demanded I ship back her chairs. I told her that was a membership decision and she would have to make the appeal in a formal resolution. She dropped the issue but never forgave me.

Because of the strong anti-DeSapio feeling among Lehman, Roosevelt and their friends, we were able to raise some respectable money from Democrats who had it. In 1961, the club leadership found V.I.D. quarters on W. Fourth St. too cramped. At its peak, the club had almost 1,000 members with more than 200 really active. A musical group had the room next door and they specialized in playing bongo drums. We told the landlord we needed the space and he went along. We got rid of the bongo drums, had the wall torn down between the two rooms and doubled our space.

The purist-pragmatic split popped up again in 1963 or ’64 when Assemblyman Bill Passannante decided to leave Tamawa, where he had spent his entire political life, and join V.I.D. His family had been close friends of DeSapio, who no doubt was responsible for Passannante being in the Assembly. Politically, he belonged in V.I.D. because he had a record that was much more liberal than positions help by most of DeSapio’s close supporters.

The V.I.D. purists insisted that Passannante personally denounce DeSapio or they would oppose his membership. He refused. Once more, the moderates prevailed.

Certainly the most important political figure to emerge from V.I.D. was Ed Koch, later to be three-time mayor of the city. But early on, Koch had difficulty deciding on his political affiliation and he could well be called a flip-flopper. He had joined Tamawa before V.I.D. existed, and then joined V.I.D. when it formed. But in 1958 or ’59 he had a change of heart and went back to Tamawa. In 1960, he was back in V.I.D., running a losing race against Carol Greitzer for club president.

Koch of course has always been unique, single-minded about his political future and fully dedicated to public office. A clue to his personality may have been best described by his close friend Dan Wolf, founding editor of the Village Voice, who once said: “When Ed Koch looks in the mirror, it’s the greatest love story since ‘Tristan and Isolde.’”

When V.I.D. backed Koch against Passannante in 1962 in the Democratic Assembly primary, the club had to run against Wagner and Lehman, who wanted to heal the wounds in the Italian community after beating DeSapio. Passannante, with a liberal record in Albany, whipped Koch, 62 percent to 38 percent, at which point Koch became a very bad loser (although he would later look back at his loss as a godsend).

There had been a congressional primary, too, and Koch felt some club members had focused on that race, rather than his own.

In short, Koch blamed V.I.D.’ers for his loss, singling out Steve Berger, later director of the Port Authority; Micki Wolter, who ran the city’s bible, the Green Book, during the Koch administration; George Delaney, an attorney who now dabbles in Westchester politics; and this writer. Koch lost by a whopping 24 percent. It was the biggest political compliment ever paid us. Thus, by Koch’s math, each person he blamed cost him 6 percent of the vote.

More than a few club members felt Koch never could have beaten Passannnate, feeling he had mistakenly chosen to run because of political ambition.

Lanigan, meanwhile, had supported the position taken by Lehman and Wagner for the Democratic Party to unite behind Passannante in the primary. Lanigan left V.I.D. during the primary fight and unsuccessfully tried to form a new club, then became a staffer to Chester Bowles, when Bowles was named U.S. ambassador to India, and faded into political oblivion.

Koch subsequently ran and was elected club president in 1963 in a close vote, then wisely changed attitude and tried to unify the club by appointing some of his critics to important club positions.

In the battles with DeSapio, the devotion of the Italian-American communnity was of vital importance. Once, at a V.I.D. rally in Father Demo Square, a friendly Tamawa captain whispered to me: “Everything was all right until you Americans moved into the district.” I gave him a look and he realized he had misspoken.

Very few Italians joined V.I.D. But one, Helen Iannello, was conspicuous before John LoCicero, who became Koch’s top political aide in City Hall, came aboard in the mid-’60s. Iannello, who was very outspoken, ran for Executive Committee in 1963 and contended that, “It’s very hard to get elected to the Executive Committee if your last name ends in a vowel.” A man jumped up in the rear of the room and shouted: “I haven’t had any trouble.”

“What your name?” Iannello asked.

“Shapiro,” he shot back. It eased the tension. She got elected, and later would be president of the club.

In 1959, the club ran Charlie McGuinness, a lawyer who had been a leader in the Stevenson campaign, against DeSapio. With Roosevelt campaigning for him, McGuinness did well, getting almost 48 percent of the vote, losing by 600 votes.

In 1961, V.I.D. took over the old Limelight Cafe, near Barrow St. and Seventh Ave., for the primary night count. The kitchen was turned into a pressroom and the district leadership race drew national attention. V.I.D. ran Jim Lanigan, who had been a White House aide and had worked with the Stevenson campaign in Washington. The boisterous crowd in the restaurant violated all the fire laws. A platform was set up against the kitchen wall and an election district chart was attached to the wall so we could record the results as E.D captains brought them in.

I was at the mike as the first result arrived, the Sixth E.D., a historically strong DeSapio district. It showed DeSapio winning by 30 votes, less than half his margin two years earlier. We felt confident we were on the way to victory; it was just a matter of time.

In the middle of the count, a loud noise rose from the middle of the jammed room. There was Adlai Stevenson, looking a bit lost. I jumped from the platform, took him by the arm and brought him to the microphone. He raised the winning hands of Lanigan and Carol Greitzer, who ran for the female leadership, and asked with a smile: “Where were you people when I needed you in 1952 and 1956?”

The results showed V.I.D. winning by more than 1,300 votes out of 11,000 cast, an extraordinary result in a district leadership race.

While all these reform battles were going on, V.I.D. was heavily active in the two national issues of the ’60s: civil rights and the Vietnam War. A V.I.D. delegation went to Selma to support voting rights, and an impressive contingent cheered Martin Luther King on the March on Washington. And Fanny Lou Hamer, the firebrand civil rights leader from Mississippi, preached to the club on her state’s Freedom Houses.

Just as consistently, V.I.D. joined peace marches in Washington and New York, as the U.S. death total mounted in Vietnam.

Koch would be the candidate against DeSapio in 1963, and despite alienating Wagner and Lehman a year earlier, he squeaked through by 41 votes. But the courts threw out the results, and in June 1964 there was a special election, which we won by 164 votes. Two years later, Koch ended DeSapio’s hopes of making a comeback as district leader, this time beating him by 600 votes.

A few amusing, surprising and offbeat events dotted the early V.I.D. years. Twice the police raided V.I.D. headquarters, charging the club with running a cabaret without a license. They wanted to serve Howard Moody, then president of the club and founding minister at Judson Church, with a summons, but fortunately he was not on the premises for what was a fundraising party. He wondered later whether the police had ever invaded the Tamawa Club.

In the ’61 race, the only time Lanigan got really upset was when he couldn’t get his snipes — campaign posters pasted on walls — in the Village, while DeSapio’s were everywhere. An outfit in the Bronx did all the paste-ups and it had close ties to the Teamsters Union. As it happened, a Teamster with some clout had an eye for Sarah Schoenkopf, later Kovner, who spent eight years in the Clinton administration. I asked her to see what she could do and she had dinner with the Teamster at Delaney’s, which used to be at Grove St. and Seventh Ave.

The next day Lanigan snipes were everywhere. I called Sarah to thank her and said we didn’t want to know what she had to do.

“I just had dinner with him,” she protested.

The discipline in early V.I.D. activity would raise eyebrows today. My recollection is that Executive Committee meetings were held weekly. We had over 20 standing committees, and they were supposed to give weekly reports. In the decisive 1961 campaign, Stanley Geller, a club vice president, made available a meeting room in his 12th St. brownstone where the officers met on Saturdays as the campaign heated up.

The triumphs over DeSapio had heightened V.I.D.’s political status through the ’60s and ’70s. The New York Times called V.I.D. one of the really powerful clubs in the city. This led to claims by new political figures that they had indeed been founders of the club. In one election race for Executive Committee, a young, ambitious fellow wound up his speech claiming he had been a founder.

Quick math revealed he would have been about 8 years old when the club was formed.