Abe Hirschfeld: Spitting Distance From Senate Race

Posted May 10, 2004 at 4:55pm

Editor’s Note: This week, Roll Call reintroduces Under the Radar, which focuses on noteworthy Congressional candidates who aren’t getting much attention. The Down on the Farm column, which previously appeared in this space every Tuesday, has been retired.

If this were a New York newspaper, Abe Hirschfeld would never be described as someone who operates under the radar. [IMGCAP(1)]

Rather, we’d write that he’s quite the opposite: One of those shameless self-promoters who seem to appear on every New York streetcorner. In New York, he’s famous, he’s in the newspapers, although nobody really knows how it all started. But he’s not a household name in Washington, D.C.

The 84-year-old multimillionaire who made his fortune building parking garages in New York has been involved in dozens of public controversies through the decades — and has run several fruitless campaigns for public office.

The one exception to the string of

political futility was when he moved briefly to Miami Beach in the late 1980s and served on the city commission. But his political career there ended in ignominy when he spat on a TV reporter.

This year Hirschfeld, a Democrat for most of his life, a man who boasts of his friendship with the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is running what appears to be a stealth campaign for Senate in New York — as a Republican.

Newspaper articles and Web sites that list the Republicans seeking to unseat Sen. Charles Schumer (D) include Hirschfeld. A month ago, The Associated Press featured a Hirschfeld for Senate campaign event on its day book — but provided no contact information because it couldn’t find any.

Other than a Web site, there is little indication anywhere that “Honest Abe” is really running for Senate.

“I don’t think we can say that we’ve seen much evidence of him,” said Karin Kennett, a spokeswoman for the New York State Republican Party.

“I don’t think we’re giving him much thought,” said Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

That’s probably the right attitude for the GOP to take. But there is some risk in ignoring Hirschfeld.

In a primary with two little-known Republican contenders — the party’s choice, state Assemblyman Howard Mills III, and financial trader Michael Benjamin — Hirschfeld, with his deep pockets and penchant for capturing headlines, could do some damage. Just ask former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D).

In 1986, Cuomo was trying to install then-Rep. Stan Lundine (D) as his lieutenant governor. But Hirschfeld insisted on challenging Lundine in the primary.

In the summer when the United States was celebrating the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, he ran countless TV ads of himself in front of the statue, reminding voters of his underdog status with the exhortation, delivered in his thick Yiddish accent, “Don’t give up!”

State party leaders, who had spent weeks worrying that the flamboyant businessman would outshine the little-known Congressman from Western New York, embarrassing Cuomo in the process, finally maneuvered to keep Hirschfeld off the ballot.

It is a small wonder that politicians would consider Hirschfeld so radioactive. He has had a lifetime of ugly incidents — including spending a year in prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill a business associate.

In the mid-1970s, when crusading New York journalist Jack Newfield was preparing to include Hirschfeld in his annual list of the 10 worst landlords in the city, Hirschfeld tried to bribe Newfield with an offer of a free apartment for keeping his name out of the paper. Newfield declined.

Hirschfeld gained worldwide notoriety in the 1990s when he offered Paula Jones $1 million to drop her sexual harassment lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton. That offer, too, was rejected.

But perhaps the most infamous incident involving Hirschfeld came in the mid-1990s, when he took ownership of the always-financially strapped New York Post for 18 days — a short-lived tenure due to endless litigation. That provoked a staff mutiny. The staff published an edition of the paper while Hirschfeld was owner with a cover that showed the Post’s founder, Alexander Hamilton, shedding a tear.

Another time during Hirschfeld’s brief reign, the newspaper ran a headline about him that read, “Who is this nut?”

Curiously, Hirschfeld has tried to portray himself as the Post’s financial savior. He has in the recent past proudly reproduced the Hamilton cover on his personal Web site.

The irony is that Hirschfeld was once taken seriously in New York political circles. In the 1970s, because he had been such a loyal donor, he became treasurer of the state Democratic Party. The late New York Mayor John Lindsay once appointed Hirschfeld to a local economic development commission.

Hirschfeld’s Senate campaign Web site — www.abe2004.com — looks legitimate enough. His nine areas of concern are the education system, juvenile crime, Social Security, the flagging upstate New York economy, police brutality, taxes in New York City, the proposed Second Avenue subway, rebuilding the World Trade Center site and Middle East peace.

“They built the subway system in four to five years 90 years ago with picks and shovels!” Hirschfeld writes on the site, sounding like a typically boastful and aggrieved New Yorker. “With today’s new technology and powerful earth moving equipment we should have had the Second Avenue subway built many years ago.”

The Web site lists a campaign address and phone number and a campaign staff of four. But no one responded to phone messages left on the campaign voice mail during the past few days.

If Hirschfeld is serious about running this time, the first evidence may come next week, when New York Republicans hold their annual convention. But even if he doesn’t show up there, he can still compete in the Sept. 14 GOP primary by paying professionals to collect thousands of petition signatures across the state.

He has paid for top-flight help before. Veteran Republican strategists Ed Rollins and Kieran Mahoney worked for Hirschfeld when he ran unsuccessfully for Manhattan borough president in 1997.

Hirschfeld’s campaign site links Web surfers to his personal site — which, according to a message there, has been temporarily disabled “due to nonpayment of hosting fees.”

Surely, Hirschfeld should be able to afford that.

But then you never know with a man who titled his self-published autobiography, “Crazy and In Charge.”