Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Civic leaders: Louise and Jay Stuart Dankberg
Political clubs are at the zenith of their existence, so it seems. The initiatives of the past - a chance to reform a political system, or conversely, to get a patronage job in that system - are no longer of interest in a downsizing society where we have to work long hours and struggle to keep any job and and not land in unemployment. Volunteering to do the necessary political detail - petitioning, writing letters, hearing candidates, endorsing and offering recommendations to the neighborhood - is also not an entirely fun thing in the current atmosphere of cynicism about everything political.
The Tilden-Midtown Democratic Club has been able to hold on to its volunteers, generate interest and enthusiasm for supporting their candidates and promoting a good city government, ever since its founding in the 1950s Reform days. Today its District Leader, Louise Dankberg, reflects fondly on the founders of the organization (including Senator Moynihan, retired Surrogate Millard Midonick, Margot Gayle and the late belowed Beth Robertson Kosnow), who mobilized people with enthusiasms that have carried through the club agenda over a period of the five decades, a formidable accomplishment.
Louise claims no particular credit. She just does what is right. Born in Manhattan, graduate of our own Washington Irving High (valedictorian), she met Jay at CCNY, where she majored in French. After a brief teaching spell she joined the NYS Department of Labor, where she has been since 1969, in supervisory and management positions in the Employment and now in the Unemployment Insurance divisions. Louise and Jay joined the Tilden Club as a family in 1970, and she was President for two years and now District Leader for four, sharing that office with the male Leader of the GSID club, Tom Nooter. Currently she serves on the Kenmore Hotel Community Advisory Board, the Community Development Advisory Board of the CB#6, and is a co-founder of the Neighborhood Anti-Crime Coalition formed in 1994. The Tilden club has over 200 members, dues are $15 a year ($7.50 for inspectors who get paid $85 for working at the polls on election days, a 6 AM to 9 PM day; applicants are needed), and membership meets twice a month, mostly at the National Arts Club and various religious and other meeting rooms, to which the club makes contributions. And if you'd like to apply to be a District Leader, the office pays no salary and takes some 20 hours a week away from your rest and leisure time, easily.
Jay Stuart Dankberg is a Bronx native, graduate of DeWitt Clinton High, CCNY (where he met Louise) and St. John's Law School, in 1970. After a short practice with a law firm and the Legal Aid Society, he spent a year with the Conciliation and Appeals Board, enforcement arm of the Rent Stabilization Law of 1969, then 6 1/2 years as the law clerk of a Civil Court judge, during which period he volunteered as an unpaid arbitrator in Small Claims Court. He was appointed by Ed Thompson, Administrative Judge of the Civil Court, after being recommended by screening panels, and eventually became Vice President of the arbitrators' group. Louise and Jay joined Tilden in 1970 and he was President 1978-79 (he initiated the club activity of painting Union and Stuyvesant Square Park benches in alternate years). When appointed Housing Judge in 1980 (reappointed 1985), after qualifying with the independent screening panels, he resigned from the club, and from CB #6 where he chaired the Housing Committee, from Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association and from all other civic groups, as required by the law. He was elected to Civil Court in 1986, after having been found most highly qualified by the screening panels of New York City Bar, Women's Bar and Trial Lawyers Bar Associations.
It is most ironic that Judge Dankberg, after a distinguished career of 16 1/2 years on the bench, has to become a novice political candidate all over again, to be reelected in the September 10 primary, because the law clerk of a Criminal Court judge, a downtown resident with no Civil Court experience in her 12 years as a lawyer, Eileen Rakower, has decided to challenge him in this District's primary. Because he had to set himself apart from the political and civic organizations and the people who elected him 10 years ago, he now has to beat on doors, buttonhole people and be sneered at by passers-by, as though he were a panhandler, to collect the minimum 1500 petition signatures in the 14th Street to 59th Street Election District. Theoretically, Jay should be a shoo-in, since he has endorsements from every elected official in the District, every Democratic club (and also some Liberal and Republican groups), lots of civic as well as gay and lesbian organizations (Rakower declares herself a lesbian), and he has worked hard to get 5000 signatures - but he is not. As former County Leader Ed Costikyan writes in the Law Journal, sitting judges are sitting ducks, referencing another challenge, that of 14-year Surrogate Judge Renee Roth by Karen Burstein, the 1994 Democratic candidate for State Attorney General.
During Costikyan's county leadership years a challenger would not get the party's support when running against a sitting judge recommended by the Democratic party's independent screening board and the bar associations. The Democratic Party's independent screening process of judicial candidates and incumbents, a method of breaking the Tammany control over the judiciary that was brought on by the Reform movement, not only helped to bring in good candidates rather than pure party designees but also protected the good incumbents who had broken all their political ties, as required by law, against well-connected challengers with recognizable names, such as Burstein. This protection of judges no longer exists, largely because the peer group screening panels of judicial candidates set up by the various county bar associations have reverted to a let's-sit-back-and- see, stay-out-of- politics attitude. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the county bar associations started their judicial candidates' review process in January of the election year, making a determination in April, before the start of the primary fights in June, and any challengers would have to think twice to run against an incumbent who had the bars' approval. As of this writing, less than a month before the primary, Judge Dankberg has not yet been heard by the bar associations!
Now that the party leaders have lost power and control and the bar associations have virtually abdicated their screening influence on candidates, media and money can buy judgeships, offices that really should be outside the popular election process. There is an argument that state and local judgeships should be by appointment, upon approval by their peers, as are the powerful lifetime federal judgeships. The latter is a position advocated by some good government groups, who feel that the judiciary loses many honorable candidates, willing to take the cut in pay out of a sense of honor and civic duty, because they are unwilling to stand on street corners and beg for votes. We'll talk of this another time.
And how do those of us registered voters who come out on Primary Day decide on the low key and low profile offices, such as judges? Well, not fairly. Statistics say that, if we do not know the candidates, we look at the names and pick attractive ones. Women often prefer female candidates, on principle, and ethnicity is a factor. And we skip pulling the lever for these offices, a lot. An uninformed and uninterested electorate weakens democracy and contributes to its many failures. Look at the corrupt school board operators chosen by a rigged 5 percent of the lethargic electorate. So, mark your calendar for Primary day, Tuesday September 10, check the papers for endorsements, think about the candidates, and come to the polls and vote, even if the weather is nice and you have many other things to do. Do not surrender your franchise to vote. If you don't use it, you lose it. Bar associations, you may be losing good judges by late endorsements!
Wally Dobelis has the Primary Day, September 10, marked on his calendar. He will vote for Judge Jay Stuart Dankberg, who is rated "Approved for Reelection" by the New York County's 1996 independent screening panel, and "Most Highly Qualified" by five bar association panels in prior years (their 1996 endorsement will probably come in September; Citizens Union has voted him "Preferred" as you read). He will also vote for Renee Roth, who has reformed the scandal-beset Surrogate's Court by fairly successfully depoliticising the appointment process. She has set up a screening panel for lawyers vying to be guardians ad litem (protectors of minors), and requires pro bono service for the poor from lawyers on lucrative cases. Let's be fair to Eileen Rakower; she may be a perfectly wonderful young lawyer, but she has a limited community service record, in the gay community. Without a Civil Court background, she is trying to unseat a Civil Court judge of known merit, highly rated by his peers. A candidate for public office should have a record of community service, for us to judge. Community trust must be earned by community service. Personal ambition is not sufficient grounds for eliminating a trusted public servant, a judge, from his job, if he does it well. The rich men's Perot and Forbes' appeals are creations of taxpayers' protest and social revolt, emotional in context and indicative of public dissatisfaction with the high level direction of this country's destiny. The humble basic jobs of rendering justice in the Civil Court must not be apportioned by emotion, else all semblance of sanity in this country is lost.
Wally Dobelis has also marked the Election Day, November 5, when our Assembly, State Senate, Congresspersons and President stand for election (City Council will be up in 1997).