On one of the last nights he would spend wondering whether his political plans and ambitions would be put on hold, Daniel O’Donnell made his way from his law office in the Ansonia building to a meeting of the Broadway Democratic Club in Morningside Heights. He has been president of the club for a year and half, so he took the stage at Bank Street College with a certain authority and no small amount of familiarity. He cracked friendly jokes and addressed his audience by first name. “Josephina,” he said to one member, his voice communicating both patience and intimacy, “just wait your turn. I promise we’ll get to you.”
Daniel O’Donnell has been waiting his turn for years, waiting for a chance to launch a career in electoral politics. In the meantime, he has presided over countless meetings, talked to a thousand Josephinas and signed up for the requisite good causes (he worked for seven years with the Legal Aid Society) and worthy crusades. On this night at the Broadway Democrats, Mr. O’Donnell had reason to believe his waiting, his work in the unglamorous world of neighborhood politics, would soon be over.
It had been an open secret on the Upper West Side that the 37-year-old Mr. O’Donnell had his eyes on the State Senate seat occupied by Franz Leichter, a venerable Democrat known for his unapologetic liberalism and his exhaustive investigations of political perfidy. Even as the State Senator was contemplating his future, Mr. O’Donnell hired an extremely enthusiastic press secretary and did everything a candidate-in-waiting ought to do. And when Mr. Leichter announced on April 20 that he would not seek re-election, it was just a matter of minutes before Mr. O’Donnell had an announcement of his own-that he would, in fact, seek election from the tumultuous West Side.
State Senators and their colleagues in the Assembly are among the most obscure political animals in New York, so much so that a competitive race for an open seat on the West Side probably would not command much attention in the media. But this one already has, not only in the local press, but in USA Today and other outlets. While Mr. O’Donnell’s politics and community service fit the profile of an earnest liberal Democrat from an earnest liberal district, he also happens to be Rosie O’Donnell’s older brother. Not even the West Side is immune from celebrity politics.
The Shadow Knows
Mr. O’Donnell knows there will be no escaping his sister’s shadow in the months leading to September’s Democratic primary-he even looks like a male version of his sister. “You play the hand you’re dealt,” he said. “I happen to have one person in my family who is very successful; she is well known for what she does, and, I’d assume, very well paid. She loves her brother. But no one serves [in the Legal Aid Society] for seven years because his sister is going to become the queen of daytime TV.”
In fact, many of the people Mr. O’Donnell has been working with in the community had no idea that they were in the presence of Celebrity Kin. Maritta Dunn, chairman of Community Board 9, tells how she figured it all out a full year after Mr. O’Donnell had begun attending board meetings. “We were laughing about something,” she said, “and I said, ‘People always say I look like Gladys Knight,’ and he said, ‘Who do I look like?’ And when I thought about it and figured it out, I was so surprised. We all were.”
Of course, as one Democrat pointed out, it’s not as though he’s related to Itzhak Rabin, a name more likely to resonate with the sophisticated voters of the West Side who won’t necessarily be impressed by the brother of a television talk-show host. “I think Upper West Siders are just as likely to give celebrity status to the president of a tenants [group] or a block association,” said City Council member Thomas Duane, who is running for the State Senate seat vacated by Catherine Abate in the district southeast of the area Mr. O’Donnell wishes to represent.
There’s no denying, however, that Mr. O’Donnell has an advantage in name recognition and in fund-raising. At least two other longtime community activists, Eric Schneiderman and Jerry Goldfeder, figure to be in the race. Both fit the demographic and ideological profile of the district, but neither has Mr. O’Donnell’s star power-not that they put much credence in the celebrity angle. “Danny O’Donnell is a guy who I like very much,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I just think my record of work and accomplishment on behalf of progressive causes is better than the other candidates’.”
But Curtis Arluck, a Democratic district leader who has endorsed Mr. O’Donnell, acknowledged that Mr. O’Donnell’s family connection will help him stand out in a race that will feature candidates who agree on many issues. “There will be a tendency to see the candidates as three well-meaning men in suits,” Mr. Arluck said, “and because Rosie O’Donnell is not a well-meaning politician in a suit, people will see Dan differently. It makes him more exciting, more memorable. It takes what is a very good résumé and illuminates it.”
Thanks to his sister, Mr. O’Donnell’s biography is well known. He grew up in Commack, L.I., one of five siblings. The family was intensely interested in politics; dinner featured discussions of Jimmy Breslin’s columns in the Daily News , and Mr. O’Donnell himself canvassed his neighborhood on behalf of George McGovern in 1972-when he was 11 years old. A year later, the O’Donnell children lost their mother to breast cancer, a tragedy Ms. O’Donnell often talks about on her show.
A Local Hero
Mr. O’Donnell attended the City University of New York’s public interest law program, went to work for Legal Aid and then opened his own practice. He moved to Morningside Heights in 1990, and quickly became a regular at local community board and political meetings. (He serves as chair of Board 9′s housing and land use committee.)
He would be the first openly gay man in the Legislature, and he would be serving in a State Senate dominated by Republicans who oppose passage of a hate-crimes bill that has been floundering in Albany for years. “It’ll be hard for [Senate Majority Leader] Joe Bruno … to look a gay colleague in the face and dispute anti-bias legislation,” said William Zwart, the top-ranking member of Mr. Leichter’s staff, who has signed on as Mr. O’Donnell’s campaign manager.
While Mr. O’Donnell’s positions are similar to Mr. Leichter’s, he will be harder to parody as an out-of-touch, overprivileged West Side liberal. For example, while Mr. O’Donnell no doubt will continue to fight against rent deregulation, he doesn’t live in a rent-controlled apartment.
Although the Democratic primary still is months away, Mr. O’Donnell and his opponents already are making the rounds of political clubs. They converged as official candidates for the first time at the Ansonia Democratic Club on April 23 to explain to members that while they each plan to serve in the time-honored tradition of political independence, they differ in emphasis and background. Mr. Schneiderman emphasized his work as an advocate for tenants rights; Mr. Goldfeder noted that he has spent years fighting developers and other West Side villains. Absent from the proceedings, but said to be contemplating a campaign, was City Council member June Eisland of the Bronx, who lives in the northern reaches of the district.
The three announced candidates don’t have a harsh word to say about each other. That may change, however, as the primary approaches and the candidates try to outflank each other from the left. West Side politics, after all, can be a blood sport.
And not even a famous sister will protect Mr. O’Donnell from the inevitable slings and arrows.