Both of Mr. Wiesenfeld’s parents were in Europe during World War II-his mother in a concentration camp, his father shipped to Siberia for hard labor. Friends say it remains the animating force in his life.
“Jeff really does feel that his mission in life is to speak up, because so many years ago no one spoke up,” said one friend. “He thinks Jews are their own worst enemy, and that liberal Jews care more about other religions and a races than they care about themselves. And that unlike other groups, we have absolutely no ethnic pride or the ability to stand up for ourselves and we let everyone run roughshod all over us. And of course, he hates liberals.”
At the end of the war, rather than return to their hometowns and live among the collaborators, Mr. Wiesenfeld’s father fled to America, and his mother to Israel. They met in Israel, and moved to the South Bronx, where his father worked in a fiberglass factory, before dying at 57 of lung disease.
“I had a very difficult childhood,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “We lived in the neighborhood long after anybody we knew lived there.
“Those were the worst years of my life,” he continued. “It was crime ridden. I went to terrible, terrible schools … I had to learn to defend myself and I saw a lot of terrible things. I had to get out of situations with people holding me up with knives, people beating the crap out of me. This is nonsense. I’m not going to stand up to an academic?”
After a stint at Bronx Science and then at Queens College, he worked for a time for the F.B.I. before finding a job with former Queens Borough President Claire Schulman and eventually landing with Ed Koch’s Department of Transportation. He became something of a player in Queens Democratic circles, founding the First New York Conservative Democratic Club in his hometown of Forest Hills, for Democrats who leaned right. Longtime friends and associates said he was plotting to run for office.
He did Jewish outreach for Senator Al D’Amato, a former mentor who friends say no longer speaks to him. During his 1998 re-election campaign, Mr. Wiesenfeld insisted that the senator attend a meeting at the developer George Klein’s office with some high-powered members of the Jewish community, and it was there that Senator D’Amato referred to his opponent, Chuck Schumer, as a “putzhead” and called the portly Congressman Jerrold Nadler “Jerry Waddler.” The slurs leaked to the press, where the story festered for days, and Mr. D’Amato’s tenure as one of the most powerful elected officials in New York came to an end when he lost the race by
10 points. (Mr. Wiesenfeld disputes this account).
No matter. Mr. Wiesenfeld was already working for Governor George Pataki in a similar capacity. According to former Pataki administration officials, he is best remembered as someone who was unable to fully accept that his job was to promote his boss and stay out of the press.
There was the time at a Queens Democratic Party event, for example, that he called a close associate of the powerful Hevesi family-the future Assemblywoman and City Councilwoman Melinda Katz-“a cunt.” (The slur leaked to the press but Mr. Wiesenfeld denies saying it). There was the time that he took to the press to excoriate Sheldon Silver after the Assembly speaker criticized Governor Pataki at a legislative breakfast, even as administration officials were working to shore up their legislative support. Mr. Wiesenfeld also led the charge to get the British architect Lord Richard Rogers to withdraw from the $1.7 billion Jacob Javits Center expansion after it was revealed that Mr. Rogers was part of a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, who called on Israel to stop building settlements and the security barrier in the West Bank.
“Jeff doesn’t have people he serves as his number one priority,” a former Pataki official recalled. “He has himself and his persona and his reputation, and sometimes the people he has been hired to serve take the back seat.”
At the National Yiddish Theater, whose board he chairs, one trustee said that Mr. Wiesenfeld has been known to distribute AllianceBernstein packets to new trustees. Albany politicos recall him desperately seeking the board appointment at CUNY. According to a New York Times account of his confirmation hearing, Isaac Abraham, a well-known political operative in the Brooklyn Hasidic community, alleged that “Mr. Wiesenfeld had referred to blacks as ‘savages,’ had called Hasidic Jews ‘thieves’ and had mocked Mr. Pataki, using a Yiddish word for ‘dummy.'” (Mr. Wiesenfeld got his revenge when Mr. Abraham ran for the City Council in 2009, recording a robo-call that labeled Mr. Abraham, “the most wicked of the wicked.”)
In 2006, as Mr. Pataki prepared to leave office and his aides frantically searched to fill board vacancies, administration officials recall Mr. Wiesenfeld desperately trying to win re-appointment, touting his credentials to anybody who would listen and launching a smear campaign against the Hispanic activist Fernando Mateo, when rumors started surfacing that he might get the CUNY slot. Mr. Wiesenfeld backed down when Mr. Mateo pointed out that he was ineligible for the spot, since he was not a college graduate.
“When you corner him he will do whatever he needs to do,” said one associate. “Bite you, kick you in the balls. When he feels threatened and cornered, he is out of control. He needed that title. He was so frightened that he was going to lose CUNY. If he didn’t have CUNY, what would he have? His nightmare in life is that people will no longer know the name Jeff Wiesenfeld.”