That 70’s Legacy: Young Assemblyman Was Mr. Marijuana

Watching City Comptroller Alan Hevesi go about his business

as the sober, wonkish, white-haired, bespectacled keeper of the city’s books,

it’s hard to imagine that in a younger, wilder moment, he tried to legalize pot

for New Yorkers over 18 years of age.

But he did.

The date was Jan. 28, 1975, and Mr. Hevesi was an ambitious

second-term Assembly member from Forest Hills, Queens. Standing alongside State

Senator Franz Leichter of Manhattan, he called for the creation of a state

“marijuana control authority” that would license and regulate growers,

producers and distributors of the drug. The agency would enforce regulations

setting the potency of marijuana, which could then be sold at liquor stores.

The proposal was bold enough to make the front page of The New York Times , alongside Senator

Jacob Javits’ gloomy pronouncements about the city’s fiscal crisis and

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s more optimistic statements about peace

talks between Israel and Egypt.

Fastforward26 years. Mr. Hevesi, now a candidate for Mayor,

joined his chief political operative, Hank Morris, in the Harlem office of U.S.

Representative Charles Rangel. Mr. Hevesi was hoping to win the Congressman’s

backing to build on his dangerously low support among black New Yorkers. Mr.

Morris had entered the office first, bearing a large box. The box, it turned

out, contained a saddle.

“Hevesi said he understood that I didn’t have a horse in

this race,” Mr. Rangel told The Observer .

“And he said, ‘Why don’t you put the saddle on me and ride me to victory!'”

There are two Alan Hevesis, and they have been trying, with

varying degrees of success, to co-exist throughout his 30-year political

career. There is the Alan Hevesi who tried to legalize pot in the mid-1970’s

-an energetic public servant with surprising, occasionally radical ideas; a

serious student of policy; an outstanding orator who took bold stands on

abortion rights and the death penalty. Then there is another Alan Hevesi, the

political insider who offered to take Mr. Rangel for a ride-a man willing to go

to startling lengths to win over the city’s power brokers; an insider’s

insider; a politician who seems more preoccupied with wooing back-room

political players than with getting his name known.

To the puzzlement of some longtime colleagues, Mr. Hevesi

has all but submerged the energetic, outspoken, compelling side of himself ever

since he won election as Comptroller in 1993. Mr. Hevesi, who took on a host of

controversial issues during 22 years in the Assembly, has in recent years been

largely absent from the city’s loud and discordant daily conversation. He has

been reluctant to raise his voice to challenge Mayor Rudolph Giuliani,

particularly on issues important to minorities. By his own admission, he was

slow to respond to the most traumatic event

of the Giuliani era for black New Yorkers, the police shooting of Amadou

Diallo. (He acquitted himself better in the wake of the shooting of Patrick

Dorismond.)

All the while, however, Alan Hevesi the insider has been

extremely busy, quietly building a formidable network of support over the years

among party insiders, union officials and political clubs.

Mr. Hevesi insists that his low profile in the 1990’s has

merely been a question of political style. “I was never a thunderer; I never

shook the chandeliers,” he told The

Observer . “Politicians are measured by how loud they are, how many fights

they get into. I never elbowed my way into the cameras. I never made a big

fuss.”

Mr. Hevesi has held a number of press conferences to raise

his visibility in recent days. But he still is saddled with low name

recognition and is languishing in the polls. And he has been fielding calls

from longtime friends who want him to reveal the aggressive and risk-taking

political alter ego they admired during his days in the Assembly.

“I called him and I said to him, ‘What are you doing? You

should be swinging for the fences now,'” said Norman Adler, a lobbyist who has

been a friend of Mr. Hevesi’s since 1970. “All he would say is, ‘We’ve got a

plan and we’re working on it.'”

To Mr. Hevesi’s opponents, his sotto voce campaign is all part of a grand plan. The Comptroller,

they say, has deliberately turned down the volume in recent years to position

himself as a sober, reliable, managerial type in a field of loudmouthed,

old-style liberal Democrats. They add that Mr. Hevesi has been deliberately

mute on issues important to minorities-and has at times been harshly critical

of black leaders like Al Sharpton and David Dinkins-in the hope of inheriting

Mr. Giuliani’s base of outer-borough white ethnics and conservative Jews.

“There’s no question that he has tried to run to the right,”

said Ester Fuchs, a professor of political science at Barnard College. “He

thought he could reconstruct Rudy’s majority coalition to win.”

Mr. Hevesi dismisses

such talk. “Can I tell you something?” he said. “I’m an outer-borough white

ethnic. I’m a Jewish Comptroller. Moderate, mildly progressive, Forest

Hills–Riverdale Democrats-I don’t need Rudy for that. But the press [and] Ed

Koch say, ‘Oh, he made a calculation to get Rudy’s support.’ Blatant falsehood.

Never. I made the political calculation to be the best Comptroller.”

Mr. Hevesi was talking about the Mayoral campaign with The Observer on a recent Friday

evening. In person, the 61-year-old Mr. Hevesi comes across as a serious,

wonkish sort, confident and chatty. Yet he is a complicated man who eludes easy

categorization. He has been at once an academic and an athlete. In Albany, he

stood out because of his oratory and professorial demeanor, but he is more than

comfortable hanging around in the political clubhouses of Queens. He often

refers with pride to his Jewish heritage: His grandfather was the chief rabbi

of Budapest, and 55 of his family members died at Auschwitz. But he married

outside his faith; his wife, Carol Hevesi, is Catholic. And while he has been

building a public career that will either reach a climax or end this fall, he

has had to reckon with personal tragedy at home: Mrs. Hevesi has been battling

a chronic back problem with painkillers that produced severe depression. She

attempted suicide in 1994, slashing her wrists while Mr. Hevesi was out grocery

shopping.

You wouldn’t know it from his low-key manner, but Mr. Hevesi

has a surprisingly interesting story to tell. Who knew, for instance, that the

6-foot-3-inch Mr. Hevesi, a star forward for the Queens College basketball team

in the late 1950’s, was once scouted by the Boston Celtics? One night, Mr.

Hevesi scored 25 points with a Celtics scout in the stands. Despite that

performance, he never heard from the Celtics again, and all that’s left of his

basketball years are a few old battle scars.

That’s not all. In his

early days in the Assembly, he offered some pretty adventurous proposals. In

addition to suggesting the creation of a “marijuana control authority,” in 1979

he proposed a bill that would have legalized pot and heroin for limited medical use.

These days, Mr. Hevesi is more cautious on the subject of

drugs. “Twenty years ago, medical experts believed that heroin was one of the

best drugs for relief from extreme, severe pain, making legislation calling for

further research prudent,” he said. “Today, the availability of other modern

pain-treatment methodologies, coupled with the highly addictive nature of

heroin, makes its use for medicinal purposes imprudent.” During his interview

with The Observer , Mr. Hevesi also

said that while he now opposes the “full legalization of marijuana,” he does

support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. But he answered carefully

when asked about Mr. Giuliani’s aggressive crackdowns on low-level pot users:

“The law is the law; enforce the law …. I think marijuana’s effect is negative,

and we should discourage its use. But I don’t think it’s any more negative, in

its own way, than tobacco.”

Asked directly whether people caught with small amounts of

pot should be held in police custody overnight after their arrest, as they have

under Mr. Giuliani’s Operation Condor sweeps, Mr. Hevesi said: “Being caught

with a joint? No. Selling and distributing? Yes. Since the law still

criminalizes possession, a $25 fine is also appropriate …. It’s appropriate

that we de-emphasize the prosecutions for possession of small amounts of

marijuana.”

Mr. Hevesi’s dual

political personality-the experimental legislator combined with the cautious,

back-room horse-trader-is a product of the Forest Hills neighborhood where he

learned his trade. The Queens clubhouses of Mr. Hevesi’s youth were a career

track for middle-class kids with an eye on a job in the district attorney’s

office or a desire to run for local office. At the same time, Forest Hills in

the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was a liberal neighborhood, not yet thrown

into turmoil by black-Jewish tensions and the escalating crime rates of the

1970’s.

The Milk Run

After several years as an intern and then an aide in the

State Legislature, Mr. Hevesi got a call from local leaders in 1971 offering

him a shot at the Forest Hills Assembly seat. He won, thanks in part to a

get-out-the-vote operation that could have been immortalized in a Jimmy Breslin

column.

“As we drove the old ladies to vote, we would let them pick

up groceries on the way,” said Michael Nussbaum, a longtime friend who worked

on his first campaign. “We called it the ‘milk run.'”

Once in the Assembly, Mr. Hevesi quickly made a name for

himself as a kind of house intellectual of Queens clubhouse politics. Perhaps

his most notable moment came in the late 70’s when, amid escalating crime

rates, he gave a rousing speech against a move to reinstitute the death penalty

in New York.

“It was pretty heavy stuff,” Mr. Hevesi recalled. “Son of

Sam had killed two of my constituents. I got up on the floor and said, ‘Ninety

percent of my constituents support this bill-and they’re wrong.'”

Mr. Hevesi’s rhetorical gifts have not always been put to

such lofty use. In 1986, having emerged as the Queens organization’s point man

in Albany, he delivered the eulogy for Donald Manes, the disgraced Queens

borough president who had committed suicide amidst municipal scandal.

Mr. Hevesi also did a few things that might surprise people

who have grown accustomed to hearing about his unpopularity among minorities.

In 1985, he offered to escort Assemblyman Al Vann, an African-American who was

running for Brooklyn borough president, into Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. The

flamboyant Mr. Vann had been reviled as an anti-Semite in some Orthodox

neighborhoods, and he was running against an entrenched Jewish incumbent,

Howard Golden.

“Al Vann was viscerally disliked by Hevesi’s constituents,”

said Audrey Bynoe, Mr. Vann’s campaign manager in the 1985 race. “That was a

really courageous, honorable move.”

Failed Bid for Speaker

Mr. Hevesi’s first major disappointment came two years

later, in 1987, when he made a bid for the job he had long sought: Speaker of

the State Assembly. Although he spent years laying the groundwork for this

moment, reaching out to numerous Democratic colleagues and playing basketball

with wavering supporters, he was outmaneuvered by Mel Miller of Brooklyn.

“He really assumed that when the rubber hit the road, he was

just going to march in,” said Mr. Adler, his longtime friend (and an aide to

Mr. Miller). “He was wildly disappointed.”

Since a failed bid for a leadership slot is essentially a

death sentence in Albany, Mr. Hevesi lingered for a few more years, then took a

detour into municipal politics. He ran for City Comptroller in 1989, losing to

Elizabeth Holtzman; sensing that she was vulnerable (and his was a minority

opinion at the time), he targeted her again in 1993 and surprised pundits by

winning a hard-fought campaign. Mr. Hevesi flirted with the idea of running for

Mayor in 1997 but chose not to, both because he realized Mr. Giuliani was

unbeatable and because of his wife’s health problems.

Now that Mr. Hevesi is facing what will surely be the

toughest race of his career, the question is this: Will he resurrect his

energetic political alter ego for the Mayoral campaign, or will he be content

to campaign as the careful Alan Hevesi? Mr. Hevesi willingly concedes that his

campaign thus far has not been flawless, but he insists that his experience,

record and financial advantage will carry the day.

“I’d love to be in first place with all my opponents

dropping out-but it’ll be fine,” Mr. Hevesi said. “Yeah, sure, there are

problems.” He referred to a well-publicized skirmish he had with a black

heckler during an event on Martin Luther King Day. “It allowed opponents to

say, ‘Oh, see, he has a black problem,'” Mr. Hevesi said. “I’m at 9 percent

with African-Americans, [but] I’m at 9 percent with Hungarians. I’m at 9

percent with everybody …. Did [the campaign] slow down? Yeah, there were some

endorsements that we thought we could get and they haven’t happened yet,

because people are nervous with the polls.”

He added: “Polls are about name recognition, and elections

are about substance.”

Mr. Hevesi believes he has substance. It remains to be seen,

however, whether he’ll allow enough voters to see it. That 70’s Legacy: Young Assemblyman Was Mr. Marijuana