A Queens Girl at Home With the Old Boys

The elderly ladies from Forest Hills had arrived early on a Sunday afternoon to the modest house on Ingram Street to support their hometown girl Melinda Katz. And though the event was the official kickoff of a city comptroller campaign for which Ms. Katz has raised more than $2 million, its aesthetic was more kindergarten graduation than political theater.

Someone had tied blue, purple and red balloons to the fence and nearby shrubs. There was orange construction paper with “Katz for NYC” stenciled on top.

Neighbor Molly Derewitzky, apparently filled with a sort of maternal pride, was there. She couldn’t remember how long she’d known Melinda. For decades, surely: “We love Melinda. She’s true and honest and hardworking and loyal.”

Ms. Derewitzky soon took a seat alongside other local seniors on a bench that had been dragged into the cordoned-off street, one of those lovely blocks in Forest Hills shaded by London plane trees that evokes the sort of suburban idyll typically reserved for Hollywood movies.

Within minutes, the guest of honor emerged from her American-flag-bedecked house, her 1-year-old boy, Carter, on her hip. He was dressed conservatively in khakis and a blue sweater vest. Ms. Katz wore a gray pants suit.

“Hi, everyone!” said Ms. Katz, 43, in her raspy, almost sultry voice. “This is Carter Katz. Welcome to his bar mitzvah.” Laughter. “Can’t use that joke now in my speech.”

She wandered into the crowd, which topped out at about 100. The foundation was cracking on her face. Among the congregants were Queens Assemblyman Jose Peralta, Bronx Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, RWDSU’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, and Isac Weinberger, a Democratic activist from the Williamsburg Satmar community.

“She has done more in the last eight years than anyone else,” Mr. Weinberger said, explaining why he was endorsing Ms. Katz over her three opponents, the councilmen David Yassky of Brooklyn, David Weprin of Queens and John Liu of Queens. “[And] she’s the only woman running for citywide office. … Someone who is a woman understands more about housing needs.”

Ms. Katz handed off her baby boy, now crying, to his uncle Mike, and approached the podium.

“This is my neighborhood,” she proclaimed. “This is where I grew up. This house right here was bought in 1953 by my parents, who founded the Symphony Orchestra.” (The campaign said later that that date might have been off by a year or two, but that her parents definitely bought the house in the mid-1950s.)

She pointed to her old bedroom window on the second floor.

“I can’t tell you the number of people asking me, ‘Why am I doing it here, in Forest Hills?’”

She explained, “I wanted to show the values I grew up with. I wanted people to come to my house, because this is a very personal campaign for me.”

 

MS KATZ is a very personal person, more guarded than gregarious, more inside operator than extrovert retailer. A June 5, 2005, New York Times piece on the ultimate power breakfast in the lobby of the Regency Hotel named Ms. Katz as a frequent guest.

“She’s definitely harder than a lot of other people, for sure,” said a reporter who covers Queens for a local newspaper, describing the difficulties of accessing Ms. Katz. “The person who was here before me said the same thing. Once I do get her on the phone, she’s often curt in the beginning. She does seem a little defensive.”

“At heart she’s much more shy than you would expect from a public person,” said real estate attorney and lobbyist Ken Fisher. “Raising money and getting your name in the newspaper are just a way of keeping score. Those aren’t ends in and of themselves for her.”

Ms. Katz’s aversion to publicity is not necessarily a hindrance in this election, where the lack of a compelling Democratic mayoral primary means that very few New Yorkers will turn out to the polls. This race will be determined by insiders: union members, political clubs adept at turning out the vote. But on a more philosophical level, there is something a tad dysfunctional about a public servant so averse to public scrutiny.

An armchair psychoanalyst could find any number of reasons for her guardedness. Ms. Katz did not have an easy childhood, for one. She implied as much in a recent interview, in clipped, unembellished sentences: “My mom died when I was 3. In a car accident. She died of a blood clot.”

Her father died 18 years later, when she was 21. She grew up with three older brothers in a very public household: Her father, before he died, was the founder of the Queens Symphony and a music camp in the Adirondacks. She had no strong female influences to help guide her through the always traumatic process of adolescence, aside from a girlfriend of her father’s. When he became ill, she returned home from college on Thursdays to take care of him. She became strong, self-contained and private.

“Going to law school and trying to earn a living on my own—I really had nothing to fall back on,” Ms. Katz recalled as she picked at a fruit salad at the Gee Whiz Diner near City Hall. Her press aide, Ben Branham, sat scrunched next to her in an uncomfortably tiny booth.

Ms. Katz had arrived a few minutes late that afternoon. Her runner’s frame was tucked into a green blazer that brought out the green in her eyes. Her brass-colored necklace and earrings brought out the highlights in her reddish brown hair. She was perfectly put together.

Though Ms. Katz has made her motherhood a constant theme on the campaign trail—she even published an essay for Mother’s Day on the Huffington Post about the challenges inherent in running as a single mother—she declines to discuss her child’s relationship, or lack thereof, with his biological parents. (Her baby was conceived with both donor sperm and eggs.)

Nor is Ms. Katz eager to discuss her political coming of age under the mentorship of Alan Hevesi. Mr. Hevesi resigned in 2006 after acknowledging the misuse of government resources. And now his former right-hand man, political consultant Hank Morris—whose firm advised Ms. Katz in her run for the Assembly and later, reportedly, in her unsuccessful run for Congress—has been indicted for abusing his position under Mr. Hevesi to garner millions by helping hedge funds gain access to lucrative state pension business.

According to the campaign, Mark Guma, then of Hank Morris’ firm, advised Ms. Katz in her 1994 run for the Assembly, and again, on an informal, unpaid basis in 1998 during the Congressional primary. (At that time, they were also dating).  The campaign says that Mr. Morris never directly advised Ms. Katz in either instance.

Her opponents are almost certain to latch on to the relationship in the run-up to the primaries.

“Her relationship with Alan Hevesi needs to be addressed because she’s running for the same office that he used inappropriately,” said Dick Dadey, the executive director of the Citizens Union. “And so she will come under increased scrutiny because of that relationship and she should be prepared to answer questions. But nothing untoward should be assumed about their relationship.”

Though she and the Hevesis go way back, Ms. Katz would really rather not go there. She had the unusual luck of growing up down the block from the Hevesi family, back in the day when he was a rising political star. Her best friend regularly baby-sat for his children. And at least once, when her friend was sick, Ms. Katz filled in.

Ms. Katz graduated from Hillcrest High School and then summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she wrote her honors thesis on how gay men in fashion had a hard time getting loans because bankers feared AIDS would kill them before they could repay. She went on to St. John’s School of Law. She got a job at the white-shoe law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, working in mergers and acquisitions. When she began considering a career in politics, her thoughts quite logically turned to Mr. Hevesi. She volunteered on his 1993 campaign for comptroller.

“Melinda virtually spent her entire weekends on the campaign trail, whether it was parades, in the park—she was just a really, really active campaign volunteer,” recalled Michael Muller, who, working under former consultant Mr. Morris, was the field director for Mr. Hevesi’s campaign. “She is one of the hardest-working people I’ve encountered in my political life.”

Mr. Hevesi won. In the ensuing special election for his replacement, Mr. Hevesi backed Ms. Katz against the Queens machine. It was a hard-fought battle, one that caused an enduring rift between Mr. Hevesi and the Queens Democratic Party, which endorsed Michael Cohen. Ms. Katz edged out Mr. Cohen to become an assemblywoman from Queens.

“She took her seat on February 28 of ’94,” Mr. Muller recalled. She was 28. “By the time she’d adjourned for summer, she’d already authored four laws.”

One of those laws required HMOs to let women see gynecologists without a referral from their primary care physician—a convenience for which countless New York women are grateful.

“That just showed you how successful a legislator-slash-politician she was going to be,” Mr. Muller said.

In February 1994 she told The New York Times, “I intend to make this a career. I’m going to work to establish my seniority in the Assembly, as Alan Hevesi did.”

 

ON WEDNESDAY, May 13, Melinda Katz strode into the second floor of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South, where a suited crowd of mostly white, male real estate people sat expectantly. It was a luncheon for the Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York. She was the guest speaker.

Ms. Katz moved easily in this crowd, shaking hands, touching arms, assuming the swagger and bravado peculiar to the real estate set. At times, she seemed much like a beloved younger sister bantering with older brothers.

As chair of the land-use committee, Ms. Katz has become a major player in the real estate community. She has presided, with relatively little controversy, over enormously important land-use decisions, ranging from the redevelopment of Willets Point to the rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem.

But she has done so with a marked disregard for appearances. A swift glance at her campaign finance records reveals contributions from pretty much every single major player in the New York real estate scene, including many with business before her committee: the Rudins, the Toll Brothers and the Walentases, to name a very few.

“I know Melinda to be a very fair-minded elected official, but it’s a challenge for an elected official to accept that much money and not heed the requests of the developers who have given,” Mr. Dadey said. “Since she is making important decisions that affect developers, she could take a position of great integrity and say, ‘I’m not going to take any contributions from developers who come before my committee with projects so as to ensure that I’m acting in the public interest and not in a narrow interest.’”

As the real estate men at the National Arts Club ate beef, asparagus wrapped in slices of carrots and mashed potatoes, Ms. Katz gave them her stump speech, which wasn’t much different from her responses to The Observer’s questions at the Gee Whiz Diner.

Her platform is well defined: She’s a mom; she gained corporate experience working for four and a half years as a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer; she has worked in both state and city government; and as chair of the land-use committee, she’s helped protect thousands of blocks with historical-district and downzoning legislation, helped negotiate thousands of units of affordable housing into development proposal, and acquired an appreciation for the way in which development, in her formulation, underpins economic growth in New York City.

If she wins the race for comptroller, she says, she will build upon Bill Thompson’s work to diversify pension funds and expand bank access in poor neighborhoods. She will force greater transparency in the Department of Education. She’s also looking into investing pension fund money into distressed debt.

“But in addition to that, I’d love to see more investment in New York companies that can show the comptroller how they’re going to create jobs in the city, how many people they’re going to train to work in the city of New York,” she said at the diner. “We need to make sure that we’re investing in businesses that invest in New York.”

When The Observer asked what she should would do if she were to lose, Ms. Katz was typically coy.

She said, deadpan, “Then I go to work for you.”

And that was all we got.

A Queens Girl at Home With the Old Boys