Stanley Steingut

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Stanley Steingut
Stanley Steingut.png
114th Speaker of the New York State Assembly
In office
January 8, 1975 – December 31, 1978
Governor Hugh Carey
Preceded by Perry Duryea
Succeeded by Stanley Fink
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 41st district
In office
1967–1978
Preceded by Leonard Yoswein
Succeeded by Murray Weinstein
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 44th district
In office
January – December 1966
Preceded by New district
Succeeded by Bertram L. Podell
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 18th district
In office
1953–1965
Preceded by Irwin Steingut
Succeeded by District abolished
Personal details
Born (1920-05-20)May 20, 1920
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Died December 8, 1989(1989-12-08) (aged 69)
New York, New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Madeline Fellerman
Children Robert
Theodore
Ilene
Alma mater Peddie School
Union College
St. John's University School of Law
Profession Lawyer
Religion Judaism

Stanley Steingut (May 20, 1920 Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York City – December 8, 1989, New York City) was an American politician, insurance executive, New York Democratic Party leader and lawyer. He took over his father's position as Boss of Brooklyn County Democratic politics and eventually parlayed that position to become Speaker of the New York State Assembly. Allegations of self-dealing dogged him throughout his career and ultimately led to his downfall in a party challenge by a nearly unknown candidate.

Early life[edit]

Stanley Steingut was the son of Irwin Steingut, first generation American, himself the son an immigrant from Hamburg (Simon Steingut) who left his own prosperous family (his father and brother were bankers with their own firm in Hamburg) to emigrate to the United States sometime before 1886. Irwin Steingut worked first as a reporter and then in his father's Manhattan real estate office, before his 30-year career as New York Assemblyman from Kings County (1922-1952). During that time, he acted as minority leader from 1930 to 1934 and 1936 to 1952 and was Speaker in 1935 for the one term that Democrats had a majority in the New York Assembly during the 51 years from 1914 through 1964.

Stanley Steingut was born on May 20, 1920 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to Stanley Steingut and Rea Kaufmann Steingut. He was the couple's second and last child, his older sister June Eleanor having been born on August 12, 1917.[1] He attended the Peddie School and Union College. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, went on to graduate from St. John's University School of Law and was admitted to the bar in 1950.[2]

Early Political Activities[edit]

Stanley learned retail politics at a young age from his father, with whom he campaigned door to door.[2] When he was in college at nearby Schenectady, he was a familiar figure in Albany, where he acquired the name "Zip" (owing to a "garment mishap").[3] Late in life he would recall swimming with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Governor's mansion in Albany and running errands as a page boy for Al Smith.[4]

In Brooklyn his father's political base was the Madison Club of Brooklyn, a machine founded by his mentor John H. McCooey, who sponsored Irwin Steingut's first run for the Assembly in 1921.[5] Steingut's father became head of the Club during the New Deal (in part to appease the Administration for McCooey's decision to support Al Smith over Franklin D. Roosevelt[6]) and remained boss until his death.[7] Steingut joined the Madison Club early, and it was there that he came into close contact with his father's friends, who also came to Brooklyn from Manhattan's Lower East Side: Abraham "Abe" Beame and Nathan Sobel. When his father died in 1952, Steingut stepped into the leadership position of the Madison Club. He would become head of the Brooklyn Democratic Committee in 1962. In that position he would amass "vast power and patronage."[3] Influential columnist Jack Newfield would call him "a charter member of the Permanent Government."[8]

New York Assembly Career[edit]

In 1953 Steingut also succeeded to his father's Assembly seat, which he would hold until his defeat in 1978. He was never known as a legislative craftsman, but aarly in his career he worked diligently as a member of the joint legislative committee on physical handicaps and on mental retardation and chairman of the Joint Committee on Child Care Needs. These areas became closely associated with him since the 1950s when he co-sponsored many programs with Republican Earl Brydges, who was especially interested in education policy and mental health issues.[2]

Throughout the years reporters remarked on his unprepossessing appearance. One said that "his slow-moving bulk, his heavy-bagged eyes, his thinning reddish hair and the creases in his face make it seem as if he was born old and has weathered since under the stresses of political wars."[9] As a public speaker he was called "lackluster," and he was always "wary of reporters."[2] Steingut once told one: "I have no comment—and that's off the record."[4] His most memorable elocution in the Assembly emphasized mixed metaphors. He warned of the dangers of a bill that would "derail the ship of state," and he tried to move his colleagues by noting that "this session has been hit by an avalanche of creeping paralysis."[4]

The back room was where he excelled, as a practitioner of inside-party politics "shrewd, street-smart, deeply versed in Democratic politics."[2] "He's the greatest checker mover in town," one Democrat said, explaining his skill in promoting young acolytes through the system, at the same time creating positions for other acolytes in their wake.[9] This was one of McCooey's guiding principles for maintaining a political machine.[10] And of course it was among his colleagues that he worked hardest and best. Especially when he obtained formal leadership positions he would rise often to call fellow Democrats before 6 a.m. to discuss political business.[2] His abiding passion was to obtain the position his father had, Speaker of the Assembly, and was said to have harbored this single-minded goal "all of his life."[11] After nearly 15 years in the Assembly, he nearly achieved his goal in 1965, the first time Democrats regained control of the Assembly since his father was Speaker, but was prevented by maneuvering between Mayor Robert Wagner and Governor Nelson Rockefeller,[11] and Anthony J. Travia became Speaker. Under Speaker Travia Steingut "bided his time quietly ... seldom spoke on the floor' and "talked guarded with reporters." He worked mainly on welfare legislation and adoption reform[9]

In the summer of 1968, Travia was appointed federal judge, and Moses Weinstein, who sided with Travia in 1965, was appointed acting Speaker to fill out the year. With Travia out of the way, the next session might have been Steingut's opportunity, but 1968 was a bad year for Democrats generally. Richard Nixon took the White House, and while Hubert Humphrey carried New York, Republicans again took the Assembly. But it was not a decisive victory: a change of 4 seats in the election in two years would bring the Democrats back. And so, while winning the Minority Leadership position in the Assembly is often seen as being designated heir apparent for the Speakership, it was especially urgent to be elected to that position now. But Weinstein wanted it, and wanted to be elected Speaker on the merits next time, so he called a caucus of Democrats before the floor vote. Steingut had lined up the votes in private and came away with 55 of the 57 votes cast, with Weinstein's colleagues from Queens largely abstaining.[12] Part of the arrangement Steingut had made was giving up control of the Brooklyn Democratic Committee, and its vast pool of influence, associations and favor-seekers. The Committee, however, fell into the hands of Steingut's close associate and business partner and Madison Club member Meade Esposito. Many assumed Esposito did Steingut's bidding because they would continue to see "Steingut's fine hand in some of the Machievellian maneuvers in the Brooklyn political scene.[3] But most evidently believed that this was part of the bargain, and in any event they had been looking for one "with the agility and the grit and the savy needed to play the political leadership game well." In any event, all expected he would be "solid, effective and liberal—not brilliant, but steady ..."[9]

Giving up the Brooklyn power base for the one in the Assembly proved beneficial to Steingut's outside interests. While in the Assembly Steingut also was a member of the law firm Halperin, Shivitz, Scholer & Steingut. He acquired the share in City Title Insurance Company that his father had and before him legislators in from both parties.[3] Steingut also became partner with Esposito in Grand Brokerage Agency, an insurance brokerage firm. Steingut used his political connections to refer business to all three firms. While this practice (widespread enough in New York) was not illegal, it became embarrassing just as he was posed to become Speaker before what seemed as the inevitable Democratic sweep in November 1974 in light of the Watergate scandal.

Commentators were advising that in light of the national scandal politicians should steer clear even of the appearance of impropriety. Steingut had, however, developed the reputation of being, as one put it, "the Democratic party's quintessential hack, living proof that you can still make money in politics."[11] Steingut maintained that he did not profit from political connections, but the perception remained and was compounded by the lack of discretion of his partner Meade Esposito, who once said: "people wouldn't be bringing their business [to Grand] if I wasn't the county leader."[11] In an effort at transparency Steingut offered to make limited financial disclosure (he refused to disclose his tax returns), which he claimed would show his net worth was not great. The response was wry cynicism. One Democratic politician said: "If word gets out that Stanley hasn't made a bundle, it would drive people out of politics."[11]

One month before the election, Steingut made what was an astonishing error for one who treated the press so carefully. During a half hour interview with Bob Anson of New York's Channel 13 on October 7, 1974, Steingut stated that Grand Agency had stayed away "with great circumspection from any insurance with government at all. Any at all." Pressed further he not only denied that Grand Agency had the insurance on Brighton Housing but also said it had "nothing to do with it." That week the Village Voice printed the Grand Agency binder with Brighton Housing Inc. and also revealed that City Title had insured title on $125 million of New York City Mitchell-Lama Housing, a state run program.[8] A New York Times exposé of Bernard Bergman's disgraced Towers Nursing Home showed that its insurance was placed through Grand Agency. And on November 7 the Village Voice had further revelations. City Title Insurance, for example, insured the property of the 142-unit Jewish Hospital Staff Residence in Brooklyn, while Steingut's law firm acted as counsel on the project, and a substantial architectural fee went to fellow Brooklyn Assemblyman and friend Alfred Lama.[13] Steingut tried to explain that he misunderstood the question. Columnist Michael Kramer opined that either Steingut lied or he was "too dumb" to be Speaker.[11] Newfield punned that Steingut "puts a premium on deceit."[8]

The revelation and other embarrassments (he was, for example, trustee of Touro College, which was under investigation by the attorney general for a possible illegal scheme to tie Medicaid payments to leaseback contracts) did not derail his hopes and the Democrats elected him Speaker when they retook the Assembly with a substantial 88 to 62 seat majarity.[3]

Speakership and the Fall[edit]

When he took the gavel in January 1975 (40 years to the day after his father did and 10 years after he had previously been prevented), Steingut's vicotry was part of a greater triumph for his Madison Club. The previous year Abe Beame had been sworn in as Mayor of New York City by now Justice Nathan Sobel. Steingut's mother told him then that in heaven his father "must be smiling." Later, when Madison Club member Hugh Carey was elected governor in November, ending 16 years of Republican occupancy of that office, Steingut told his mother after the election, "Hugh is one of us."[7] Under New York state's peculiar division of power Steingut himself had become (with the Governor and President of the Senate) one of the three most important elected officials with not only unlimited ability to schedule legislation but also the sole power to appoint Assembly committee members and chairmen and each of the (at the time) 1,400 full- and part-time-employees of the Assembly.[11] It would prove to be the high-water mark of the Madison Club.

Even before taking the gavel Steingut attempted to improve his image, by striking populist themes in a mildly progressive package designed to reform the way the Assembly did business.[11] In fact he was trying to fend off a group of serious reform-minded Democrats, the Democratic Study Group, who formed a substantial bloc in the Assembly. "Reform" in Albany had always meant reducing the substantial power of the Speaker.[14] In the end, Steingut acceded to a few demands. He gave up the Speaker's unfettered "right" to "star" calendared bills in order to prevent consideration by the Assembly. He also agreed to provide each member $7,500 to staff district and Albany offices and to discontinue the practice of using County Democratic Leaders (like Esposito) as whips.[14] Machine politicians saw these steps as the beginning of the end. Meade Esposito later claimed that giving assemblymen their own offices obviated the need for them to meet in the clubhouse where he dealt with them, and, as a result, his influence as party leader waned. "Reform was beginning to set in, you know," he said. "And that didn't do too much good."[15]

The concessions also failed to please his critics. Michael Kramer said that Steingut was "using 'legislative reform' as a smoke screen to hide his real interest, the perpetuation of the business-political web that allowed him to prosper while he serves in Albany."[11] Reform-minded Democratic politicians were more threatening. Robert Wagner, not long after leaving Manhattan's Tammany machine had blocked Steingut's ambition in the 1960s. The second time in 1974, Wagner, though openly leading the fight against Steingut's election as Speaker,[13] proved less successful. A more persistent antagonist of Steingut emerged in the early 1970s, the son of Steingut's former friend Jerry Finkelstein, Assemblyman from Manhattan Andrew Stein. The first skirmish between Stein and Steingut took place in 1972 when Stein accused Steingut of using "back room pressure politics" to end Stein's investigation of Medicaid fraud and abuses at state nursing homes. Steingut claimed that he was preparing his own investigation, for which Stein was seeking credit. Stein carried on, however, and his work eventual led to the appointment of special prosecutor Charles Hynes, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn[16] The extensive investigations by Hynes would ultimately damage Steingut. Stein continued to pursue Steingut on claims of corrupt relations with Bernard Bergman. Steingut was vulnerable not only because of insurance firm had extensive dealings with Towers Nursing Home but also because Steingut's attorney, Daniel Chill, represented Bergman before state agencies.[17]

In the midst of mounting scandals relating to his insurance interests, Steingut was indicted together with his son by a Brooklyn grand jury on charges of corruption relating to Robert Steingut's election campaign for a New York City councilman-at-large seat.[18] The indictment alleged that Steingut and his son promised to assist Hans Rubenfeld, a Bronx haberdasher, in obtaining an appointment to an unpaid City position in exchange for $2,500 in contribution to Robert Steingut’s campaign.[19] The New York Court of Appeals two years later dismissed the indictment on the jurisdictional grounds that indictment did not show a "materially harmful impact on governmental processes," which gave the impression that he was cleared on a technicality.[19][20]

Early the following year a primary challenger for Steingut's Assembly seat appeared, Helene Weinstein, supported by the New Way Democratic Club, a newly formed organization outside the Madison Club influence, which operated out of a storefront and had only one elected official as member, insurgent Democrat Theodore Silverman. Andrew Stein, now Borough President of Manhattan, endorsed Weinstein against Steingut and began actively working for her in July, later saying that when he realized Steingut would not be indicted for the nursing home scandals, he "made up [his] mind to destroy him."[21] And all the allegations concerning the Towers Nursing Home scandal, and others, again came to the surface.[22] Steingut would not go down easily, however. He attacked Weinstein's residency in the courts and on August 30 Ms. Weinstein was ruled off the ballot with 7 days left before the primary. But the courts did not rule against her petitions, only her residency, so with the court's approval, her father, Murray Weinstein, stepped in as a stand-in for his daughter.[21] At the primary, in the race only for a week, Murray Weinstein stunned Steingut by defeating the Assembly Speaker and one time Brooklyn boss. Steingut was already eligible for the general election, having received the endorsement and ballot line of the Liberal Party, but made one final attempt to cut a deal. Steingut announced that he would get off the ballot only if he were appointed to a judgeship.[23] Governor Carey,however, stayed out of the race, as did Esposito, now fully alienated from Steingut. But the Speaker campaigned ruthlessly, calling Weinstein an "integrationist" in the areas of the district with high concentrations of Italian-Americans, Lubavitcher Hasadim and Orthodox Jews and a bigot elsewhere. The United Federation of Teachers, still under the control of Albert Shanker, actively supported Steingut with pamphleting and phone work. Steingut was also supported by City Council President Carol Bellamy, former Manhattan Bourough President Percy Sutton and Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.[21] Stein said that the campaign was one of "great nastiness, fought block by block, like nothing we ever see in Manhattan."[4] On November 7, however, Weinstein, Murray this time, beat Steingut 10,297 to 9,079, a margin of a little more than 6% of all votes cast.[24] Steingut's political career and the influence of the Madison Club were over.

Legislative Legacy[edit]

Despite the scandals and the allegations of self-dealing, Steingut's positions were often progressive and sometimes unpopular. He opposed the death penalty, worked on a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana and fought for a range of child-protection and pro-consumer bills, including a generic drugs bill. He was the author of a law requiring the State to educate handicapped students. He also promoted a law that prohibited redlining.[4] Although the power he ceded as Speaker seemed little enough, the fact that he gave up anything made him, in retrospect, "the father of the modern Legislature," according to Mel Miller, a subsequent Assembly Speaker, also from Brooklyn.[4]

After Politics[edit]

After losing his Assembly seat, in January 1979 Governor Carey made a recess appointment of Steingut to serve as Chairman of the New York State Sports Authority, a position he retained for a year. He continued to act as trustee for Touro College. He also resumed the practice of law, first as counsel to the firm of Baskin & Sears and later as the senior partner in the Manhattan law firm of Berger & Steingut.

Among the accolades he received were honorary degrees from his alma mater Union College and Polytechnic University.

After long suffering from lung cancer, Steingut was admitted to Tisch Hospital on December 4, 1989 and died of pneumonia early December 8.

Family[edit]

Steingut married Madeline "Madi" Fellerman. They had three children together: Robert Steingut, an investment banker and former City Council member at large from Brooklyn, born 1945; Theodore Steingut, born 1949; and Ilene Steingut (who later married Giuseppe Vallifuoco), born 1954.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Schlegel, Carl Wilhelm, Schlegel's German-American Families in America (New York: American HIstorical Society: 1916-1918), Volume 3, p. 111.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Pace, Eric (December 9, 1989; corrected December 12, 1989). "Stanley Steingut, 69, Ex-Speaker Of New York Assembly, Dies at 69". New York Times.  Accessed May 18, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e Holcolmb, Charles R. (November 29, 1974). "Steingut Attains Goal". [Orange-Ulster, New York] Evening News. p. 7A.  Accessed May 17, 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Combined wire services (December 9, 1989). "Ex-Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut Dies". Schenectady Gazette. p. 19.  Accessed May 19, 2013
  5. ^ Krase, Jerome and Charles LaCerra, Ethnicity and Machine Politics (University Press of America: 2009) ("Krase & LaCerra"), p. 81.
  6. ^ Krase & LaCerra, pp. 8-9
  7. ^ a b Tuccille, Jerome, Trump: The Saga of America's Most Powerful Real Estate Baron (Beard Books 1985), p. 98.
  8. ^ a b c Newfield, Jack (October 10, 1974). "My Back Pages". Village Voice. p. 18.  Accessed May 18, 2013
  9. ^ a b c d Holcolmb, Charles R. (January 8, 1969). "Steingut Skill in Politics Cited". The [Albany] Knickerbocker News. p. 3A.  Accessed May 22, 2013
  10. ^ "Death Ends Career of the Best Known Political Old Time Democratic Leader in the U.S.". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. January 22, 1934. p. 3. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kramer, Michael (November 25, 1974). "The City Politic: A Tale of Two Speakers". New York Magazine. p. 12. 
  12. ^ Dutlefsen, Bruce B. (January 8, 1969). "New Democratic Leader Steingut Calls for Unity". The [Albany] Knickerbocker News. p. 3A. 
  13. ^ a b Newfield, Jack (November 7, 1974). "My Back Pages". Village Voice'. p. 18.  Accessed May 19, 2013
  14. ^ a b Feldman, Daniel L. and Gerald Benjamin, Tales from the Sausage Factory: Making Laws in New York State (Excelsior Editions) (State University of New York Press: 2010)("Feldman Benjamin"), p. 87.
  15. ^ Blauner, Peter (April 11, 1988). "The Voice of New York: An Oral History of Our Tiimes". New York Magazine. p. 71.  Accessed May 19, 2013
  16. ^ Krase & LaCerra, p. 132
  17. ^ Krase & LaCerra, pp. 132-133.
  18. ^ Chambers, Marcia (November 7, 1975). "Steingut and Son Are Charged In a 2-Count Felony Indictment". New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  19. ^ a b Krase & LaCerra, p. 134.
  20. ^ Goldstein, Tom (July 15, 1977). "Court Upholds Curb on Steinguts' Trial". New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2011. 
  21. ^ a b c Ferretti, Fred (November 9, 1978). "The 2 Men Who Waged War on Stanley Steingut". New York Times.  Accessed May 19, 2013
  22. ^ Krase & LaCerra, pp. 133-34.
  23. ^ AP Wire (September 14, 1978). "Steingut Weighs". [Orange-Ulster, New York] Evening News. p. 2A.  Accessed May 19, 2013
  24. ^ "NY Assembly 41". Our Campaigns.  Accessed May 20, 2013
New York Assembly
Preceded by
Irwin Steingut
New York State Assembly, Kings County 18th District
1953–1965
Succeeded by
District abolished
Preceded by
New district
New York State Assembly, 44th District
1966
Succeeded by
Bertram L. Podell
Preceded by
Leonard Yoswein
New York State Assembly, 41st District
1967–1978
Succeeded by
Murray Weinstein
Political offices
Preceded by
Perry Duryea
Speaker of the New York State Assembly
1975-1978
Succeeded by
Stanley Fink
Preceded by
Perry Duryea
Minority Leader of the New York State Assembly
1969–1974
Succeeded by
Perry Duryea
Preceded by
Joseph T. Sharkey
Chairman of Brooklyn Democratic Committee
1962-1969
Succeeded by
Meade Esposito