Ruben Franco, the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority who is reportedly on the verge of being fired, has earned high marks within the Jewish community during his tenure. "He’s a real mensch," said Isaac Abraham, a Satmar chasidic activist closely involved in public housing issues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "He has been great in resolving many differences between the Jewish community and the Latino community."
Scarce public housing in the crowded, heavily poor south Brooklyn neighborhood has long been a source of tension between chasidim and Latinos. It was that tension that led to initial outrage over the appointment of Franco as housing chief by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994. The former president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, Franco was also a member of the Fair Housing Committee, which charged that the chasidim received preferential treatment on the Housing Authority’s waiting lists.
The Legal Defense Fund, under Franco, had also sued a heavily Jewish Lower East Side cooperative for allegedly denying apartments to Hispanics. The buildings’ management claimed it was unfairly singled out in the suit.
To offset Jewish concerns, Giuliani appointed Kalman Finkel as vice-chairman. The director of the civil division of the Legal Aid Society, Finkel was the city’s foremost tenant advocate.
Franco has since gained the trust of the chasidim and proven his objectivity, according to Abraham and several others who spoke on condition of anonymity. The number of Sabbath-observant employees at the Authority has also skyrocketed during his tenure, they point out.
Talk of a shakeup at the Housing Authority that would include Franco’s ouster began last month following a fire at a Brooklyn public housing complex in which three firefighters died. The sprinkler system in the building had been shut off. Franco has also been accused by several female employees of mishandling their complaints of sexual harassment by other employees. But insiders cite "chemistry problems" between Franco and the administration as the main source of his troubles. His dismissal could come as soon as this week.
Giuliani has not disputed reports that Franco’s $130,000-a-year job was on the line. Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra is rumored a likely successor.
While most of Franco’s Jewish friends seem to accept his departure as inevitable, sources said that the director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, William Rapfogel, has intervened to urge a "soft landing" for Franco, helping him secure another high-level position within the administration. Rapfogel declined to comment.
One organization that will not be sorry to see Franco go is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. The grassroots, left-leaning group has held protests in Williamsburg, claiming the Housing Authority has ignored a 1978 agreement to cease reserving 75 percent of its apartments for whites.
"[Franco] just sat on the situation," said Rachel Rosenbloom, director of JFREJ. "I hope the new head [of the Authority] will comply with the consent decree and take action to address the problems in Williamsburg."
Political consultant Arthur Finkelstein is breaking his silence about the defeat of ex-Sen. Al D’Amato. In a Newsday interview (oddly buried on page 48 of the Sunday edition) Finkelstein said D’Amato was unfairly linked to the right wing of the Republican party, and not the moderate wing associated with Gov. George Pataki. "For that I feel very badly. I could not change that image," he said.
The Brooklyn-born Finkelstein also cited public "exhaustion" with the three-term senator and admitted that he underestimated the registration of some 500,000 new Democrats since 1994.
Also, in a letter to the New York Post, which has blasted Finkelstein editorially for D’Amato’s loss, the consultant distanced himself from the unlikely defeat of former Attorney General Dennis Vacco. He said he met Vacco "only a few times" and "was not involved in his campaign."
Finkelstein did not return a call from The Jewish Week.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind says he’s considering naming his new Democratic club after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Jews from the Holocaust.
Hikind, the son of Auschwitz survivors, told The Jewish Week’s Stewart Ain he has long boycotted the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democratic Club in Borough Park because FDR "was no friend of the Jewish people when [they] were being slaughtered in Auschwitz."
Now that he’s been elected a Democratic committeeman, Hikind has moved the club to a new location, above a 13th Avenue fast food eatery, and banished the name of the 32nd president. "The old club was dying, pretty much," said Hikind, who made clear that his new organization (he claims 1,000 members) would endorse candidates of all parties. One observer complained that Hikind invited officials of several communal agencies to participate in the club, since social service groups are legally enjoined from involvement in politics.
It would likely be the first Democratic club named after a foreign national, although Wallenberg was named an honorary citizen by an act of Congress in 1981.
Another Democratic club that became noteworthy for endorsing non-Democrats has ceased to exist. The First New York Conservative Democratic Club in Forest Hills, Queens, was founded by Jeff Wiesenfeld, an aide to Pataki. Wiesenfeld has since switched his registration to Republican and moved from Queens to Great Neck, L.I. Wiesenfeld, who intended to use the club to promote a right-of-center, moderate shift in the party, says most of the members have now registered as Republicans in areas of Nassau, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
"It’s very difficult to retain a conservative Democratic movement because generally that’s not the customary niche for the party," said Wiesenfeld, the governor’s executive assistant in New York City. He also refuted a report in another Jewish newspaper that he was about to enter the private sector, saying he intended to discuss future options with the governor.
The state Court of Appeals will hear arguments next Friday related to the lawsuit by a Nation of Islam security group against former Assembly member Jules Polonetsky and Long Island Rep. Peter King (R-Nassau). The suit charges that Polonetsky and King conspired to deprive the X-Men agency of its right to work at a Brooklyn public housing complex in Polonetsky’s district because of its ties to anti-Semitic Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Last year, a federal judge dismissed Pataki from the suit, as well as a private realty firm that manages the buildings. Friday’s arguments will appeal the decision to let the case proceed against Polonetsky, now the city’s Consumer Affairs commissioner, and King, who testified before the congressional Housing committee. The suit seeks $100 million in damages.
The state attorney general’s office, representing Polonetsky, and federal lawyers representing King, will argue that legislators cannot be held personally liable for their actions in office.