Melinda’s Next Move

Melinda’s Next Move

Queens Assembly member Melinda Katz, who gave up her seat this year to run an unsuccessful campaign for Congress, is likely to assume a top job at the Queens borough president’s office, where she would be in charge of community board appointments, The Jewish Week has learned.

The protege of City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who handpicked her to succeed him in the Assembly in 1994, Katz is considered a rising star in local politics. But the Forest Hills Democrat came in second in the primary to succeed Sen.-elect Charles Schumer in the House of Representatives, despite a full-court press by Hevesi and the Queens Democratic Party. She lost by less than 500 votes to Brooklyn City Councilman Anthony Weiner, who was backed by Schumer.

Dan Andrews, a spokesman for Borough President Claire Shulman, said no decision has been made in filling the $68,000-a-year post currently held by Terrie Moran, who is being reassigned. “A number of people have expressed interest,” said Andrews, although he said Katz is a leading contender.

Several reliable sources, however, said the appointment was a done deal. “They’re not talking about it yet,” said one insider.Katz did not return calls seeking comment.

Prior to serving in the Assembly, Katz worked at the Manhattan law firm of Weil Gotshall and Manges, and speculation centered on her return to private law practice when her Assembly term ends in January. But the job with Shulman would keep her in public service until 2001, when she is likely to run for the Forest Hills City Council seat to be vacated by Karen Koslowitz.

One political operative reported murmurs of doubt as to whether the borough president’s job is the right place for Katz to pursue her ambitions. “It’s hard to create a political identity to run for office again when you’re representing someone else’s agenda,” said the source.

It was a bittersweet week for Bruce Bender, who has been named chief of staff to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. On the same day Bender’s appointment to succeed private-sector-bound Kevin McCabe was announced, Bender’s ailing father, Sidney, 74, was placed in an intensive care unit, suffering from pneumonia.

“I’ve been waiting 20 years for this to happen, and the day that Peter is announcing it I was at the hospital,” said Bender, 42, while en route to visit his father at New York University Medical Center on Tuesday. “It’s a real shame.”

Bender, who has worked for Vallone for three years, previously served as an aide to Councilman Herbert Berman (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Finance Committee. He has been acting chief of staff since last spring when McCabe left office to manage Vallone’s gubernatorial campaign. Bender is Vallone’s primary Jewish adviser, and organized his visit to Israel this summer. The $138,000-a-year job makes him among the most powerful non-elected Jewish officials in the city.

“Basically I’m in control of negotiating all legislation and the budget and land-use items with the mayor, in addition to dealing with oversight and policy of all 33 committees,” said Bender, a Brooklyn native. The position will make him particularly important in 2001, when most city officials will be forced out of office by term limits. “I’ll know the ins and outs,” he says. “But there is always the question of whether a new body will want the current staff.”

Bender, who holds master’s degrees from New York University and the New School of Social Research, does not rule out running for office himself. “I love government and public policy,” he says.

Jewish community councils throughout New York breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when funds locked in the budget battle between the mayor and City Council were at long last released.Claiming there was too much “pork” in the budget passed in June by the City Council, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani withheld some $150 million earmarked for non-profit groups which contract with the city to provide programs for the elderly, immigrants, and victims of domestic violence, among others.

In a sign of faith that the funds would be restored, the community councils’ umbrella organization, the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, has been fronting the money from communal funds raised by UJA-Federation.

“Our friends in city government were constantly reassuring us that our clients would not be held hostage,” said Merryl Tisch, president of the Met Council. “We always had confidence that our partners would be there for us.”

The Met Council’s executive director, William Rapfogel, said his organization was due a “low seven-figure sum” from the just-passed city budget. “This was a responsible budget that lowers taxes and at the same time increases services for the most vulnerable in New York City,” said Rapfogel. “There is money in this budget for new housing for the frail elderly, which is a vitally important initiative, and additional money for domestic violence prevention. There are funds to help the daily crisis intervention efforts of most of the Jewish community councils across the city.”

Is running for the Senate Giuliani’s fallback option if he does not make it onto the national ticket in 2000?

That seems increasingly likely as Giuliani seeks to establish himself as a nationwide contender. In the past week he has delivered a foreign policy address at the Northeast regional dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in New York, stumped in Iowa and Memphis, Tenn., and spoke at the annual dinner for Yeshiva Beth Yehuda in Detroit.

“This was the largest yeshiva dinner in the country,” said Giuliani’s chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, who accompanied the mayor to Iowa and Michigan. “There were close to 2,300 people there.”

The appearance was arranged by Rabbi Rafael Butler, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, according to Gary Torgow, the yeshiva president. Giuliani’s presence at the dinner “certainly raised interest and helped our attendance,” said Torgow, who declined to say how much was raised. There was no discussion of presidential politics at the dinner, Torgow said. In the past 10 months, though, Rudy’s road show has toured 20 states.

Political analysts are skeptical that Giuliani, or his fellow Republican, Gov. George Pataki, will play well on the national stage because of their liberal views on issues like abortion and gay rights — views they need to survive in New York.

Meanwhile, sources say an announcement on the Senate race is likely to happen around January, following the mayor’s state of the city address.

For Giuliani, who will be forced out of City Hall in 2000 because of term limits, running for the Senate could be a way to hedge his bets. If he becomes the Republican nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he could withdraw from the race if a presidential contender such as Gov. George W. Bush of Texas named him his running mate.

“These things are mutually reinforcing,” says political commentator Fred Siegel of Cooper Union in New York. “To the extent that he’s mentioned as credible for vice president he better positions himself for the Senate. To the extent that he looks to be a serious Senate candidate, he’s more serious as a player in the Republican Party.”

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