Remembering a legend in New York politics
“Isn’t anyone in this room normal?”
That was the response of former Queens assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn, who died late last week at 96, to a roomful of “experts” and “activists” trying to browbeat her into accepting that 2 + 2 = 5, that up is down—and that letting newborns die of AIDS was somehow “progressive.” It was the finest of many fine moments for Mayersohn—and a kind of epitaph for the common-sense, working class Democratic Party that she embodied, and that died long before her.
A lifelong union Democrat, Mayersohn came out of the Jewish Workmen’s Circle social-democratic tradition and lived almost her entire adult life in a two-bedroom apartment in a union-subsidized housing development in Flushing. She retained her commitment to New Deal economic policies but broke with modern progressivism on issues where she saw it undermining rather than furthering the humanitarian ideals of her upbringing. That break came to a head when she sponsored the “Baby AIDS” bill in the early 1990s.
That bill, which ultimately passed over the vehement opposition of New York’s liberal establishment after a five-year battle, ended a bizarre and deadly policy under which test results revealing that newborn infants had HIV were concealed from their mothers and doctors, delaying for years crucial treatment to avert the suffering and death of these babies. The policy was justified as necessary for “AIDS confidentiality,” as though newborn babies could make informed medical decisions by themselves, and as if telling mothers that their infants were infected would lead to stigmatization.
This cruel and absurd policy was supported by the medical establishment, the legal establishment, and the administration of Governor Mario Cuomo. Against them stood Mayersohn, a grandmother who’d initially completed her education in high school and then went back to school and earned a degree from Queens College when she was in her fifties. When her bill began gaining traction, the opposition figured that it could intimidate her. They called her into a meeting with the experts, who used jargon and sophistry to explain to her why it made sense to let babies with AIDS die.
She sat politely and listened. Then she asked if any of them had children. None did. Then she asked if anyone there was normal.
Mayersohn led a similarly successful effort against the same establishment array to establish a program of partner notification for adults who tested positive for HIV. In this effort, as with the Baby AIDS bill, she placed the lives of real people—typically unsuspecting wives and girlfriends—over ideology.
Another issue on which she broke with modern progressive dogma was on the screening and eviction of public-housing tenants—not because she’d become an old-style conservative who opposed public housing but precisely because its survival was important to her. Directly opposite her own lower-middle-income union development stood a low-income public-housing project, which for many years was one of the city’s most successful. Kids from both developments played together when Mayersohn’s children were growing up. But the progressive “rights revolution” made it difficult to keep drug dealers and other criminals and undesirables out of the project, ruining it for decent residents. Mayersohn fought these misguided rules and the Legal Services lawyers who championed them.
She similarly opposed the fashionable liberal policy of “family preservation,” in which severely abused children are returned to the biological parents who tortured them. Family preservation was said to be “anti-racist” because many of the parents involved were nonwhite—but the anti-racists never asked what color the dead children were.
A daughter of Queens, Mayersohn walked the walk and talked the talk. When I recruited her to the board of a public policy group I headed, the one question her counsel asked me was whether she would have to come into “the city,” as longtime non-Manhattanites still refer to Manhattan, for meetings. “Nettie hates going to the city,” he said.
R.I.P., my friend. If they still made Democrats like you, there’d be no need for Republicans!
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