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Justin N. Feldman, lawyer; worked for Kennedy campaigns; at 92

JUSTIN N. FELDMAN JUSTIN N. FELDMAN (Robert Walker/New York Times)
By William Grimes
New York Times / September 26, 2011

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Justin N. Feldman, a Manhattan lawyer who helped manage Robert F. Kennedy’s 1964 New York Senate campaign and whose deep involvement in city politics extended from the 1940s when he joined with other reform Democrats to oppose Tammany Hall, through the 1980s when he helped broker a $5.6 billion rebuilding program for the city’s public transportation system, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 92.

The cause of death was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Linda Fairstein, the former prosecutor and crime novelist.

Mr. Feldman, a liberal Democrat who was later a campaign aide for John F. Kennedy, entered reform politics in the late 1940s as a leader of the Fair Deal Democratic Club. The group was dedicated to breaking the political influence of Tammany Hall, whose machinations Mr. Feldman analyzed trenchantly in an influential article, “How Tammany Holds Power,’’ published in the journal National Municipal Review in 1950.

He ran as a Fair Deal candidate for the post of Manhattan borough president in 1949 before withdrawing in favor of the eventual winner, the liberal candidate Robert F. Wagner Jr. In 1960, Mr. Feldman managed William F. Ryan to a stunning upset over the Tammany-backed candidate in the 1960 election for the House of Representatives from New York’s 20th Congressional District, then on Manhattan’s West Side.

“Justin Feldman was a reformer before reform in Democratic politics became popular,’’ former mayor Edward I. Koch said Friday in an e-mail.

As chairman of the law committee of the Manhattan Democratic Committee, Mr. Feldman challenged the constitutionality of the 1961 statute that redrew Manhattan’s four congressional districts, arguing, in a case that reached the US Supreme Court, that the boundaries created racial enclaves.

Especially glaring were the 17th Congressional District on the East Side, known as the Silk Stocking District, then represented by John V. Lindsay; and the 18th District on the Upper East Side and East Harlem, represented by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The 17th District excluded 97 percent of Manhattan’s nonwhite residents; the 18th District excluded 99.5 percent of its white residents.

Arguing before the Supreme Court in Yvette M. Wright et al. v. Nelson A. Rockefeller (who was governor then), Mr. Feldman said of the redistricting, “it hurts the Negroes because it puts all their influence in one district and denies them the ability to influence congressional elections in other districts.’’

Asked by Justice John Marshall Harlan II, “If you started out to construct a segregated congressional district, could you do a better job than this?’’ Mr. Feldman answered, “It would be absolutely impossible.’’

On Feb. 17, 1964, the court ruled 7 to 2 that the plaintiffs had failed to prove racial discrimination.

Mr. Feldman, a law partner of James M. Landis, the lawyer for Joseph P. Kennedy, was an early supporter of John Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He served on Kennedy’s staff at the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and after the election helped draft proposals for reorganizing the federal regulatory agencies.

During Robert Kennedy’s successful Senate campaign, Mr. Feldman managed the candidate’s schedule and supervised the advance teams that preceded him to each campaign stop.

Mr. Feldman, who helped persuade Kennedy to run, watched with some consternation as the campaign unfolded and his candidate, distraught at the death of his older brother in 1963 and shaken by the recent airplane crash that had left his younger brother, Edward M. Kennedy, in the hospital, seemed to flounder.

“It was painful to watch him on the campaign trail - he was depressed, and the crowds sensed it,’’ Mr. Feldman told David Talbot, the author of “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years’’ (2007).

He awakened, Mr. Feldman recalled, after his Republican opponent, Kenneth B. Keating, brought up Joseph P. Kennedy’s position on appeasement in the 1930s and charged that Robert Kennedy, when he was attorney general, had settled a case against a chemical company with Nazi ties to please his father.

“Bobby went nuts,’’ Mr. Feldman said. “He no longer thought Keating was this benign force in politics. He denounced his charges as outrageous demagoguery. After that, Bobby became a campaigner.’’

Mr. Feldman’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Linda, he leaves two daughters, Jane of Denver and Diane of Washington; a son, Geoffrey of Lowell, Mass.; and two grandsons.