Elizabeth Holtzman, Once Youngest Woman in Congress, Looks to Return at 81

By Reuvain Borchardt

Elizabeth Holtzman, once a household name in the New York political scene, is back in electoral politics, tossing her hat into a very crowded ring for the Democratic primary in New York’s 10th Congressional District.

In 1972, a 31-year-old Holtzman defeated 50-year incumbent Rep. Emanuel Celler in the Democratic primary, becoming at the time the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She served four terms in the House, playing a prominent role on issues from the impeachment of President Richard Nixon to deporting former Nazis living in the U.S. Holtzman later served two terms as Brooklyn district attorney and one term as New York City comptroller. She also lost elections for U.S. Senate in 1980 (general election) and 1992 (Democratic primary). In 1993, she lost her bid for reelection as comptroller when she was defeated in the Democratic primary by Alan Hevesi.

Nearly 30 years after her last campaign, Holtzman is running again, one of a dozen Democratic candidates vying for the newly formed district that includes all of Lower Manhattan and portions of Brooklyn including Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Boro Park below 14th Avenue.

Holtzman has received endorsements from former New York City Councilman and State Senator Tom Duane; former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey; feminist activist Gloria Steinem; and the editorial board of the Daily News.

Primary Day is August 23.

On Monday, four days after her 81st birthday, Holtzman sat for an interview with Hamodia at a café in her Boerum Hill neighborhood.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NY-10 voters have a number of sitting elected officials to choose from in this race. Why should they cast a ballot for someone who has not been in electoral politics for years?

Well, at least one other candidate hasn’t been in politics at all. Ever. [Ed. Candidate Dan Goldman was an assistant U.S. Attorney for 10 years, and rose to fame as prosecutor of then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, but has never held elected office.] So that can’t be the criterion.

I think what I bring to this race is something that’s unique, which is: I have a record. And it’s not just of promises, and it’s not just of what I like to do. It’s of having done it.

Let’s just talk about some of the issues that people really care about in this district. Whatever ethnic background they’re from, in this district people are concerned about the rise in antisemitism, about anti-Asian hate crimes, about racism, about bigotry in general. But I’ve got a long record on this.

When nobody in America paid any attention, I took on Nazi war criminals who were living here. I did it myself. I mean, thank goodness, nobody wanted to oppose what I was doing about Nazi war criminals; they weren’t exactly really popular at that time. And I was able to accomplish a lot. But if I hadn’t been there, who knows if this ever would have been done?

When I was DA, blacks were being removed from the jury using peremptory challenges, and it was legal. And I said, we’re not doing it in this office. I stopped it in the prosecutor’s office, and then I litigated this up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on women’s rights, I fought for the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, before Roe was adopted as a rule by the U.S. Supreme Court. I got the Equal Rights Amendment extension adopted. I worked recently with the New York State Assembly and other people on drafting the new Equality Amendment — which, by the way, protected religion. It wasn’t going to at the beginning; that was something I worked very hard to see included. I wasn’t going to have religion treated as a second-class status. Because growing up as a Jew in New York, I experienced antisemitism. I got beaten up on the way to Hebrew school as a kid, and my brother did, too.

So I have a record of not just press conferences, but actually accomplishing something and changing the Constitution, changing our laws, changing how we dealt with these issues. And on anti-Asian crime as well. I prosecuted that as DA.

When I was comptroller, when I was DA, there had never been minorities or women in top places in the office. I opened that up. I changed that. The other people weren’t interested in it. Even when I was comptroller, the mayor didn’t take the initiative on opening up bond business to women and minority firms, or pension-fund business to women and minority firms. I did that.

So why should people want someone who’s got a record of accomplishment, as opposed to people saying, “Well, I’m for this or I’m for that”? I think that’s what I offer. And that’s the reason I’m running now. Because whatever issue you want to pick, I got a record of accomplishment and achievement.

You just mentioned bond business. On that note, you were accused of giving bond business to a bank that had given your campaign a loan.

[Ed. According to a Sept. 16, 1993 New York Times article, a New York City investigation “has found that Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman showed ‘gross negligence’ in taking a $450,000 campaign loan from a bank and then approving the bank’s selection as an underwriter of New York City bonds. The report by the Department of Investigation also questioned Ms. Holtzman’s honesty, saying the evidence strongly suggests that she knew the bank was seeking city business despite her repeated claims that she was not aware of its desire to attain a higher status in the group of underwriters for city bonds.”

The loan was made to Holtzman’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1992. When Holtzman ran for reelection as comptroller in 1993, Alan Hevesi, who defeated her, repeatedly attacked her over this issue.]

Who accused me? Did you ever hear of someone called Alan Hevesi?

Sure.

And what happened to Alan Hevesi?

Did you not get that loan, though?

I’m asking you a question. What happened to Alan Hevesi?

I know he had his own problems.

[Ed. In 2006, Hevesi, then state comptroller, had to resign his post after admitting to using a state employee to chauffeur and aid his wife. In 2011, Hevesi was sentenced to prison for his role in a pay-to-play pension fund kickback scheme.]

What were those problems? Do you remember exactly what happened to him? Did he go to jail?

But again –

– Did he go to jail?

Yes.

For what? For taking bribes.

Right. But he’s not running right now. I’m asking, did you take that loan?

But he ran against me, and tried to win that election by making accusations like this, which were completely political. The person who made the accusations went to prison.

Did you not get that loan?

No, I was not personally involved in it. And that wasn’t the issue. They said I had to formally recuse myself, in other words, write a document saying, “I recuse myself,” but they never said I was involved in making that loan. Because I wasn’t.

Were you not aware that your campaign received that loan?

What are you talking about? You want to dredge something up that’s 30 years old from a guy who went to prison, and his confederate went to prison over bribery, and you’re going to accuse me based on their — they went to prison. Did I go to prison?

No.

Was I ever indicted for a crime? Does anybody ever think I committed a crime?

I’m not accusing

— You’re raising stuff that’s nonsense. Nonsense on top of nonsense.

You mentioned it was 30 years ago. That’s when you were in office, though.

That’s when I was in office. And since that time, I got top security clearance from the CIA. Why do you think they gave it to me? Because I’m a crook? You think the CIA would give me top security clearance because I’m a crook? And what do you think they gave me top security clearance on?  Something that’s very important to your constituents — what do you think it was about? I served on a task force, a commission, a panel, that was appointed by President Clinton to review U.S. secrets on Nazi war criminals. I had top security clearance for many years — because I was very untrustworthy and a crook.

So let’s put this in perspective, okay? You might want to dredge it out for a campaign, and other people might want to feed it to you for a campaign, because in a campaign anything is permissible. But this is garbage on top of garbage. And crook on top of crook.

I don’t know if anyone used the word “crook.” I think it was more of a question of conflict of interest.

With Alan Hevesi you can use the word “crook.”

I think the question was more about a conflict of interest.

I didn’t have any conflict of interest. I never did. This was all political, and it’s political now.

What do you think of the Democratic Party today compared to when you first won election in 1972?

The Democratic Party opposed me. It was [Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair] Meade Esposito. And what happened to him? He went to prison. Sometimes you’re known by your enemies.

What do you think of the democratic-socialist movement?

I’m not a socialist, democratic or otherwise.

Nancy Pelosi recently visited Taiwan, and yesterday a few other lawmakers also visited. Do you believe these visits are a good idea specifically, and in general, what do you think America should be doing about Taiwan?

I’ve been in a situation where the State Department didn’t want me to do something when I traveled abroad. So I’m definitely not going to tell a Member of Congress not to do that. I remember when I went to the Soviet Union with a small delegation of Congresspeople, and the State Department told us not to meet with any Jewish refuseniks. So what do you think I did? I met with them. Because that’s the kind of Congressperson I am. The State Department’s not going to tell me what to do unless I agree with it.

For a Member of Congress, no one’s going to pay attention if you go to Taiwan or wherever you go. It’s not a big deal. But when the Speaker goes, that becomes a very big deal. Whether she was right or not right, I think the jury’s still out on that. Maybe she was completely right in doing this. But it may be that the provocation was huge.

When we talk about what I bring to being back in Congress: with a delegation of women members of Congress many years ago, we met with a guy called Deng Xiaoping whom no one had ever heard of. And then of course, he became the head of China. But when we met with him, what totally astonished me was that he ranted at great length about Taiwan. And I said to myself, “This wasn’t on anyone’s agenda, but this is really a big deal issue for them.” I’m not saying that that should deter us. But you have to know what’s on the other side’s mind.

Do you believe in a “Medicare for All” health-care model?

I believe that health care is a universal right. And we need to move to that as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of opposition to this. My view is, take what you can get as quickly as you can get it. If it’s the whole enchilada, great.

But I’m going to fight for whatever incremental changes and improvements can be made. And I’ll fight also for getting something like Medicare for All adopted, although I think the chances are very slim for that, unfortunately.

When you ran against Emanuel Celler, in 1972, The New York Times reported:

Miss Holtzman said that she does not stress the age issue, although most of her position papers and news releases mention that Mr. Celler is 84. ‘The voters see age as the single most important issue,’ she said.

She said she has been getting a ‘terrific reaction’ from old voters in the district. ‘They feel they had to retire at 65 or so and he’s still earning a substantial income,’ she said.

You are now nearly the age that Celler was then. Should voters see age as an issue?

I think voters should see whether someone can do the job as an issue, always. And age can tell you whether someone can do the job, or it may not. Because some people at the age of 81 or 90 are sharp as a tack and can do the job. And some people at the age of 30 can’t think out of a box. So I think it’s a question of not judging a book by its cover. When I ran for District Attorney the first time, people came up to me on the street and said, “You know, Liz, we love you, you did a great job in Congress, and we voted for you in Congress and we voted for you for the Senate, but DA is not a job for a woman.” That was a preconception.

People have preconceptions about a lot of different things, and sometimes they’re fair and sometimes they’re very unfair.

And the question is can you do the job, and whether you can think and whether you can physically do the job. Those are critical things. Because being in Congress takes a lot of stamina, and also takes — if you’re really going to do a good job — a willingness to work hard. I got an award as workhorse of the year when I was in Congress. I’m very proud of that award.

If you win the election, how long do you see yourself being in office?

Right now I’m there to take on the Supreme Court, the MAGA Republicans and Trump. That’s my reason for going. If we weren’t in a crisis situation, if we weren’t in this dangerous situation now where the Supreme Court has put a target on women’s backs and other groups, and we have a president who wants to come back by fraud and deceit into power, and MAGA Republicans who are supporting him, I wouldn’t be running for Congress.

We have a time that demands the qualities and the background and the character that I bring to this. And the record of accomplishment, whether you want to talk about discrimination, whether you want to talk about climate, whether you want to talk about health care, whether you want to talk about equal rights, I’m ready to take these people on.

I know how to do it. There’s no time for on-the-job training.

Just in my first two years in Congress, I voted to impeach a president. I wrote the law in the House of Representatives, and Sen. Sam Ervin wrote the bill in the Senate, and we passed a law that prevented Nixon’s state secret act from going through. That’s my first law, within three months of being in Congress.

I wrote the special prosecutor law. I voted for Nixon’s impeachment. I brought a lawsuit to stop the bombing of Cambodia. I uncovered the problem of Nazi war criminals in the United States. That’s just in my first two years in Congress.

You said a moment ago that some elderly people are sharp as a tack. Is Joe Biden one of them?

I’ve known Joe Biden since he was first elected to Congress. We came to Congress together. He’s a very caring and decent person. I think the whole country, including me, owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for removing Trump from office. If he wants to run again, that’s completely up to him.

And if he runs again, you would support him?

I supported him wholeheartedly this time. He was my candidate. I thought he was the only person who could defeat Trump. I worked like crazy to get him elected. And if he runs again, I have every anticipation of supporting him. But I don’t know if he’s going to. That’s a decision for him to make as to whether he wants to run or not.

Do you think his mental acuity is up to the job of being president of the United States?

Let’s put it this way: it certainly beats that of a lot of people.

If you stop and think about it, the fact that he was able to organize the countries of Europe together in NATO — after Trump had beaten them up and almost destroyed NATO — bring NATO back, bring the countries of Europe together, in order to stand up to Putin and that danger, that’s a testament not only to his mental acuity, but to his strategic intelligence. You can’t just do that if you’re a dope, senile. I don’t think he’s senile. And I don’t think he’s a dope.

I know him. I haven’t seen him recently, but the last time we spoke together, we had a very good conversation. He remembered me. We hadn’t seen each other for several years. He’s an experienced person in government, in policy, and he’s done a pretty good job given the horrible situation he was left.

If elected, what would be your policy with regard to Israel?

As a young child, my grandma sat me and my twin brother down, turned the radio on and said, “This is when the State of Israel is being formed, and I want you to remember this day for the rest of your life.” And I have. It was very important to my family, and it’s important to me.

What do you think of the BDS movement?

I’m not in favor of the policy.

Would you support placing any conditions on aid to Israel?

I actually have negotiated with foreign governments. I negotiated with the government of Vietnam over an orderly departure program that the U.S. government then picked up. I also negotiated with the foreign ministers and Prime Ministers of countries in Southeast Asia dealing with the refugee crisis.

Sometimes you have to have a lot of room with regard to negotiations. When you come in with some kind of rigid point of view, it’s not always conducive to reaching a good conclusion. So as a negotiating technique, I can’t say that I favor that.

And I think that the U.S. should play a positive a role to facilitate peace in the Middle East.

Would you visit Israel on an AIPAC trip?

I’ve visited Israel plenty of times. No one has to take me to Israel.

Would you go on an AIPAC trip?

I don’t need to go on a sponsored trip. No one has to take me on a trip to Israel.

Are you saying that as a Member of Congress, you’re not going to go on any sponsored trips to Israel?

I didn’t say that. I said I don’t need to go on a sponsored trip. I have been there many times. And if I need to go to Israel, I can figure out how to get there.

Would you go on a trip sponsored by any group at all?

Not necessarily. I don’t know why I would need to go on a trip that’s sponsored by somebody. I actually know some of the members of the government. I’ve been to Israel many times. I don’t need someone to take me by the hand and lead me around.

The trips are for people who’ve never been there and don’t know what’s going on. I’m not in that category. It’s almost insulting to answer that question. Come on.

When a group sponsors a trip, when a Member of Congress goes, it often indicates something about their policies, whether it’s AIPAC or J Street or someone else.

It might with other people, but generally you don’t have new Members of Congress who’ve had the experience that I’ve had. I was in Israel when the Scuds were coming over. I was in Israel when I was comptroller. I was in Israel when I was in Congress. When Sadat came to Israel, I said, I’m going to go to Egypt, and I did. I was in Israel, and then I went to Egypt. I met most of the prime ministers in Israel. So what are we talking about here? Someone’s going to lead me around Israel, show me this is where King David’s Tomb is? I mean, come on.

What do you think of the Iran nuclear deal?

I was in favor of it. I am in favor of it.

Some Democrats have been calling to expand the Supreme Court as a response to the court’s right-wing majority. Do you support expanding the Supreme Court?

I don’t think that that’s necessarily a practical measure, because I don’t think that’s going to happen. So my concern is, what do we do as a practical measure to change what’s happening on the Court and to change the composition of the Court?

I think we have now a Court that you could raise serious questions as to its legitimacy.

Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation was cut short. It turns out that the FBI never questioned Kavanaugh himself. What kind of investigation is that? They never questioned his accuser. What kind of investigation is that? We should finish that investigation. That’s what I’m calling for. I want to see that investigation finished. [Banging the table]. That’s what we need to do now. The Congress should not be going home. They should be finishing this investigation. And the same with Clarence Thomas.

Clarence Thomas did not recuse himself and was the only one to vote to conceal information that the January 6 committee was asking for. Why isn’t the Congress investigating Clarence Thomas’s failure to recuse himself? After all, we may not know all the details, but it seems that Clarence Thomas’s wife was — I don’t know if you want to use the word “conspiring,”  that has a criminal overtone — but was certainly working with, or trying to work with, the insurrectionists. And here you have someone on the Supreme Court who is refusing to recuse himself when it involves a disclosure that could affect his wife. That’s a big issue. So it seems to me, as I said, what Congress ought to do now is something that’s practical. And this is a practical solution, but Congress seems to want to go home for recess.

I’d like to ask about the court’s recent Dobbs decision. I know you oppose the decision, but do you believe that there should be any restriction at all on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy? Or should it be legal at any time, for any reason?

The real danger of the Dobbs decision is not just that it overturned Roe vs. Wade, which was terrible in and of itself — it’s the first time in our country’s history that a constitutional right has been taken away. But the critical thing about Dobbs that not enough people are talking about is what Alito said: that because women were not written into the Constitution, and women’s rights weren’t written into the Constitution, either at the time of its framing or at the time of the 14th Amendment, that we are not in the Constitution, and therefore we have to abide by what women-haters and misogynists and bigots 300 years ago thought about women’s rights.

Are we going to ask Hitler about what Jewish rights should be today? Are we going to ask slaveowners what black rights should be? And we’re going to ask these women-haters what women’s rights should be? That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court is saying.

We weren’t even allowed to vote at the time of the Constitution. And we weren’t even allowed to vote at the time the 14th amendment was adopted. Really? That’s what America’s about today? I don’t think so. Nobody should be a second-class citizen in America.

Do you believe that there should be any restriction at all?

The right to terminate a pregnancy is a woman’s right to control her own body. Period.

So it should be legal at any point in the pregnancy, for any reason?

A women’s right to control her body is her right, period.

At any point in the pregnancy for any reason?

Well, I think after the pregnancy, when birth is given to the fetus, then different laws apply. But a woman’s body is something that a woman must be able to control.

One of the issues most discussed during the past few months has been inflation. To what do you attribute the high inflation, and what do you think can be done to reduce it?

I was on the House Budget Committee for five years, by the way, which gives me a little bit of experience in this area as well. Because we had to hear from the top economists in the United States every six months. And I took economics when I was at college.

I think there are a number of causes for inflation now. We had supply-chain issues, we had pent-up demand as a result of the COVID pandemic, we had price gouging — that whole issue has not been fully explored — we had fossil-fuel companies trying to exploit the situation that we’re in now. So I think there are a number of factors at work.

There are only a certain number of tools you can use with regard to inflation. One of them is to tamp down the economy. And it’s sometimes not easy to do it with a soft landing. Sometimes, if the Fed doesn’t do it properly, you can have a crisis or a depression or a recession. So one of the things they’re doing, and that’s standard operating procedure, is to raise interest rates to slow down the economy.

Do you think government spending had anything to do with it – like the stimulus bills?

Government spending is a problem when you don’t raise taxes. It’s not the spending itself. It’s the extent to which it’s not covered by tax increases. So spending that creates a deficit can be inflationary. But spending is not in and of itself inflationary, unless it’s not covered by revenues.

Are you saying deficits cause inflation?

They could. Not always. It depends what else is going on in the economy. I mean, if you have an economy that’s in a recession, deficits don’t cause inflation.

Gas prices have come down somewhat recently, but are still historically high. Would you, as a Member of Congress, support more drilling, if you thought that would lower gas prices but also contribute to climate change?

We don’t always have either/or options.

There are several things that we have to do now. One is to try to deal with the horrific problem of climate change, which could cause a catastrophe in this country. We’ve already seen it now, from the wildfires that we have in California, to the heat that we had in New York, to rising water. You don’t have to go very far from New York City to see the water levels rise and trees that are dead along the coastline because of the rising water level and salt gets into their roots.  We’ve got to do something about this, because what kind of planet are we going to leave for our children, and how habitable will it be? That’s a huge, huge problem. We can’t postpone it, and we can’t push it under the rug. We have to deal with it. That’s number one.

And secondly, we have to get alternatives to the automobile. It’s not going to happen easily — but we are not spending enough as a country on mass transit.

We have transit deserts in this district and outside this district. We need to build much better public transit. And we need to have bullet trains in this country. We have a backwards transportation system. We’re like a Third World country in that regard. These are things that have to be done as soon as possible. Not on the back burner, not in the distant future, but now.

rborchardt@hamodia.com

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