The Bronx’s unlikely role in the rise of Trump
If a historian, in the decades to come, wants to construct a heritage trail of President Donald Trump’s rise to power, there are a few obvious places to begin. There is the tony neighborhood of Jamaica Estates in Queens where he was reared; the southern Brooklyn construction sites he toured with his powerful father; and gleaming Manhattan, of which he always dreamed, and the tower that would bear his name.
But one more area will unexpectedly stick out. Long before Trump bumbled and raged and demagogued his way to the presidency, he was a wannabe hotshot in a crumbling city, trying to make a name beyond the outer boroughs. His developer father, Fred, practically owned Brooklyn and Queens, and guaranteed his pugnacious son a life of luxury as the steward of his legacy. We know, of course, that wasn’t enough.
Like residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, all of whom overwhelmingly rejected Trump in favor of Hillary Clinton, Bronxites live in a borough that has played its part in Trump’s saga. Relatively few realize that it was the Bronx, and its corrupt political heavyweights, who first helped Trump taste power.
Though they had no idea they were tracking the life of a future president, the late journalists Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield featured Trump in their 1988 account of Mayor Ed Koch’s corruption scandals. The book, “City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York,” does not give Trump a starring role, but he haunts its pages as a symbol of ’80s excess and, to today’s readers, a warning of what’s to come.
Relatively few realize that it was the Bronx, and its corrupt political heavyweights, who first helped Trump taste power.
The only photograph of Trump in the book shows the future president, in suit and tie, scowling as an older man jabs a finger near his chest. The man is Roy Cohn, the lawyer who mentored Trump and remains infamous for serving as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel as the senator carried out witch hunts against suspected communists. The locale of the black-and-white photo is a Bronx Democratic Party dinner.
Cohn’s law partner was Stanley Friedman, who became the boss of the Bronx Democratic Party and was a deputy mayor under former Mayor Abe Beame. Friedman was the unquestioned kingmaker of the Bronx under both Beame and Koch. Cohn, a Bronx native, had offered to make Friedman a partner, according to Newfield and Barrett, as an “expression of confidence in Friedman’s ability to generate future business.”
Cohn had plenty of reasons to be confident. In 1977, in the waning days of Beame’s administration, Friedman had frantically forced the city to tie together a lucrative package for Cohn’s ace client, Donald Trump. A fiscal crisis had made the city desperate, and the city offered a 42-year, $160 million tax abatement for Trump to turn the old Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt. Trump did not have his private financing in place, but Friedman signed off on the deal anyway.
The “unprecedented maneuver” gave Trump what was then the biggest tax write-off in New York City history. To sweeten the pot further for Cohn’s protégé, Friedman signed a special permit allowing Trump to build his hotel restaurant overhanging 42nd Street. Friedman was already on his way to Cohn’s firm as he was hustling for Trump.
“Trump, largely because of the success of this deal, would become one of Cohn and Friedman’s prize clients,” Barrett and Newfield wrote.
When Friedman, installed as the Bronx Democratic boss under Koch, backed loyalist Stanley Simon for Bronx borough president, Trump repaid Friedman’s favor by cutting a $10,000 check to Simon’s campaign, according to Newfield and Barrett. Simon would go on to win, serving as a de facto puppet for Friedman at a time when borough presidents held far more power under a different city charter.
Unlike Trump, Friedman and Cohn were at the height of their influence. Cohn would die of AIDS in 1986. A year later, Friedman was sentenced to 12 years in prison on federal charges of promising kickbacks in connection with obtaining contracts from the New York City Parking Violations Bureau for a company that wanted to manufacture hand-held computers. He would end up serving four years. The scandal cost Koch his shot at winning a fourth term.
Trump’s lingering legacy in the Bronx is a golf course bearing his name. The city built the course and let Trump operate it. Perhaps not surprisingly, things aren’t going as planned. Revenue is down, the course lacks a permanent clubhouse and residents complain that they can’t afford it. You can’t blame the borough for wanting to forget its place in presidential history.
Ross Barkan writes a monthly column on the Trump administration for City & State. His work has appeared in the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.