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NEW YORK--Frankie "the Rabbit" Torres was screaming mad last Tuesday night following Herman Badillo's 3-2 loss to Abraham Became in New York City's run-off mayoral primary.
Torres, who earned his nickname in the early 1960s for his speed in scurrying around East Harlem's housing projects to gather nominating petitions, complained bitterly about Badillo's organization in El Barrio.
"They got one of these kids, you know with the Afros and the fancy clothes and they told him to run the operation. That mariconde! He doesn't know the first thing about politics. All they did was pay money to these drunken gypsy cab drivers to ride around the streets of El Barrio with Badillo posters on their cars."
"They never made any effort to canvass the people, give them literature, or anything that we used to do in the regular organization to pull out the vote necessary to win. These people are amateurs and I'm glad that I got away from them and went to work for a man who knows what politics is all about."
The man that "the Rabbit" went to work for is Eugene Nardelli, an Italian district leader in the heavily Puerto Rican lower section of East Harlem. Nardelli grew up in East Harlem at a time when it was a boy's dream to become a member of the regular Democratic machine. As soon as Nardelli joined that organization, it fell apart. The formerly dominant Italian population had moved out and the newly arrived Puerto Ricans took over.
Nardelli worked for seven years developing an organization among the Puerto Ricans and in 1969 was elected the Democratic district leader riding in on the coattails of Congressman Herman Badillo who he backed that year for mayor. This year Nardelli defeated a Puerto Rican challenger for his position by more than a 2-1 margin.
As an Italian-American, Nardelli wanted to support Representative Mario Biaggi in this year's mayoral primary. However, because he is a pragmatic politician, Nardelli knew he could not.
"I'm in a 95 per cent Puerto Rican district, you got to realize that. The Puerto Ricans they tell me, "look we'll vote for you, but we sure as hell won't vote for your brother Biaggi'. I've got to go with one of them for Mayor, Herman has always been fair to me and there is every reason in the world to back him."
On primary day, Nardelli had 50 pullers in the projects working to drag out the reluctant voters. Utilizing his election district captains, number runners, high school kids and gyps cap drivers, Nardelli managed to produce a 40 per cent turnout in his area with 92 per cent of that vote going to Badillo. No district leader in the city did that well.
Nardelli also had a fleet of cars outside his headquarters ready to take Puerto Rican voters to the courthouse in the event that some were denied the right to vote because of a supposedly invalid registration. During the day, Nardelli's people transported over 150 people to the courthouse in upper Manhattan so that they could get orders allowing them to vote.
After it was clear that Badillo had lost, Nardelli sat in the backroom of his club with the captains discussing what they should do next. Nardelli quickly convinced them that they had to support Beame.
"Gentlemen, I know how disappointed you all are that Badillo didn't win, but there's nothing we can do now. If we want to salvage something out of this campaign we've got to go with Beame quickly. If we become his strongest East Harlem club, maybe we" get some of the patronage because he's going to be the next moyoral.
While some of the younger workers were against the idea, the older captains all agreed that the organization had to support Beame. Nardelli told the captains he would be in touch with Beame's people the next morning.
Sitting in a corner, still muttering about the poor organization was "the Rabbit" Nardelli went over to him and gave him a pat on the shoulder.
"Frankie you did a great job. Your district turned out over 48 per cent of the Democrats. I want you to have this."
The "this" Nardelli was talking about was an envelope containing $150. As the district leader, Nardelli gives each worker between $25 and $150 for his efforts on primary pay depending on the relative importance of the job and the ability of the person.
"The Rabbit" lit up when he got the envelope and he said, "You know Gene, we have to win this thing for Beame. I'm ready to start working again as soon as you need me, but don't let those young bastards have anything to do with this next campaign.
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