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It was 1978, and boring was in.
I spent most of my time trudging to and from seventh-grade classes on Long Island, devising ways to hide pot inside of my model airplanes, and falling asleep each night to a cassette of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle.
But then, like a brief comet across the Western sky, I discovered the Sex Pistols. Their snarling good looks, angry calls for anarchy, and slurred British accents were hypnotic. I was transfixed, confused, and fascinated when news broke that bassist Sid Vicious had apparently stabbed to death his girlfriend Nancy Spungen at New York’s fleabag-chic Chelsea Hotel in October 1978. Sid completed the punk Götterdämmerung less than four months later when he died of a heroin overdose.
Nancy’s death remains controversial (some believe she was murdered by a drug dealer); Sid never got his day his court. And while he may have never known it, he became a congressional campaign issue in the months before his death — figuring prominently into a protest bid for office on the Conservative Party ticket waged by my father, Howard Horowitz.
Dad was a Kennedy liberal who defended the poorest of the poor as a Legal Aid attorney. But as the 1960s and 70s wore on, and New York City grew more chaotic, he assumed more of a wearied, Archie Bunker attitude. In 1977, we moved from our bungalowed Queens neighborhood of Bellerose to the supposedly safer and rosier environs of New Hyde Park, about three miles east. It was a white enclave for people fleeing New York City’s mean streets. Racist comments were not uncommon. Its neighborhoods were composed of long, lonely lanes of aluminum-sided tract homes that replaced farmland after World War II. We could never really afford to live there, and concealed our middle-class poverty behind used clothes, a Volkswagen Beetle with a hole in the floor, and holidays and birthdays without gifts.
One night, in the summer of 1978, Dad was walking our collie Brandy and stopped to chat with a neighbor — a local Conservative Party activist. Our friend told him that Nassau County’s all-powerful Republican machine had used business connections to intimidate a Conservative candidate from running for Congress. The GOP was bent on unseating the longtime Democratic incumbent Lester Wolff; they didn’t want some principled Conservative wing-nut siphoning off votes. As they kept talking, our neighbor was impressed with dad’s blue-collar, Democratic disaffection; he was a Reagan Democrat before Reagan. The friend asked this public defender if he’d like to switch parties and run for Congress as a Conservative. Dad said yes, and the Nassau County Conservative Party had one of its first Jewish candidates — and a youthful challenger to Wolff.
Wolff personally liked dad, and also saw him as a convenient way to take votes from the fairly cardboard-cutout candidate that the Republicans eventually put up. Dad wasn’t particularly impressed with either opponent. “In this campaign, I feel like the straight man in a Marx Brothers movie,” he would say in an oddly Kennedyesque accent. But nor did he forget who he was running against. Although the Democrat Wolff had served in Congress since 1965, the year of my birth, he was perceived as aloof from the needs of the Queens-Long Island district, and was widely criticized for often embarking on foreign junkets, demonstrating greater interest in international diplomacy than the law-and-order issues that concerned everyday constituents. It was in Sid Vicious — the spiky haired British punk who entered our city and committed mayhem — that Dad found the perfect issue.
As it happened, Wolff served as chairman of the House’s Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. Dad wanted to know why Sid Vicious — a known drug addict —was permitted to enter the United States on Wolff’s watch? Was Wolff too busy globetrotting (he also chaired the Asian and Pacific Affairs Committee) to protect our borders and city from undesirables?
One night it all came to a head. The candidates were speaking before a forum of the Jewish War Veterans club at Young Israel of New Hyde Park, a small orthodox synagogue in Queens where I would be bar-mitzvahed a year later. Lester Wolff was running late. Not a smooth impression to make on a group of grouchy Jewish veterans. Dad was in high form: “Lester Wolff chairs a committee on narcotics enforcement,” he told the crowd. “Why did he allow Sid VICIOUS to enter our country, as a known heroin addict?” Why indeed. Most of the listeners had never heard of Sid. When Lester Wolff finally arrived, it turned out he hadn’t either. Wolff brandished his law-enforcement credentials, only to be hooted at by the audience: “YOU LET VICIOUS SID INTO THIS COUNTRY!” Wolff had to stop his speech to be told who that was.
Impressed with Dad’s support for law enforcement, the local Police Benevolent Association, the policemen’s labor union, endorsed him. But in an inevitable act of Republican shenanigans, Dad’s name mysteriously “fell off” a newspaper ad the group took out to announce its choices. I was angry. He took it in stride.
In the end, even Sid Vicious couldn’t overcome the status quo. Dad’s protest candidacy received only 10,000 votes. Wolff returned to Congress. The veteran congressman got unseated two years later, when the Reagan tide swept into office a brash, wealthy, and young Long Islander named John LeBoutillier. The newcomer was later found to have violated Federal election law by accepting a $200,500 donation from his mother. The high-born LeBoutillier served just one term.
Was I disappointed that dad attempted to use my punk-rock hero to forward his campaign? Not at all. The Queens-Long Island district was, in many regards, a product of “white flight” from New York City, and its residents often espoused fears of crime along with thinly veiled, and sometimes open, racial animus. Rather than playing the “race card,” a sleazy and easy choice, dad instead made Sid the poster boy for anarchy. I was proud of him.
Dad’s campaign is not widely recalled today in the annals of protest politics. I did have occasion to mention to New York businessman and 1982 Republican gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman that our campaign budget was just $400. “That’s about what we spent per vote,” Lehrman quipped. I was also pleased to discover that Dad is mentioned in a two-volume biography of Conservative Party activist Jack O’Leary. Author John O’Leary recounts the GOP kibosh of the Conservatives’ 1978 congressional bid, noting: “Our North Hempstead leaders … did find a willing and capable candidate to substitute… Howard Horowitz, an enrolled Conservative.”
I’d like to think that Sid would’ve been happy with dad’s plank. Mayhem was his business, and dad placed him centerstage.