National News

Herman D. Farrell Jr., of Harlem’s Political Old Guard, Dies at 86

Posted May 26, 2018 6:37 p.m. EDT

Herman D. Farrell Jr., a longtime New York state Democratic assemblyman from Manhattan and one of the last survivors of Harlem’s political old guard, died Saturday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 86.

The cause was heart failure, his son, Herman D. Farrell III, said.

Farrell, who was first elected in 1974 and retired when his term ended in 2017, was also the chairman of the New York state Democratic Committee from 2001 to 2006, the first black person to hold that post, and headed the fractious Manhattan party confederacy from 1981 to 2009, longer than any of his predecessors in the post.

From the beginning of his public career, Farrell distinguished himself from most politicians. Towering over his colleagues at 6 feet 4 inches, he dressed impeccably, comported himself like a gentleman, was both candid and trustworthy, was endowed with a wry wit and, untainted, he survived the corruption and sexual scandals that doomed so many city and state officials.

Farrell had no illusions about why political leaders were no longer denigrated as latter-day versions of William M. Tweed or Frank Hague; they had become, in his view, more like referees.

“When times get bad, I know when to step back and let them fight,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “I keep order; I’m not a boss.”

He was not without power, however.

“Party leaders still have the ability to help people get on the ballot and not get on the ballot,” he said. “They will decide whether you can get six people getting 25 percent in a room that only has 100 percent, or how can you get that room to 150 percent.”

In Albany, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and Banks Committee, he championed legislation that protected consumers from financial industry abuses, whether through auto loans, credit cards or checking accounts.

For his efforts to establish the 28-acre, multilevel Riverbank State Park in Upper Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River, it was renamed for him in 2017.

Farrell, in sizing up legislation or an election, often outfoxed his colleagues and his rivals.

“He could count better than any politician I ever knew,” said David N. Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City, in a telephone interview Saturday.

Herman Daniel Farrell Jr. was born in Manhattan on Feb. 4, 1932. His mother, Amy Gladys (Paterson) Farrell, was a dress designer and seamstress. Herman Sr., a tailor, owned menswear stores in New York and Kingston, Jamaica. (Farrell and his father also designed cocktail dresses and, he once proclaimed, “My father and I were the bar mitzvah kings of the East Coast.”)

Herman Jr. was dyslexic, which meant he had to prepare more diligently for classroom work. That later made him a better debater, he said.

A graduate of George Washington High School in Upper Manhattan, he took courses at New York University but did not graduate.

Farrell worked in the Washington Heights office of Mayor John V. Lindsay, then served as the confidential aide to a state Supreme Court justice. He was elected a Democratic state committeeman in 1970, a district leader in 1973 and an assemblyman the following year, from a district that encompassed Harlem and Washington Heights. He was later a member of the Democratic National Committee.

In 1985, a potential coalition of black and Hispanic political leaders collapsed when black politicians endorsed Farrell as their mayoral candidate against the Democratic incumbent, Edward I. Koch, in a citywide primary. The Hispanic leaders had hoped that a coalition would rally behind the Puerto Rico-born former congressman Herman Badillo.

Farrell got less than 45 percent of the vote in Harlem, where he barely outpolled Koch, and 13 percent citywide, although he arguably helped pave the way for Dinkins’ election as the city’s first black mayor four years later.

His death leaves Dinkins and Charles B. Rangel, the former congressman, as the last of Harlem’s political lions.

When Farrell announced his retirement last September, 51 years to the day he started working in state Supreme Court, he cited faltering health and a desire to spend more time with his family, including his 12-year-old daughter. He was the third-longest incumbent assemblyman behind two other Democrats, Richard N. Gottfried of Manhattan and Joseph R. Lentol of Brooklyn.

Farrell is survived by Monique Guidry-Farrell and Herman Daniel Farrell III, his children from his marriage to Theresa Adele Doherty, which ended in divorce; Sophia Ilene Farrell, his daughter with his partner, Barbara Klar; and two grandchildren.

When Farrell retired, Rangel praised his friend’s candor.

“He would speak his mind,” Rangel told The Times last year. “If you’re going to be in for the long run, it’s much easier to know what your true convictions are than to try to remember what you said the last time the question was asked.” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at the time, “Very few public servants can have the long and storied career he has had and still receive universal praise on both sides of the aisle for what he has done and how he has done it.”

Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman from Westchester, called Farrell “the exemplar of the kind of compromising and deal-making politician that all of a sudden everybody longs for.”

When Farrell retired, he said he was stunned by all the encomiums.

“I’m really impressed by this guy Farrell,” he said dryly. “Next year they won’t remember my name.”