Lefkowitz, Louis

views updated


LEFKOWITZ, LOUIS (1904–1966), New York attorney general, a leading Jewish Republican politician. Born in New York City, he was a graduate of Fordham Law School and practiced law briefly before being elected to the New York State Assembly at the age of 23. For a time he was a judge at New York's Municipal Court. In 1956 he replaced Jacob *Javits, the leading New York Jewish Republican politician of his age, as attorney general when Javits was elected to the Senate. Javits was less than pleased to be replaced by a club politician. Over time they worked together harmoniously. Lefkowitz served as attorney general for a record 22 years. He attempted to seek a different office when he ran for New York City's mayor against Robert F. Wagner in 1961 when Wagner sought a third term as mayor.

As a young man he found the settlement house as a haven to escape the New York slums of the Lower East Side. "They were havens," he said. "You had gymnasium privileges, swimming. You could take a bath more often than at home." He joined a club called the Solons at the University Settlement. It was from that base that he ran for public office, relentlessly campaigning door-to-door, asking voters for their support or at least not to humiliate him. He won. When he first came to office Al Smith was governor; when he retired in 1978 Hugh Carey was the governor.

As a political leader he was the master of street campaigning, remembering names, greeting voters, eating ethnic food. His term of office long overlapped with another liberal Republican, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was both a mentor and a protégé. He was one of the few men who stayed at the Executive Mansion as a guest of Rockefeller, a politician whom he taught to eat blintzes and to down hot dogs, not quite a patrician taste in foods.

His successor, the long-time Jewish Democratic Attorney General Robert *Abrams, the man whom he had defeated in 1974, said: "Historically, the Attorney General's office played a defensive role – defending the state whenever the state was sued. In the modern era, it began to take the offensive lead on behalf of the public interest by bringing lawsuits. He took a particular lead in doing that in the consumer-protection area." Lefkowitz was known as "the people's lawyer."

With Jacob Javits, Louis Lefkowitz, Robert Abrams, and Eliot *Spitzer, the role of attorney general of New York for almost all of the last half of the 20th century and well into the first decade of the 21st century was held by Jewish political leaders proud of their Jewish roots.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]