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In Pursuit of Influence (and Muggers): Denny Farrell’s 40 Years in Politics

He championed causes and candidates, and was known for helping minorities and women get elected to the bench in Manhattan. Wielding political power, he said in an interview in 1994, could be a “tool for good.”

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Herman D. Farrell Jr., right, at a Democratic mayoral primary debate in 1985, with the incumbent, Edward I. Koch, and Carol Bellamy.

Credit
Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

“I believe you can get things done if you control the mechanics,” he said then.

Along the way, Mr. Farrell built something elusive among many in his chosen calling: a reputation for trustworthiness and for decency in his treatment of rivals.

“He is the exemplar of the kind of compromising and deal-making politician that all of a sudden everybody longs for,” said Richard L. Brodsky, a former assemblyman from Westchester. “He was and still is the most elegant person in that chamber.”

Charles B. Rangel, the former congressman representing Harlem and Washington Heights, praised his friend’s candor. “He would speak his mind,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Farrell has heard a lot of these sorts of things since he announced his retirement earlier this month. “I’m really impressed by this guy Farrell,” he said in his Albany office last week, and shrugged. “Next year they won’t remember my name.”

The son of a tailor, he has been known as an impeccable dresser throughout his adult life, weaving through his district in Harlem or back and forth to Albany in his cherished convertibles, pulling his hair back into a ponytail when the wind blew it in his face.

He said whatever reputation for decorum and for straight talk that he has picked up owes to his upbringing — “My mother would whip me if I didn’t have class,” he said — and childhood in Harlem.

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Mr. Farrell, between Charles B. Rangel and Mario M. Cuomo, in Harlem in August 1989, three months before David N. Dinkins was elected the first black mayor of New York City.

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Clarence Davis/NY Daily News, via Getty Images

“Growing up, we were all different,” he said. “I’m black, Steve’s Jewish. You learned how to insult people without getting killed. I can cut you, because I know how to cut, but on the other hand, you know how to do it just right.”

He also learned how to learn. “When I was a child, I couldn’t decide if I was an idiot or smart, because I’m dyslexic,” he said. “I didn’t know what dyslexic was.” Nor did his teachers. He was never a strong student, but he learned how to think creatively to solve problems that others managed more easily, a strategy of casting a wide net for preparation that he said made him a strong debater in later years.

“I can’t write a lick, but I can do things,” he said. “I keep things in my head.”

David N. Dinkins, the former New York City mayor, said Mr. Farrell had a gift for reading the room before a vote was taken and knowing the outcome. “The thing he was best at was counting,” he said last week. “It’s very important to know how to count.”

Several political veterans described Mr. Farrell’s most significant defeat as a sort of victory. In 1985, he ran against Edward I. Koch in the mayoral primary, winning just 13 percent of the vote. But his race was later seen as a steppingstone for Mr. Dinkins’ election five years later.

John LoCicero was on the other side of the 1985 race, a longtime adviser to Mr. Koch. “Of all the politicians I have dealt with, when he’s on my side or against, he and I, and Koch, always had a good relationship,” Mr. LoCicero said. “When he gave his word, that was his bond. I never heard anybody put a bad word on Denny.”

Joseph R. Lentol, another longtime assemblyman, said Mr. Farrell’s style stands out today. “He debates like a gentleman and makes his point and doesn’t get nasty,” he said. “Maybe it’s a lost art.”

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For four decades, Mr. Farrell held sway in Albany as a lawmaker, and in Manhattan as a Democratic power broker.

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Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Today, Mr. Farrell still stands tall, at 6-foot-4, but leaner than he would like, having lost enough weight to send him to the tailor’s for adjustments to his trademark suits. He stops to catch his breath after a walk across a room. He said he is experiencing new difficulties with memory, and has been, he realizes now, for about a year.

“I didn’t catch that I was not functioning as well,” he said. “I should have quit then,” before the last legislative session, he said. “After I got through this year, I realized I had to get out now.”

A conversation with Mr. Farrell is likely to turn to family. It is perhaps telling that, when a reporter brought up that 1973 mugging, which got a little press, the first thing Mr. Farrell remembered was the German couple who were mugged.

“I liked the man,” Mr. Farrell said. “He was a German who was in a concentration camp and he didn’t have to be. His wife was Jewish but he wasn’t. He kept her alive and kept himself alive.”

Mr. Farrell was already a grandfather when, at age 73, he became a father again with the birth of his daughter, Sophia. She is now 12. (“I think it kind of kept him young, to have a young daughter,” Mr. Lentol said.) In announcing his stepping down, Mr. Farrell repeatedly mentioned her and his wish to spend more time with his family.

“I’ve got to get her to focus better,” he said. “She’s a whip.”

As for the future, Mr. Farrell sees no downside to his generation’s passing of the torch, and in fact, sees improvement. “What really impresses me as I leave is that women will reach an equal place soon,” he said of the Assembly membership. He is promoting Al Taylor, his chief of staff, as his replacement.

“He came to me as an intern,” more than 30 years ago, he said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be out soon. You can take over.’”

“The new world, he understands,” Mr. Farrell said. “I don’t.”

He smiled. “It’s a good thing,” he said.

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