Miriam Bockman, Groundbreaking Manhattan Democrat, Dies at 86

Miriam Bockman outside her apartment in Manhattan in 1977, the year she became the first woman to head the New York County Democratic organization.

Miriam Bockman, who was the only woman to head the New York County Democratic organization and the first member of the party’s reform wing to do so, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 86.

The cause was complications of cancer, said John LoCicero, her friend and former fellow district leader.

Ms. Bockman was elected county leader in late September 1977 as a political ally of Edward I. Koch when Mr. Koch defeated the incumbent, Abraham D. Beame, for the Democratic mayoral nomination before going on to win the office in the general election. New York County encompasses Manhattan.

Her agenda as part of the party’s reform wing was to get more committee members and voters to choose nominees for political, public and judicial seats rather than having those decisions made by a few bosses meeting in closed rooms.

But the party apparatus that she inherited from Frank G. Rossetti, a Beame supporter, was a shadow of the centuries-old Manhattan machine known as Tammany Hall, which had been ruled by illustrious figures like Aaron Burr, Boss Tweed and Carmine G. De Sapio, and whose icon was a feral tiger.

Instead, well before 1977, the job had degenerated into one akin to herding pussycats clamoring over an evaporating saucer of milk.

“One of the great challenges of the county leadership,” Ms. Bockman was quoted as saying in The New York Times when she won the post, “is to show that the community of interests we share are much greater than the things that separate us.”

But since the early 1960s, when Mr. De Sapio was toppled, Manhattan Democrats had been unable to reconcile the bitter ideological and personal conflicts that divided the established district clubs from their self-styled reform rivals, nor had fractious reformers been able to bridge divides among themselves.

Ms. Bockman announced her resignation in 1981, a casualty of a less disciplined style of politics in which she had been unable to command loyalty by delivering patronage, as party bosses had traditionally done.

By then, she was powerless even to kill a resolution in her home club in Greenwich Village, the Village Independent Democrats, urging someone — anyone — to challenge another alumnus of the club, Mayor Koch, for re-election.

“I’m not a macho person,” she said at the time.

Miriam Levine was born on Oct. 25, 1931, in Corona, Queens. Her father was a postal worker. Her parents were instrumental in establishing a local branch of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association. She graduated from Hunter College High School and Hunter College in Manhattan.

It was after she joined the Village Independent Democrats that she met and later married Eugene J. Bockman, who had worked his way up through the Civil Service ranks and was named commissioner of information and research under Mayor Koch. He died in 1999.

Ms. Bockman is survived by a sister and several stepchildren.

The Greenwich Village district, where Ms. Bockman was a co-leader with Mr. LoCicero, Mr. Koch’s campaign manager, was a hotbed of liberal politics.

“We have been called hair shirts and pains in various parts of the anatomy,” Ms. Bockman once said.

She was an advertising vice president for the weekly newspaper The Villager, then worked on the Koch mayoral campaign early in 1977 until being elected to the party leadership post, which is unpaid. In 1986, Mr. Koch appointed her a salaried commissioner of the Board of Standards and Appeals, which hears challenges to zoning and other rulings.

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