By Daniel Massey
The longest running and perhaps most successful detour in borough history came to an end Dec. 31, when Councilman Morton Povman’s 31-year reign as District 24 councilman was halted by term limits.
As staffers last week packed boxes in his Forest Hills office with plaques and street signs collected over the councilman’s three-decade-career, Povman said politics was a roundabout way for him to build a successful legal practice.
“My getting into politics was an attempt to get to meet people and win them over as clients,” he said as he sat in his law office in an adjacent suite.
Povman, 70, said he joined the 7th Assembly District Democratic Club in Richmond Hill in 1960 to help find clients. But he quickly became involved with the club’s leader, Moses Weinstein, former majority leader of the state Assembly. When Weinstein left the club to assume a judgeship in 1970, it opened the door for Povman to become district leader.
A year later, when Councilman Donald Manes ran for borough president, Povman was elected to the seat that he would not vacate for another 31 years.
For Povman, the City Council was the perfect place. It allowed him to maintain his law practice, spend time with his family and serve his community. Despite offers of higher political office throughout the years, the Brooklyn native and Jamaica Estates resident always elected to remain as a councilman.
“I was never power-driven. I was never pressing for any office except City Council,” said Povman, who noted he turned down offers that could have made him a congressman, Queens borough president and a judgeship in the Queens division of the Supreme Court over the years.
“What lawyer in his right mind turns down a Supreme Court judgeship?” Povman asked. “I may be the first one.”
Povman said his decision to remain in the Council worked out just fine. Other lives, he said, “couldn’t be as satisfying as the one I led.”
The gratification comes, in part, from a long list of the people and projects he has helped since taking over for Manes. A few instances stand out in the outgoing councilman’s memory.
In 1972, in his first major battle as a councilman, he fought the Lefrak organization’s attempt to build 3,000 high-rise apartments over Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park even though Manes, then borough president, supported the project.
Povman remembers calling a meeting at Queens College attended by more than 2,000 people. “We protested and picketed Donald Manes’ home,” he remembered. “Eventually he pulled back from the plan. It was my first victory.”
There would be many more over the next 30 years. Povman said he led car caravans and midnight candlelight vigils to save the 107th Precinct in Fresh Meadows from extinction during the city’s financial crisis in the mid-1970s.
In 1995, a battle over construction of a new sewer system pitted the Jamaica Estates portion of Povman’s district against his constituents on the north side of Union Turnpike.
“The north side was calling me Benedict Arnold and saying I received more contributions from people on the south side,” he recalled. “But the job was done because I felt it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t doing it for any other reason.”
All 15 parks in District 24 have been rehabilitated under his watch, Povman said.
Povman has no plans to abandon politics. He will continue his 32-year tenure as district leader of Flushing’s JFK Regular Democratic Club and even said he would not rule out running for City Council again in two years.
“It’s a longshot,” he said. “But if the political climate is so disgusting I feel upset enough to do it, if things that are supposed to happen do not, [I will].”
Povman was referring to a deal he made with county Democratic leaders in exchange for encouraging his chief of staff, Jeff Gottlieb, to pull out of the race for his seat. Gottlieb withdrew from the race and Povman supported the county’s choice, Barry Grodenchik, who was upset by James Gennaro (D-Forest Hills).
If term limits had not forced him out of office, Povman said he would have served two more years and then retired. Now, he looks forward to working as a lawyer and spending time with his five grandchildren.
“There’s not much difference between a lawyer dealing with his clients or a councilman dealing with constituents,” he said. “You have to learn how to listen to people.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.