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One On 1: Politician, Educator Herman Badillo Asks What If

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Herman Badillo's political career is known for its series of firsts and fruitless campaigns for mayor, but also for some controversial views, especially on education. Recently, Badillo went One on 1 with Budd Mishkin, who filed the following report.

Herman Badillo has had a lot of jobs, including: congressman, borough president, deputy mayor, and bowling pin setter.

"I was working as a pinboy, going back and forth from one alley to the other," recalled Badillo. "In the meantime, I was reading Shakespeare because I was studying in college and they couldn't believe I could do both things at the same time."

Badillo ran for mayor five times.

At 79, his days of running for office are over.

"I got it out of my system in 2001," he said.

That year was Badillo's last run for mayor, when he lost the Republican primary to Michael Bloomberg.

He's now an attorney for a Wall Street law firm, and teaches at the Touro College of Education.

Badillo is best known for his mayoral runs and as the first Latino to serve as a borough president and a congressman.

But his views on education, many of them contained in his 2006 book One Nation, One Standard, have also garnered a lot of attention – and criticism.

As City University of New York chairman, he fought for higher standards and open admission and was greeted with boos when he spoke at graduation.

"The idea of going to college is to get a good education, not just to get a degree that means nothing," he said. "Eventually that philosophy prevailed."

He's also taken on social promotion; the practice of promoting low-achieving students to keep them with their peers.

"To those who say that it is sociologically bad for a child to be left behind: is it is sociologically worse for a child to be 17 years old and no be able to read or write or do arithmetic?" asked Badillo.

In 1974, Badillo co-sponsored the Bilingual Education Act.

"If you can't speak that language and understand what the teacher is saying, you're not going to move ahead," he said.

Now his views have changed.

"Unfortunately, the way it is being applied today in New York City, in some areas it goes on for six or eight years," he said. "That doesn't help, because instead of helping the kids to learn English and moving them into the mainstream, they go off on a tangent."

Badillo is not afraid to take on his own people. In One Nation, One Standard, Badillo argued that Latinos do not put enough emphasis on education, angering some in the Latino community.

"There are some foolish people who say the Latino community, you shouldn't criticize your own community," he said. "Well that's ridiculous. It's not just the fault of the communities. It's the fault of the educational system. But the educational system is not going to correct itself, so that's why I say to the parents, you got to really get involved."

Perhaps Badillo's fondness for self reliance stems from the fact that both of his parents died of tuberculosis in Puerto Rico by the time he was five.

His antipathy for treating black and Latino students differently began at Haaren High School, now the site of John Jay College, where a fellow student on the school paper advised him to transfer out of studying airplane mechanics.

"He said, 'what are you doing that for? That's for blacks and Puerto Ricans,'" recalled Badillo. "'Well I'm Puerto Rican,' I responded. 'No, you don't understand,' said the fellow student. 'That means you cannot go to college. You obviously can read and write and you should be going to college.'"

Badillo first came to the United States when he was 11. He lived with an aunt, attended City College, became a certified public accountant, and then graduated first in his class at Brooklyn Law School.

His political career started in 1960, working for President John F. Kennedy. Then in 1964, he helped Bobby Kennedy, advising the first-time Senate candidate on how to campaign in the city.

"I said the way to get big crowds, especially when you're meeting with poor people, is you've got to touch them, look them in eye, because they want to see you in person," said Badillo. "Television doesn't do it."

Badillo first ran for mayor in 1969.

The writer Norman Mailer joined the race that year, and Badillo believes the votes Mailer got cost him the Democratic primary.

"The whole thing was, to him, a joke and he campaigned as a joke," said Badillo. "In fact, at one point in the campaign they said, 'If by some miracle you're elected, Mr. Mailer, what are you going to do? You don't know anything about New York City.' He said, 'I'm not worried. I'll make Badillo the deputy mayor of New York City. He knows how to run the city.'"

In the 1973 race, Badillo alleged that his opponent Abe Beame arranged for young black and Latino kids to drive into white neighborhoods playing salsa music and shouting support for Badillo in the middle of the night. Beame always denied the allegation.

In a debate, Badillo called him a "malicious little man."

"He allowed these people to go with bongo drums after 10 at night, talking about the fact that I wanted blacks and Latinos to take over City Hall," said Badillo. "That was a malicious thing to do."

Badillo was witness to two of that era's most historic events. As protesters and police fought in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic campaign, Badillo, a convention delegate, helped lead a candlelight march.

"At that point, they were pointing the bayonet at me even though I had the delegate badge," said Badillo. "I said, 'you got all these weapons, all we have is candles. This has to be a peaceful march.' So he looked up and said, 'okay, go ahead.'"

In 1971, Governor Nelson Rockefeller chose Badillo as one of the negotiators to try to quell the Attica Prison uprising.

Badillo preached patience. The governor eventually sent in State Troopers.

"We heard the shooting and I realized people were getting killed," Badillo said. "New York Times reporter Tom Wicker turned to me and said, 'What do you think Herman?' I said, 'I don't understand what the rush was. There's always time to die.'"

At the time, Badillo had just become the first Latino elected to Congress. He got housing built in some impoverished areas of the Bronx, and then ran into some harsh reality.

"Let's expand this proposal to the rest of the country and my colleagues said, 'Listen, Badillo. Don't get greedy.We took care of you. We gave you something for your district, but we have no intention of getting rid of the slums of this country,'" said Badillo.

Badillo resigned from Congress at the end of 1977 to work in the Koch administration, where he focused on rebuilding the South Bronx.

In the years that followed, he ran unsuccessfully for comptroller on what was called "a fusion ticket" with Rudolph Giuliani in 1993. In the late 1990s, he became a Republican, and in 2001 failed in his fifth and final try for City Hall.

His second wife, Irma, died in 1996 after a long bout with Alzheimer's disease.
Now he spends his days working at a Wall Street law firm, teaching. and relaxing with his wife Gail, a retired school teacher.

He occasionally allows himself to ask, what if?

"If Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated, I think the United States of America would be a different country," said Badillo. "If I was elected mayor first time I ran in 1969, I think the city would be different. And lot of the problems we had and have now would have been eased. So there were many things that really could have changed with just a little bit of a turn."

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