Washington Heights–Former mayor of Englewood, Michael Wildes joined the Yeshiva University College Democrats this past week for an intimate round-table discussion about local government.
Michael J. Wildes, managing partner of Wildes & Weinberg P.C. immigration firm, is a former federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, testified on Capitol Hill about anti-terrorism legislation and is internationally respected for his successful representation of several defectors who provided important national security information. He is frequently a legal commentator/analyst for network television, most recently in connection with the terrorist threats facing the United States. He is an adjunct professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where he teaches immigration law. From 2004 through 2010, Mr. Wildes was also the mayor of Englewood–where he lives with his family.
Wildes’ first exposure to local government was his urban studies class at Queens College. “I was fascinated by local experience in government,” he said. “I was always interested in public service. I was an 18-year old kid afraid to get on the subway, afraid I would get mugged. Then I recognized there are lots of other people with fears, so I planned to take it in stride and go for public service.”
Wildes spoke about being observant and in office, “I took great pride in being an observant Jew, but I didn’t know if that precluded me from doing other things. When I was 18, I wore a uniform and was a police officer for 10 years. But save the grace of local government there was nowhere else people could turn to. People relied on the police for medical, psychological, and legal [care]. I had a sense of propriety from my observant community for those who weren’t affluent and what to do about it. I had a yarmulke that said ‘Officer Mike.’ I wanted people to see that you could be an observant Jew and give back to the community we live in.
“I was appointed to Community Board Six. When I was in law school, I’d have my badge up and fully immersed myself in law studies. I took classes with Harrison Goldin, former NY comptroller. Working was the only way to get experience in local government. I worked on Capitol Hill for Gary Ackerman. Pervasive in my studies were all these opportunities. I had walked the beat, the local experience was in my veins.”
Not everything came easily to Wildes, however. “When I got out of law school I had a mixed brand.” He added, “I wanted people to vote. I went door to door, and registered voters. Before I ran for office, I was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. One of the main cases I worked on was Mario Biaggi’s, a big friend of Israel involved in a big scandal. It gave me a taste of public service at its worst–what kind of trail a public servant could leave. I got investigated, my opponent didn’t believe it. They sent out a fleet of 20 investigators to check out my campaign practices. I won before the election started.”
This proved to be a conflict in his communal life. “Some people thought I was sanctifying being a religious Jew and others thought the opposite.”
Wildes also discussed his role in public and communal affairs. “I had the privilege of marrying people, giving them the keys to the city. I was at more events for the city than my own family. I was a lawyer during the day and an elected official at night. In 2004 when I was elected mayor, I thought there was a shelf life for young mayors. I created a public trust. You have to walk those streets, knock on those doors,” he said.
Recent events also sparked Wildes’ public speeches. “They asked me to be in an Eric Garner debate. You have to be careful, what goes on YouTube stays on YouTube. I debated a former FBI agent. This isn’t throwing the police under the bus, this is a former police officer saying there’s a better way to improve ourselves. If education is what it takes, we will do it to preserve life,” he added.
Work life balance also had a poignant impact on Wildes’ career. “The reason why I got out of politics is because my daughter said ‘Daddy, take your shoes off.’ I had gotten enough of a dose of [public office] in my system. When Muammar Gaddafi wanted to sleep in property he owns in Englewood, I said no way. I’m an American and I’m a Jew. I will never forget what this man did. We took him to court. I called Donald Trump, and we stopped him. He had to sleep in the U.N. facility. I had a body guard, I was threatened. There was [this] trajectory where local politics had an international flavor. When we travelled internationally, I was asked to host several dignitaries. It wasn’t just a good thing to do, it was a privilege. I took a part time job that paid $5000 a year and I raised a million to get it,” he shared. “Most people are trying to get the job, what do they do with it though? How will I be remembered? I pulled the reins back before I missed valuable time with my kids,” he added.
“Tip O’Neill said ‘all politics are local.’ You must watch your base. You must always refer to those whom you represent. I knew how my community wanted me to vote. When I became mayor, the first thing I did was help out the schools, if $50 million is what it takes to protect kids walking to school and getting a better education that’s what we’re going to do. I had to explain myself,” he said.
Wildes’ bemoaned the current state of local officials. “It’s a shame more people don’t want in. I became a better lawyer because of the public experience. I became more expert on international politics because of my local efforts. Energy and sustainability all stem from local efforts. My sense of social responsibility is massive. We don’t have infinite resources. The Democratic Party is looking like the party of everything instead of a focused party. We’ve abandoned the narrative of terrorism to republicans. Republicans took homeland security and ran with it to the extreme. Extremes forces people to the middle,” he argued.
When asked what students can do, Wildes suggested “Volunteer! Volunteer! Volunteer! Do what you’re passionate about. Whatever career you embark on, pay it forward. Give back wherever you go. Look for old people for advice. The people important in your life will do the same.”
One student raised the issue of violence against the African American community and what YU students can do about it. Wildes’ responded, “The most efficient thing to do? Form a relationship so that if there’s God forbid another challenge, the trust is already developed. I don’t want it to be a token kind of experience. It should be meaningful. Meet with leaders, support families, help raise funds. Dialogue is key. Every time there is a white face supporting the issue, the message must be ‘we respect you and stand in solidarity with our African-American brothers.’ That would be tremendous.”
Rivka Hia is an intern at JLNJ. She is a junior at Stern College majoring in journalism. Find out more at: about.me/Rivka.
By Rivka Hia