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Hirschfeld's United States political career commenced in 1966, when he was named treasurer of the New York State Democratic Committee. In 1974 and 1976 he ran unsuccessfully, and without Democratic Party backing, for the U.S. Senate, spending more than one million dollars of his own money on the failed 1974 campaign. "I had plenty of money to run without party funds," he writes in his autobiography. "So what if I didn't win. At least I would bring to the public's attention an issue that none of the other candidates was willing to tackle."
The "issue" was inflation, but what sparked the most interest during the campaign were charges - later proven false by the state board of elections - that Hirschfeld had bribed opponent Allard Lowenstein to drop out of the race and run instead for the House of Representatives. That same year, at a breakfast, Hirschfeld attracted media attention when he spat on the late Stanley Steingut, then-minority leader of the New York State Assembly, who had refused to endorse Hirschfeld's Senate bid. (A few months later, Hirschfeld likes to point out, Steingut was indicted on corruption charges.)
Spitting, Hirschfeld explains, is the supreme insult: "A bullet you get hurt, but you can recover," he says, "but from spit, you can't recover. A spit can never be washed off." Given the chance, he adds, he would spit on Steingut again. "I only made one mistake when I spit in Stanley Steingut's face," he asserts. "I should've done it at dinner. At breakfast there were no TV cameras."
Of course TV cameras were present to capture Hirschfeld's next expectoration, the October 26, 1990, wet gesture directed at Bonnie Weston while the Miami Herald reporter attempted to cover Hirschfeld's unsuccessful attempt to sell his Castle Hotel.
You spat on a Miami Herald reporter. Why did you do that?
Well, I met with her twice I think, and I asked her to write fair and honest. I brought with me the Miami Beach "Neighbors" section [of the Herald] and said, "Here is your article. You write about a certain [commission] decision but you never mention that it was five-to-two, or six-to-one. You misled the public to think that it was unanimously voted on."
I met with her again and told her, "If I vote, if the vote is five-to-two against [the Miami Beach Police Department] sending out a letter [to employers of] people who are arrested for drugs, why don't you use my name? You use the mayor's name and not my name. What have you got against me?" It didn't help. So I spit in her face, and I never apologized for it.
Channel 10 asked me to apologize and I went on the air, and I said, "I do not apologize, but I will be very happy to discuss it in an open forum with the Miami Herald or any of their representatives. I never heard any responses, and a person not responding is only a person who is guilty. There is an old Polish law. When the Russians wanted to annex Poland and they came, they made their demand in the Polish senate, and the senate remained silent. The Russians answered, "No answer is acceptance," and that's basically the law of laws. Someone sues somebody and he doesn't respond, automatically they get the verdict. So the Miami Herald not responding to my allegation, automatically they are guilty.
Did you plan in advance to spit or was it spontaneous?
I really don't know.
You don't know?
I really don't know.
What would you do if someone spat on you?
I would immediately call the police and put them in jail. I would press charges for the worst insult one can hurl.
Is there any danger you'll spit again?
The last time I spit was 1974. I spit again last year, and the next time I spit will probably be in 2010. Until then you're all safe.
Do you regret spitting?
I regret nothing.
The Miami Beach City Commission reacted to Hirschfeld's salivary outburst by formally censuring him. The Miami Herald responded with a scathing editorial. The late Janet Chusmir, the Herald's executive editor, was quoted in a separate story as calling the commissioner "a disgrace to this community." Herald humorist Dave Barry, in an end-of-the-year article, mentioned Hirschfeld five times, once by the nickname "Spitball." In his widely read column, Carl Hiaasen savaged Hirschfeld.
The thick-skinned Hirschfeld once won a lawsuit brought against him by comedian Jackie Mason, who told him during a deposition, "You should drop dead by Thursday," and his self-image and sense of humor seem not to have been injured by the public criticism. Barely two months after the spitting image was televised, Hirschfeld gave local media another opportunity to zero in on him. Several minutes before the December 19, 1990 Beach commission meeting began, Hirschfeld noticed a group of people waiting in the audience. "I decided to entertain them, so I told a joke," he explains.
Hirschfeld's attempt at humor was a joke about the owner of a kosher deli who charged excessively high prices to black customers to keep them away. When the black customers were willing to pay for the sandwiches, the owner put up a sign that said No Jews Allowed.