Much has been said about Victor Gotbaum’s many contributions to our country, and to our city in particular. His place among the legends of organized labor is secure; his position as a master negotiator while helping save NYC from bankruptcy has been acknowledged; and his fierce defense of the working class and those trying join it has been well-documented.
I will not revisit his many accomplishments here – others have already done that and thankfully so, because while history is permanent, it is also quiet, and the story of why Victor Gotbaum was who he was is a loud, somewhat profane and none-too-gentle narrative. We should all learn from it.
Victor would probably look at the title of this piece and say to me, “Majesty? What are you – some kind of schmuck?” Then we might argue over semantics, and without doubt, Victor’s salty blend of reason, logic and choice descriptive terms would carry the day, as it did so often throughout his lifetime.
Majesty is apt here, though. Victor dedicated his life’s work to protecting and lifting up underdogs, the disenfranchised and victims of persecution: he helped liberate those brave souls in a World War II concentration camp; he fought for better conditions for workers and ensured well-earned pensions for those who have spent their life in service to others; he forcefully pushed for gay rights at the beginning of that movement many decades ago; and yes, he even poured his heart and often his spleen into the weekly passion play that was a televised NY Jets game.
I would sit with Victor through many of those games. After each frustrating loss, I would ask him why he invested so much emotion into rooting for a football team that just couldn’t get to the next level. He would shake his head and say, “Because they’re the underdog. I gotta support the underdog.” Then he would go off to take a nap, singing either a Broadway tune, a Sinatra classic, or The Ballad of Joe Hill. We would repeat this over the course of the football season, yet after all those loses Victor would remain optimistic and would always emerge energized for the next game.
So add “stubborn” to the list of characteristics that made Victor Gotbaum who his was. This crusty brand of stubborn was most often utilized in his tireless advocacy for the underdog. And as he did at the negotiating table, he would usually prevail, and we are all better for it.
Mark Benoit was Chief of Staff for former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and is currently an executive for Geto & De Milly, LLC.