Jamaican-American Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr., 86, died Saturday, May 26, in a Manhattan hospital due to heart failure. He was the third longest-serving member in the history of the New York State Assembly, serving for more than 40 years. Mr. Farrell, who was known as Denny, was first elected in 1974 and retired when his term ended in 2017. He was also the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee from 2001 to 2006, the first black person to hold that post, and headed the fractious Manhattan party confederacy from 1981 to 2009, longer than any of his predecessors.
Herman Daniel Farrell Jr. was born in Manhattan on Feb. 4, 1932. His mother, Amy Gladys (Paterson) Farrell, immigrated from Jamaica. His father, Herman Sr., was born in the United States Canal Zone. The couple owned, Farel Frocks, which sold cocktail dresses.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said, "Farrell exemplified the best in politics.” Last September, Farrell left these colleagues behind after retiring from the Assembly, where he had distinguished himself most notably as the chairman of the Assembly’s Banking committee and later of the Ways and Means Committee. At that time of his retirement announcement, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family, especially his 13-year-old daughter, Sophia.
Farrell was a graduate of George Washington High School and briefly attended New York University but never earned a degree.
His political career began when he worked for Mayor John Lindsay in the Washington Heights office. In 1970, he was elected a Democratic state committeeman; for three years he was elected district leader and a year later he began his long tenure as an Assemblyman representing a district that included Harlem and Washington Heights. He was re-elected 21 times to this post. In this capacity he earned the respect of political leaders beyond the state and later was a member of the Democratic National Committee.
A major event in Farrell’s political odyssey occurred in 1985 when Black politicians, forgoing a possible coalition with Hispanic voters, endorsed Farrell as their mayoral candidate against the incumbent Mayor Ed Koch. Hispanic leaders saw Herman Badillo as their choice for the coalition. When the tally was counted, Farrell had less than 40 percent of the vote in Harlem. Citywide his numbers were even less impressive, tallying 13 percent. If Farrell failed to attain the office, he set the stage for David Dinkins’ victory four years later as the city’s first African-American mayor.
In this regard, Dinkins had no doubt of Farrell’s paving the way. “I think it did, no question,” he said upon hearing of his friend’s passing. “It was groundbreaking. He was a good friend, and we were always proud of the fact that we always supported each other.”
Dinkins and Charles B. Rangel, the former representative from Harlem, are the two remaining politicians of a bygone era, charter members of the “Harlem Clubhouse.” “He’s a remarkable American story, from a court clerk to the Democratic County leader,” Rangel said of Farrell. “The words that best describe him, in my 60 years in politics: He was a straight shooter.”
“Few people gave more to NYC than Denny Farrell,” tweeted Mayor de Blasio. “He showed an unwavering commitment to making New York a fairer place, no matter what side of the aisle you were on.”
On September 5, 2017 Cuomo honored the retirement of Assemblyman Farrell by dedicating the most visited State Park in New York City as Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park. He also announced the completion of the $25 million signature pedestrian and bicyclist bridge, named after Farrell, over the Henry Hudson Parkway, which will improve community access to the Hudson River waterfront.
His marriage to Theresa Adele Doherty ended in divorce. And in addition to his son Herman III, a playwright, Farrell is survived by his daughter Sophia Ilene Farrell (with his partner Barbara Klar); Monique Guidry-Farrell; and two grandchildren.