Biography

A historian of American politics writes about his favorite city.

Born in the obsessively political city of Albany, Jonathan Soffer made his first venture into politics at the age of eleven, when he tried to stop the Vietnam War by canvassing for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 New York Democratic primary. In high school he worked as an intern for his local state assemblyman Thomas W. Brown, and as a campaign worker for Tony Olivieri’s campaign for lieutenant governor. The Big Apple always beckoned, however, and as a small child he used to beg to be taken to the city instead of getting a present.

In 1974 he moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia, where he joined the local reform club, The Broadway Democrats. In 1977-8, Soffer, then 21, served as president of Broadway Democrats, which endorsed Bella Abzug for mayor, and through this work met some of the politicians he would later interview for this book, including, briefly, Congressman Ed Koch. (Soffer shook his hand and, like many before and after him, marveled how tall he was.)

Soffer graduated from Columbia in 1978, after a spring active in protests calling for the university to divest its holdings in companies that did business in South Africa. He left the city after Ed Koch’s first few months in office to attend the University of Denver College of Law, and became active providing legal defense for the protests against the Department of Energy’s nuclear bomb trigger plant at Rocky Flats.

In 1980, he worked as a staff person at the Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and then as part of the Abalone Alliance Legal Collective, which provided legal assistance to the more than 1000 protesters blockading the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which the Pacific Gas & Electric company built on top of an earthquake fault. He passed the California Bar in 1982, and worked almost full time providing legal defense to protesters against nuclear power, nuclear energy, and American support for repressive regimes in Central America.

Soffer returned to Columbia in 1985 and obtained his Ph.D. in American history in 1992. After a fellowship at the Eisenhower Papers Project at the Johns Hopkins University, he worked as an online journalist on legal issues, and also performed interviews for the Koch Oral History Project. The next year he married Pamela Allen Brown, then completing her PhD in English at Columbia, and they moved to Ankara, Turkey, where Soffer was assistant professor of history at Bilkent University; during the summers, they worked as visiting professors at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

In 1997 he joined the faculty of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, now NYU Tandon School of Engineering, as a specialist in postwar American politics. He is now Professor of History and Chair of the Department of Technology, Culture & Society at the NYU School of Engineering, and Associate Faculty in the NYU Department of History. In 1998 he published General Matthew B. Ridgway: From Progressivism to Reaganism, a biography focused on the ideology of the officer corps in WWII. In 2000, he had lunch with Ed Koch, their first real meeting, and agreed to work on a biography that proved far more complex and took far longer than anyone expected. He remembers coming home tired from the interview, flopping on the bed, and flipping on the TV, only to see the face of “Judge” Ed Koch on The People’s Court.

Soffer is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled Monetizing the Masses: Tammany Hall and the Business of New York's Infrastructure, under contract to the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.