Don Shaffer accepts an award honoring his lifelong commitment to social justice at The Nation Institute Annual Gala Dinner in 2012.
Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, wrote this note to his colleagues after hearing of Don Shaffer’s death. It is reposted here with permission.
My heart sank yesterday morning upon receiving a note from Manhattan WFP leader Jeff Gold that Don Shaffer had died. A heart attack, kidney failure — it all happened very quickly after what Don thought was going to be routine surgery. He actually called me from the hospital mid-week to say that he had to cancel a meeting he had planned with Bill Lipton and Liz Pitt to help us plan this June’s 15th Anniversary Gala.
I note the number because Don was present at the previous 14. In fact, he was the only person in the current WFP leadership who also served on the predecessor board of the New Party from 1992 to 1997. The minutes from those meetings, as well as our own more recent memories, rarely varied. Don was tough-minded, irascible, committed, and always, always willing to carry his share of the load. He was not one who only told others what the best strategy was at any given moment, though he surely did that. Win or lose on any particular strategic question, he showed up and put his shoulder to the wheel as part of our collective effort.
Don’s history as a lifetime progressive activist — from the 1940’s to today — is known better by others. I know a few snippets here and there. He was at the famous Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill in the late 40’s that degenerated into a riot by some right-wing thugs (there’s a throwaway line in a Woody Allen movie about how some neighbors got roughed up at this event, and someone once said that the neighbor was a young Don Shaffer). He later moved to Long Island, and among other things became the left’s all-time leading insurance agent (very useful when we struggled to find a broker to write a workers comp policy 50 years later).
He was active in the Open Housing fights in Great Neck in the early 1960’s, and his passion for racial equality never diminished over many decades on Long Island. He spoke and wrote widely about the need for a fairer property tax system on Long Island, understanding long before anyone else that the system was both discriminatory and would be used by our opponents to incite working-class resentment of the government. He was prescient on this, as on so much else, and it gave him great pleasure when the minority report that Karen Scharff and Lisa Donner authored as members of the Spitzer Property Tax Commission in 2007-8 became informally known as the “Shaffer Position.” It gave him even more pleasure when people and organizations started seriously discussing the need for a Stock Transfer Tax. He had been on that horse forever.