“You have to come together in some kind of consensus that will produce a beneficial result,” says Miriam Levitt Flisser, MD. “Even if I know best,” she says, “what’s going to help the patients is me and the parents developing a plan that works best for the patient, and that’s very similar to conflicts in government.”
Levitt Flisser is a pediatrician, former mayor of Scarsdale, and candidate this November for the open seat in the Fifth District for the County Legislature. We meet at her Scarsdale home, and for some of the time her husband joins us. Harvey Flisser has just retired after 45 years of teaching science, first in the Bronx and then in Scarsdale. Service-oriented like his wife, he says he’d hesitated to make the move to the Westchester schools 25 years ago because he wasn’t sure the Scarsdale kids needed him as much as the Bronx ones did. Eventually, he realized that they did, though their needs were different. He went on to be, according to Henry J. Landau, a mathematician and constituent who became a friend of the couple, “a revered teacher in Scarsdale schools.”
The couple met as undergrads at NYU when the school had a campus in the Bronx. “We were the last two people on the bus,” Levitt Flisser says. “He held the door for me and we walked up the hill. By the time we got to the top, I knew I was going to marry him.” She was so sure, she says, that when she finished her lab class that day, she went to a phone booth and broke off another relationship. “He called me a couple of days later, asked me to go out, and we went to a Nina Simone concert for his 21st birthday. From then on, we were together.”
Her husband later recounts the story just as vividly. “She was absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Then, as I got to know her, I began to appreciate how smart she was. You didn’t have to carry the conversation yourself. We had interests that were the same: certain kinds of music, certain authors, the current cinema. The year before we married, we saw about 180 movies.”
They married when she graduated. Her parents, she says, had encouraged her to go to medical school because, her father told her, “It’s wonderful to earn a living by helping people.” In those days, she says, for a woman to go to medical school “was looked down on, not respected, not considered feminine,” but her new husband accepted and encouraged it. Their first child, a son who is now a surgeon, was born when she was a resident, and their twins two years later when she was a junior attending physician. “It was unquestionably difficult,” she says, “but we did it. All the other things people do—watching TV, going to the movies—we didn’t do any of that. We just took care of the kids. It was definitely worth it.”
Harvey Flisser explains how they divided the labor “based on talents. Miriam is an excellent organizer, cleaner-upper, detail person. My creativity is in the kitchen.” One of the twins is now a surgeon like his older brother, and their sister is a hedge-fund manager. The Flissers have four grandchildren.
An immigrant who came here as a young child, Levitt Flisser was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II. Her mother’s family hadn’t left Poland as so many did in the early 1900s, she says, because they were doing well there. They were in the art business. They were all educated; the brothers were engineers. During the war, Levitt Flisser says, “my mother was a ghetto fighter,” who used her education and her ability to speak perfect Polish to convince the guards that she was an official who could come and go as she pleased. “From the outside, she was instrumental in saving her family on the inside. As a result, my grandmother survived the war, which is the most incredible thing. I had a grandmother, and no survivor children had grandmothers! My grandmother lived to be 92.”
Her parents met during the upheaval in Europe. Her father, she says, had gone back, after fighting in the war, to what had been his home, and found everything destroyed. The house had been leveled and his family killed. There was no going back, even though the war was over. In the encampment, her father met one of her uncles, and then the rest of the family. “Everyone always joked that he fell in love with my grandmother, not my mother. This family had a mother!” Levitt Flisser spent her first two years in the camp, and eventually the family, with difficulty, managed to get papers and came to the United States.
Levitt Flisser has been in Scarsdale government as trustee as well as mayor (not to mention being police and fire commissioner), and she says her accomplishments span the entire six years. She points to such projects as the Fox Meadow Drainage Basins, which help control flooding; a change in the law allowing people with smaller properties to have emergency generators to use during power outages; the Emergency Notification System, which she used to send out 180,000 messages after Superstorm Sandy; the budget, brought in under the tax cap; a reduction of expenses related to court cases about tax grievances, which she accomplished with “the first comprehensive revaluation of our real-estate taxes since the early ’70s”; and the creation of a database of people with disabilities, to inform first-responders where there might be people needing special help in an emergency.
Scarsdale has a non-partisan government, but when I ask whether that helps things run more smoothly, she says, “There’s always opposition, and that’s fine. That’s democracy. We were able to rise to the occasion and learn from folks who have other ideas.” A look at the news sites that cover Scarsdale, such as scarsdale10583.com, reveals some angry, frustrated comments about her handling of Superstorm Sandy and the long power outages and blocked roads afterward. Friend and Scarsdale resident Landau is one of many who take a different view, saying, “She was extraordinary in leading the city. The phone system conked out right away, despite assurances from the people who provided it, so they improvised with a hookup to the old copper lines they found somewhere. She organized daily briefings over the phone to everybody in Scarsdale. She went so far as to provide pet shelters, and she maintained her medical practice at the same time.”
In some cases, Levitt Flisser says people misinterpreted her actions—for example, those who felt her daily storm update phone messages were rushed. “People said that I just wanted to get off the phone,” she says. “Well, I was speaking so quickly because I had a limited time and I wanted to get all the information in there. I was doing it at the emergency headquarters; people were running in and out, doors were slamming, and I’m trying to get it right.” It had to be done in three straight minutes, she says, without a mistake, and so was very challenging.
Levitt Flisser is now the Republican candidate in the legislative race, in what she expects to be “a lively, contested election.” Her opponent is White Plains Councilman Ben Boykin (who has not responded to requests for comments for this article). Asked if she was ready for a countywide seat with a more diverse constituency, Levitt Flisser points out that she’s lived in the County for 38 years, and that her medical work “involves thousands of families that come from all over.”
For all her accomplishments, Levitt Flisser is described as very “down-to-earth” by Lawrence Hospital Center Emergency Room volunteer Judy Martin, who met her when, as president of the Auxiliary (volunteers), she had a place on the hospital’s Board of Governors. “She’s a warm, wonderful person,” Martin says. “We don’t see her patients coming in the ER for coughs or earaches, because she takes care of them herself. She’s a terrific dresser, and she loves to get a bargain. I saw her one time and she said, ‘What do you think of my jacket?’ She told me the price and it was absolutely ridiculous, it was such a bargain. And then she told me, ‘I got it at Bloomingdale’s!’”
Ronnie Levine is a freelance writer and artist. She has just finished writing a mystery novel, set in Tarrytown, about an artist who helps a charismatic cop investigate phony masterpieces—and murder.