Community mourns relentless public servant


Randi Martos was co-president of the P.S. 24 parent association during a movement in the late 1990s to add a high school to what is now Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy. But the school district needed to be convinced — The school board was against it, and the debate had become particularly vicious.

When the time came to make the case at public meetings for the combined middle and high school, Martos didn’t feel she was the right woman for the job. She believed in the proposal, but she was shy and quiet, and not thrilled with the idea of public speaking. Judith Sonett, then a staffer at Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz’s office, was assigned to shepherd her through the process.

“I can still see her, she kind of tilts her head and goes, ‘Come on, you can do this,’” Martos said. It was a simple gesture, but there was something about Sonett’s personality that convinced Martos to believe her.

That head tilt — and Sonett’s mentorship — launched a 20-year friendship that eventually led to Martos herself working for Dinowitz. Today she’s his chief of staff, and says none of it would have been possible without Sonett.

And Sonett was like that. A fierce fighter for her community and the causes she believed in, she knew how to make people do what she wanted them to, and convince them it was their idea. That’s according to her husband, Joe Gordon, but they were personality traits well known to the community — a community that still mourns Sonett, who died in April at the age of 81.

Last Sunday, dozens of her friends from the Whitehall, the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, and across the city attended a service at Riverdale Temple in her memory. Serving the Bronx community since 1983, Sonett worked for three state senators after 10 years in Dinowitz’s office, and as Democratic district leader for another decade after that.

Politicos she worked for and with described Sonett as an unrelenting force when it came to activism and serving the needs of constituents.

“She held an immense knowledge and ability about the neighborhood and the city that is going to be hard to replace,” said John DeSio, communications director for Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. Before working for Diaz, DeSio met Sonett while working for the now-defunct Riverdale Review in the early 2000s.

“Everybody loved her and everyone respected her,” DeSio said. “She commanded respect.”

Sonett was erlentless in her work. Her husband Joe called it compulsive. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t let her stop until she brought in the most signatures to the Ben Franklin Club, or found the home phone number of a high-level bureaucrat at an agency she needed to help a constituent.

Bruce Feld, who served as district leader alongside Sonett, once wrote a poem about Sonett and her husband: “No One Says No to Judy and Joe.”

Sonett was dubbed “chief ombudsman” during her time with Dinowitz for her work on the toughest constituent cases. Dinowitz liked to say people a third her age would do a fifth of her work, and think they did a lot.

“She was kind and pleasant, but she was extraordinarily persistent,” Dinowitz said.

Sonett quickly gained a reputation as the person in Dinowitz’s office who got the job done, whether it was helping file insurance claims or finding someone Section 8 housing on a day’s notice.

“She pretty much wouldn’t take no for an answer,” the longtime Assemblyman said.

Sonett eventually moved on from the Assembly into the senate, working first for Efrain Gonzalez, then later Eric Schneiderman and finally Adriano Espaillat. Now a congressman, Espaillat called Sonett a class act, and someone who easily adapted to parts of Espaillat’s district that were different than her home base of Riverdale.

“She took me by the hand, lead me around, introduced me to everybody,” Espaillat said. Even after she retired and Espaillat went to Washington, the two would speak on the phone, Sonett giving him updates on the local gossip. And she remained friends with Espaillat’s mother.

“She just connected with people like that,” the congressman said.

Joe Gordon first met Sonett when they were teenagers and she was still Judy Redein. He would throw parties in his Westchester home, trying to woo local girls from Sarah Lawrence College. Sonett was a few years younger than Gordon, but she would occasionally show up at these parties accompanied by one of Gordon’s distant cousins, Alan Sonett.

She and Alan would later elope to Amsterdam, where he studied for medical school and she raised two sons. Eventually, they moved to Philadelphia, where Sonett had studied criminology and family therapy at Villanova University. She found work as a social worker and juvenile probation officer, working closely with the children in her community.

In 1983, Sonett’s husband died and she returned to New York. Gordon was working in the Mediterranean at the time of her first husband’s death, so when he returned stateside, he took the boat to Fire Island to visit Sonett at her family home and pay his respects. The two talked away the night until Gordon missed the last boat off the island.

Although Gordon was forced to sleep on the deck by Sonett’s father, the two were married within a year.

Gordon’s first marriage was to an heiress, which more often than not put him in the room with people who had names like Eisenhower, Bradley and Kennedy. His work as an aerospace engineer took him all across the world where he met fascinating and incredible people. None compared to Sonett.

“I’ve worked with dictators and scoundrels, generals and admirals, great men and giants, but it wasn’t until I met Judy did I see all their great personal traits in one person,” Gordon said.

“Being married to Judy was an extraordinary experience.”