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THE NATION

Brooklyn Official Hopes to Win by Slimmed Margin

Health: Marty Markowitz asks his constituents to 'Lighten Up' in response to reports of high rates of heart disease deaths.

April 28, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Wearing a blue and gold boxing robe, Marty Markowitz, the admittedly chubby borough president of Brooklyn, stepped on the scale in a public ceremony designed not only to put himself but also Brooklyn's 2.5 million residents on a diet.

At 5 feet, 5 inches, Markowitz weighed in at 194 pounds.

That was 11 days ago. By Saturday, he had lost 2 pounds.

It has not been easy.

Markowitz, 57, whose father worked in a delicatessen, yearns for his favorite foods: cheesecake and bread. In the middle of the night he has hunger pangs and fantasies--so far unfulfilled--of raiding the refrigerator.

But he is getting a little help from his friends.

The owners of Junior's, a well-known Brooklyn restaurant praised by critics for its "serious cheesecake," have passed out his photograph to all its waiters.

"I can tell you, many of the waiters know me already," he said.

Behind the shtick is a serious health concern.

Markowitz decided to turn his new diet into a personal crusade after hospital administrators told him Brooklyn had a record rate of heart disease.

Brooklyn led the rest of New York City in deaths from cardiovascular disease, with 8,493 in 2000, according to the most recent statistics issued by the city's Department of Health.

"I wanted to put something together that appeals to everyone in Brooklyn that we could be on the same page at the same time span," Markowitz explained.

As part of the "Lighten Up Brooklyn" campaign, he has established 150 stations in churches, drugstores, gymnasiums, hospitals and recreational centers where people can be weighed for a contest. The neighborhood that loses the most pounds in two months gets to fly its flag above Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn and a delegation of its dieters will appear on national television.

The challenge isn't easy.

"Our food is dramatically great . . . with portions that are generous, to say the least," Markowitz said. "The selections are endless."

An aide was more blunt.

"You could eat yourself into a coma in Brooklyn," he said.

On Saturday, a group of residents from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood joined Markowitz on a brisk walk around Betsy Head Park.

"We're all fired up," he shouted, greeting a handful of weight-loss enthusiasts, before setting off around the park. Wearing a T-shirt with the "Lighten Up Brooklyn" slogan, blue sweat pants and sneakers, Markowitz strode quickly, leaving some people behind.

"This is a campaign not to become skinnies. . . . It's about being healthy," he told the small crowd.

Markowitz grew up in a family of big eaters. The table groaned under the weight of pot roasts, meatballs, hamburgers, fried fish, sour cream, noodles, pasta, cheese and pancakes.

"When I was growing up, my mother said, 'Eat!' . . . We were encouraged to eat, eat, eat. Eat was better," Markowitz said Saturday. "Now it is very hard for me every day. It's a challenge."

Politics can be rough on the waistline. It is not unusual for Markowitz to appear at two lunch events in a single day. Brooklyn is a collection of neighborhoods with a caldron of local concerns, which residents voice with vigor. And woe to the politician who's not there to listen.

While the offices of New York's five borough presidents have been stripped of many powers, including a voice in the budget-making process, Markowitz maintains political heft. After serving 13 terms in the state Senate, he became president of Brooklyn last year by defeating four opponents, winning 76% of the vote.

The politics of poundage fits nicely with his public image and belief that a borough president can use his office as a bully pulpit.

He is not alone in his campaign for better health. Philadelphia Mayor John Street has announced his own plan to narrow his city's waistline.

"He's trim and fit," scoffs Markowitz of Street, "so he talks the talk but doesn't need to walk the walk.

"Me? I'm the poster boy."

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