Three months after his death, family and friends memorialized Bill Saunders on Sunday as a dedicated public servant and a sharp mover and shaker of Brooklyn politics.
“Williams Saunders was a pioneer of black politics in our great borough,” wrote State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, in a letter read at the memorial at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. “He was a savvy political player who always kept the needs of his constituents and his community as his number one priority.”
Dozens of former and current elected officials, including Letitia James and Hakeem Jeffries, filled church pews for the service to pay their respects. Letters of condolences written by U.S. Congressman Ed Towns, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and Borough President Marty Markowitz were also read.
The diverse crowd of Brooklyn politicos was a telling sign of the life Saunders led. Over a career that spanned decades, Saunders’ passion for local politics and community organizing were his legacy, they said.
“Bill embodied respect, community and a love for politics,” said City Councilperson Letitia James.
Saunders served under Montgomery as a legislative aide for 18 years. In 1998, Saunders became state committeeman for the 57th Assembly District, a post he served until 2008.
As District Leader, Saunders was credited as having beenan instrumental force in getting Vito Lopez elected as Brooklyn’s party leader in 2006, convincing a majority of the black district leaders to vote for him, said Peter Weiss, a close friend and colleague.
“He was an old fashioned politician whose hand shake was his word, which he always kept,” said Weiss.
But many said that Saunders greatest achievements were initiatives that helped those less fortunate than him.
He is primarily responsible for the construction of senior citizen housing serving low income New Yorkers, which happened while he was president of 80-86 Housing Corporation, an organization Saunders founded in 1969.
In 1980, Saunders helped form The Source of New York, Inc., an organization that gives performing arts scholarships to gifted black youths — four such students are currently performing in shows on Broadway.
Saunders also fought hard for gay and lesbian rights, working to get the first lesbian judge, Debra Silba, appointed to the city civil court in 1998.
“He was a staunch supporter of gay and lesbian rights before it was popular,” said Alan Fleishman, a former district leader. “And he was always there for us on those issues, no matter what.”
Saunders lost his seat in 2008, but remained a public figure in the community, known for driving an old and elegant Cadillac down Greene Ave., where he lived. With his time off, Saunders became an avid globetrotter and travelled frequently to Brazil. Saunders’ health deteriorated last summer and, in late September, he died of heart failure. Saunders was 89.
Saunders requested that there not be a funeral, said James Cockerel, his nephew and lone surviving family member. Saunders was never married and did not have children, but live a self-fulfilling life, Cockerel said.
“When he was sick in the hospital, he said ‘James, I’ve lived a good life. I’ve traveled. I did everything.’”