Politics 2005: Week of October 24

Forbes Revisited

Last week I had my first conversation with Michael P. Forbes since the former New York congressman (1994-2000) switched from Republican to Democrat six years ago. It was almost poignant that I had this conversation on Jimmy Breslin’s 76th birthday, since, in reporting the headline-making switch of Forbes (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 62%), I quoted veteran New York Newsday columnist Breslin’s withering description of another Empire State politician: “A little man in search of a balcony.”

Citing his disgust with what he dubbed “the intolerant face being painted on the New York Republican Party,” the 1st District (Long Island) lawmaker and alumnus of the celebrated “Newt Gingrich class” of Republicans who captured a majority in the House in 1994 had, in 1999, joined the party of Bill Clinton—whose impeachment the New Yorker had voted for only eight months earlier.

To be sure, one-time Reagan Administration official Forbes had been moving left since coming to Congress—from an ACU rating of 80% during his first year in office to an anemic 45% in his last year. But before his first attempt at re-election as a Democrat, the impeachment votes, Forbes’ continuing pro-life stance, his support of George W. Bush’s tax cuts, and his formerly high ratings from the Christian Coalition were all highlighted in mailings to the New Yorker’s Democratic constituents by the National Republican Congressional Committee. One year after joining the Democratic Party, Forbes was defeated in its primary by 35 votes at the hands of a 71-year-old librarian. (Republican Felix Grucci won the seat that fall, but was turned out in 2002 by Democrat and current Rep. Timothy Bishop).

So where is the man who left one major party and then was rejected by the other? At 53, and after five years with a public relations firm, Forbes was resurrected earlier this year to be president of the Suffolk-Nassau Chamber of Commerce. And controversy still swirls around him: in a move that was not unusual, given the byzantine politics of Suffolk and Nassau Counties, Forbes collected delinquent rent for chamber office space from a local Republican pol who is also the nephew of one of the top GOP fundraisers in the state. For demanding an audit of all public money received by the chamber, Forbes was fired by the chamber’s executive committee August 16.. But, in events reminding many of a banana republic, Forbes was returned to the chamber presidency by the full board of directors two days later.

The D’Amato Connection

Upon assuming the chamber presidency last year, Forbes commissioned an audit of the troubled organization. The audit was spawned, he explained, by mounting questions about former chamber President Dennis Sneden’s many dinner and hotel charges on his corporate American Express card, his thousands of dollars in corporate checks made out to “cash,” and use of chamber funds to pay for a trip to Great Britain in ’03.

Among other things, the audit showed that Sneden permitted Frank Gargano, a Republican candidate for the Suffolk County legislature, to occupy chamber office space rent-free from January 2003 to July ’04. Gargano is the nephew of Empire State Development Corp. Chairman Charles Gargano, one of the top fund-raisers for Republican Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. (1980-98) Alfonse D’Amato (R.-N.Y.). According to reporter Elizabeth Cady Brown of the Long Island Press (Aug.18, 2005), “the office space in question was actually being paid for with a $250,000 chamber grant from the ESDC. . . the implication being that Sneden got the windfall in exchange for cutting the boss’s nephew a deal.”

Forbes told me that his audit proved “the chamber had taken grant money and didn’t use it the way it was supposed to. We’ve uncovered more than $100,000 of misspent grant money.” He added that he confronted Frank Gargano and that Gargano repaid the $7,200 in back rent.

The Forbes-Gargano-D’Amato connection is intriguing. Forbes served as D’Amato’s executive assistant in the Senate from 1981-84, and D’Amato was best man at Forbes’ wedding in 1990. Charles Gargano is considered one of the closest friends of the former senator.

On August 16, following completion of the audit and Forbes’ recovery of the back rent from Frank Gargano, the executive committee of the chamber fired the former congressman. According to Forbes, “the executive committee consisted of [Board Chairman] Ron Lazar and [Treasurer] Jim Ash.” Two days later, by a near-unanimous vote, the 28-member board of directors reinstated Forbes as president.

Any conversation with  Forbes inevitably turns to his change of parties and whether he regrets his decision to essentially throw away a House district that was relatively safe for him while he was Republican. “I have no regrets,” he told me. “I still have a lot of Republican friends, but I’m very comfortable working for the election of Democrats.”

Looking ahead to 2008, Forbes’ first choice is not fellow New Yorker Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.), but rather the more moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D.-Ind).

Cox Checks Out

During a luncheon with conservative leaders in Washington last month, New York lawyer and conservative Republican Ed Cox voiced optimism about his chances of overcoming Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro for the Republican nomination to oppose Sen. Hillary Clinton next year.

“When Republican voters learn how different we are on the social issues, they are going to go for me,” said Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, contrasting his own pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment stands with Pirro’s support of partial-birth abortion and gun control. Cox noted he was far more likely to win the nomination of New York’s Conservative Party than Pirro. Princeton graduate Cox also pointed to a series of embarrassing missteps by Pirro on the campaign trail, and the fact she had opted for the Senate race only after months of planning a bid for state attorney general (which incumbent Democrat Eliot Spitzer is leaving to run for governor).

But last week, Cox stunned his growing legion of admirers by announcing he was abandoning his Senate bid. His exit came within minutes of Republican Gov. Pataki’s endorsement of Pirro. As Cox’s statement to reporters put it, “The governor is the leader of the Republican Party. Out of respect for his position and decision, I have decided to stop my campaign for the United States Senate.” With Cox’s withdrawal, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer remains the lone conservative opponent to Pirro for the nomination against Clinton.

Most Empire State sources who talked to me agreed that Pataki’s endorsement killed opportunities for Cox to raise significant money against Pirro, whose lawyer-husband has made significant money lobbying during Pataki’s 12 years in Albany. For conservatives, it is particularly sad because Cox had, as Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long put it, “done the best job of defining issues and energizing the Republican and conservative base.”

Asked if he felt Cox would have won the Conservative Party nomination had he remained in the race, Long told me: “I do.” The longtime Conservative Party leader added that, given Pirro’s decidedly left-of-center views on social issues, she will have “a very difficult time” securing the Conservative Party nomination, which will be decided by Long and other party leaders next year.

At this writing, Pirro has raised $438,555 for her Senate campaign. Clinton has taken in more than $5 million.