Gizzi on Politics, November 23, 2009

What Would Moses Mandel Say?

In his timeless 1964 political novel The Mayor of New York, Laurence Barrett writes about a Mayor Norman Mandel who, elected as a “reform Democrat” in the not-too-distant future, has to grapple with racial tension in his city, possible corruption in his administration, and dissension within the Democratic Party. His father, former Democratic district leader Moses Mandel, still goes to the meetings at the Democratic clubhouse but realizes “these ritualistic Wednesday night meetings, and all the meetings in all the clubs, were losing meaning because the political organization was losing power. No more could a county leader be sure of a set allocation of good jobs from City Hall… No longer did neighborhoods remain static, with factional loyalty as much a part of a man’s inheritance as his father’s gold watch…. “The mugwumps, whether genuine reformers or simply hungry ‘outs,’ nibbled and nibbled and nibbled… They contested nominations, they brought lawsuits, they pointed fingers, they received publicity all out of proportion to their strength.”  

What the fictional Mandel saw more than four decades ago has come true in ’09. Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg was expected to coast to re-election, but the Democratic organization saw its underdog nominee, City Controller Bill Thompson, capture Brooklyn and the Bronx and come within five percentage points of an historic upset. A Democratic organization in fighting trim could have put Thompson over the top. But, as New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis observed, “New York’s current roster of pols boasts few bright lights that compare with the star power of the past” and “the problem reaches down to the grass roots.”  

Recalling his own youth volunteering for his local Democratic club in Kings County and doing anything they wanted, Louis concluded that “things have gone sour in recent years. Lazy pols found it easier to pay people than recruit volunteers. Now, few people will do even the most basic political work — including voter registration — unless somebody is paying them. Not surprisingly, the work is done poorly or not all in many cases, and we continue to lose the idea of politics as public service.”  

The same atrophy has set in with Republican clubs in the Empire State. In Nassau County on Long Island, the GOP organization was characterized as the “Republican Tammany Hall” when it was run by County Chairman Joe Margiotta from the 1960s until the early 1980s. Since Margiotta’s demise, the attendance at district meetings and clubhouse events has dwindled. Much of the same symptoms that have plagued Democratic organizations in New York City have afflicted the GOP organization in Nassau. When the county was in bankruptcy a decade ago and Democrats swept into power, the Republicans lost their all-important flow of patronage. With Democrats taking U.S. House and legislative seats in each election, the Republicans seemed doomed.  

But much of the gloom began to clear away November 3. And the key to the improvement, pundits and pols say, were the Tea Parties.  

Revolution in Nassau County

Although the ouster of Democratic Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano at the hands of conservative Republican Rob Astorino was certainly dramatic political news, the results from Nassau County were almost revolutionary.  

Democrats led by County Executive Thomas Suozzi had overseen a large increase in the county sales tax and had enacted a new fuel tax (a tax on gasoline, especially important in a commuter-rich county). They paid for it as well. After eight years holding the short end of the political stick, Republicans roared back by taking control of the 21-member county legislature 11-to-10. In addition, Republican George Maragos unseated Democratic County Controller Howard Weiezman.  

Returns on election night showed the Republican hopeful, County Legislator Ed Mangano, trailing two-term County Executive Suozzi by about 200 votes out of more than 230,000 cast. But a recanvass conducted in the week after the election actually put the conservative challenger ahead of Suozzi by about 64 votes. Last week, with more than half the 10,000 absentee ballots counted, Mangano’s lead had swelled to 430 votes. Although no one was claiming victory, county GOPers were, to use a phrase of Ronald Reagan’s, “cautiously optimistic.”  

How did it all happen, many wondered, given the flaccid shape of the once-feared county GOP organization? Most of the operatives from Nassau that I spoke to said that the decline in party volunteers and clubhouse members was more than made up for by the local activists in the anti-tax, anti-spending Tea Party rallies.  

Like their counterparts in other states, the Nassau County Tea Party crowd were usually conservative-leaning, but most had been relatively inactive in politics until then. But while many who have become involved in the Tea Party movement around the country are unsure what their next step is beyond holding Tea Party rallies, the Nassau County crowd knew precisely what it was going to do. The fuel tax and the sales tax increase made sure of that. Mangano’s legions of volunteers were larded with veterans of the Tea Parties and the vast majority were clearly motivated by the Democratic tax hikes in the county as well as what was going on in Congress.  

McCarthy On the Ropes?  

Twenty-five years ago, the thought of a Democratic congressman from Nassau County’s 4th District was laughable. Republican John Wydler had held what is now the 4th since it was first carved out in 1962 until his retirement in 1980, when he was succeeded by GOP State Assemblyman Ray McGrath. Both were reliable officers in “Boss” Margiotta’s army and were elected and re-elected with little difficulty.  

But, after McGrath’s retirement in 1992, Republican control of the 4th unraveled. The district was then held by two different Republicans from warring factions within the county party. In 1996, Carolyn McCarthy changed her voter registration from Republican to Democrat and, in the wake of the nationally reported shooting of her husband and wounding of her son on the Long Island Railroad, won the House seat.  

Along with being a national voice for gun control, McCarthy is also a dedicated liberal (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 22%) on most other issues. The last time area Republicans made a serious effort at unseating her was in 2002, when physician Marilyn O’Grady drew 45% of the vote against McCarthy. But the outlook could change dramatically next year, as both conservative activists and GOP regulars are growing increasingly enthusiastic about the candidacy of visiting Hofstra University assistant law professor Frank Scaturro.  

At one time counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee under the chairmanship of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (“When he was a Republican — and I was part of a staff that was a lot more conservative than he was!”), the 37-year-old Scaturro meshes a background in national issues with strong local involvement. A member of groups ranging from an historical association he founded to the Knights of Columbus to the Republican club, Scaturro has a wide circle of friends from which to draw volunteers for a House race. He has already raised more than $120,000 for the campaign and keeps in touch with leaders in both the GOP and New York Conservative Party (whose ballot line Scaturro seems assured of carrying against McCarthy).  

“What issues will I run on? Everything!” Scaturro told me during a recent lunch in Washington. “Whether it’s [McCarthy’s] vote for the Obama stimulus package or healthcare with public option or her support for cap and trade, I’m not only presenting an opposite point of view but a positive alternative.” The conservative hopeful backs a healthcare package with tort reform and greater opportunity for Health Savings Accounts and, like former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, wants a moratorium on the capital gains tax and abolition of the “death tax” rather than government bailouts. Strong pro-lifer Scaturro also offers a contrast to McCarthy, who opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion.  

Will the Tea Party movement be a part of his campaign? Scaturro says, “Absolutely. I have attended Nassau County’s first Tea Party and talked to the local leaders of the Tea Parties. The spirit they demonstrated was key to the big Republican year we had here in Nassau County and their next step will be helping me take the fight for taxpayers to Congress.”