On a recent wintry afternoon, the President of the United States, a Democrat, was doing one of the things he likes doing best: draping his arm around a friendly Republican. And the Republican Mayor of New York City was just as excited to find himself standing next to the nation’s No. 1 Democrat, at a carefully staged press conference at Kennedy International Airport announcing an infusion of Federal funds to pay for 1,600 new city police officers.
But even as the President was snuggling up to the Mayor, the chair of the New York State Democratic Committee was firmly ensconced, miles away, in her sparsely decorated Madison Avenue offices, looking south over the gray and barren treetops of Madison Square Park, as she enunciated the differences between Republicans and Democrats. It was not the first time Judith Hope had found herself rather distant from Bill Clinton, her putative leader.
Like him, Ms. Hope is from Arkansas, where she grew up the daughter of the Speaker of the Arkansas Legislature. But despite Little Rock’s legendary insularity, Ms. Hope was not, she is careful to say, “an F.O.B.,” or Friend of Bill. “They have other initials for me at the White House these days,” she joked.
Less than a week earlier, she had been quoted on the front page of The New York Times criticizing President Clinton and the national Democratic Party for coming to New York to raise funds during a key election year for state Democrats-and then taking all that money out of the state.
Publicly, White House officials downplayed their reaction. “If you hit me on a bad day, I might complain about my husband,” White House communications director Ann Lewis told The Observer , “but most of the time we live together really well.” Ms. Lewis then went on to praise Ms. Hope’s work as state party chair.
But privately, aides to the President and staff members of the Democratic National Committee, were, in the words of one top-ranking official, “really pissed.” Such tensions exist, but are just not discussed for the record. “It’s not productive,” said a party leader, especially when Ms. Hope had the whole afternoon to speak privately with committee chair Steve Grossman. And the committee’s message of the day-that it had reduced its debt by $6 million-was completely “stepped on” by Ms. Hope’s remarks.
The New York Democrat’s utterances have frequently sent eyebrows skyward. In December, she promoted the idea of a year 2000 U.S. Senate candidacy for Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York. Just two months earlier, at a meeting of Democratic party leaders at the Rye Town Hilton in Westchester County, she had hinted she’d like to see Robert F. Kennedy Jr. make a bid for that same office-even though Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose campaign she worked on in 1994, has yet to announce his intention to resign.
And toward the end of last year, Ms. Hope was openly telling reporters that high-profile candidates might yet be getting into the governor’s race, leading to consternation that there would be a repeat of 1997, when former Mayor David Dinkins, former Police Commissioner William Bratton, and State and City Comptrollers H. Carl McCall and Alan Hevesi all flirted with and then dropped the idea of running for Mayor of New York City. The result was a malaise that never lifted among Democrats over the perceived weakness of the Democratic field.
Meanwhile, Ms. Hope has been held responsible for one or two loose cannons-like the time last year when she invited Mr. Kennedy to keynote a meeting where Democratic gubernatorial candidates would be making their first speeches to an audience of party leaders. Mr. Kennedy himself gave a stirring speech about the differences between Republicans and Democrats, and then told reporters that he just might support Governor Pataki’s re-election. He thus eclipsed whatever message Ms. Hope wished to send about the appeal of the Democratic challengers.
As a result of these incidents, Ms. Hope has left the impression that she is a bit of a dilettante, a wealthy grandmother from Long Island who has nothing better to do with her time than serve as titular head of the state party, while the real power lies elsewhere. And party leaders come close to expressing that, as Representative Tom Manton of Queens did when, at a recent meeting of 13 county leaders (who had gathered to hammer out a Democratic “consensus ticket”), he responded to a question about Ms. Hope’s whereabouts by saying that “she is wherever she goes on weekends.”
Ms. Hope, age 58, was spending the weekend in East Hampton, which she still considers her home, with her husband, Tom Twomey, a lawyer in Riverhead, L.I. The rest of the time she lives in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But she is more than a dabbler in politics. Though she recalled being “embarrassed” as a child by her father’s political pursuits, she became involved in politics herself 26 years ago as a volunteer on George McGovern’s Presidential campaign on Long Island. That was the year Richard Nixon won Suffolk County by the largest plurality in the nation.
Still, Ms. Hope, who was known back then as “Judy,” became hooked. The following year she ran for East Hampton Town Supervisor, and became the first woman ever to hold that post as well as the first Democrat since 1936. When asked how that happened, she demurred. “I don’t know,” she eventually responded. “But I’ve got to figure it out because I’ve got to repeat it on a statewide level.”
“She was able to identify the environment as an issue long before anyone else was,” said Tony Bullock, a veteran of East Hampton politics who is now the chief of staff to Senator Moynihan. And she was very good, said another Democrat familiar with Long Island politics, “at tapping into the money of liberal Democrats from Manhattan who owned homes in East Hampton, and getting them to register to vote and to vote absentee.”
Ms. Hope’s success at breaking the Republican lock on the East End did not go unnoticed. In 1976, she was named appointments secretary to Gov. Hugh Carey-a powerful job in charge of patronage hires.
Two years later, when then-Lieut. Gov. Mary Anne Krupsak announced she’d be running against her boss on the eve of the Democratic state convention, Ms. Hope was instrumental in putting together the coalition behind Mario Cuomo for Lieutenant Governor. “She went out to Governor Carey and said it has got to be Mario Cuomo,” recalled John Marino, Ms. Hope’s deputy at the time and later the chair of the state party himself.
Still, after five years of commuting between Albany and East Hampton with her two school-age children, Ms. Hope returned to Long Island, and ran for town supervisor again. Soon, she began to involve herself in raising funds for the state party, and was elected first vice chair. In 1992, she organized 600 New York house parties for then-Gov. Bill Clinton in the general election, and in 1994, she was deputy campaign manager for Senator Moynihan in his race against Bernadette Castro, now the state Parks Commissioner.
But then came what was, for Democrats, black November. After losing the Governor’s Mansion and the Attorney General’s office in 1994, the state party was $700,000 in debt. “She came in right after the devastating wave of conservatism in the country that wiped out [the governor of Texas, Ann] Richards in the South and the Democrats in Congress and Cuomo in the Northeast. You had to start all over with the Democratic Party in the state,” said Mr. Cuomo. “Also, Clinton was weak at that point, and you had a rich Republican Party in New York State, a very pragmatic Republican Party that was willing to abandon previous positions which has made them stronger.”
Ms. Hope said she never planned to be party chair, and state Democrats desperately wanted what one party activist called “an upstate millionaire that didn’t exist,” to lead the party. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, though he now claims to have supported the idea of a suburban woman as chair, was not an immediate Hope convert, and brokered a power-sharing deal where Ms. Hope would be named state chair and John Sullivan, the former Mayor of Oswego, would be head of the party’s executive committee. But Mr. Sullivan has more or less faded from the scene.
Meanwhile, Ms. Hope has run the party under what one activist after another has defensively referred to as “extremely difficult conditions.” The party no longer has the Governor’s office, meaning there are no lucrative contracts with which to reward potential contributors. Nor does the party have a fierce national fund-raiser like Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who helped direct resources to the state Republicans at a time, in the early 1990′s, when it was broke and bereft of candidates.
True, Ms. Hope has erased the party’s debt and brought its bank balance to about $100,000. But her efforts haven’t come close to matching financial success of the New York Republican State Committee, which has directly fed Governor Pataki’s $11 million-plus war chest.
The lack of money has hobbled the party’s organizing efforts. Ms. Hope is surrounded by a staff derisively called the “kiddie corps” by some party insiders. “Sometimes I feel like a dorm mother,” sighed Ms. Hope, picking up a stray sock while showing a reporter the party’s new offices. The dorm is almost empty right now, because the party’s political director, press secretary, opposition researcher and consultant all have recently left for other jobs-at the beginning of a crucial election year.
And then there’s the woman problem. Only a fraction of the Democratic Party’s county chairs are women. “It still surprises me,” mused Ms. Hope, “after all this time, that I can find myself the only woman or the only one of two or three in a room full of men.”
“These guys with cigars, they all think they would be a better chair than her,” said one high-level state Democrat. “They think they understand politics better than anybody because they’ve been around forever. But they can’t even decide to put a woman on the statewide ticket. You think they’re comfortable with a woman chair?”
And of course, none of them stepped forward to do Ms. Hope’s job.
“The party was in trouble, so they said let’s go get a woman or a black to get the party out of trouble. Once it’s out, we’ll go get somebody else,” snorted Bill Lynch, the former Deputy Mayor of New York City and now vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Ms. Hope has also taken criticism for “sitting out” the 1997 mayoral race. She said she “regrets” she wasn’t able to do more, but, reading off a party brochure, claims credit for defeating 217 Republican officeholders last year, and winning control of the prized Westchester County Executive’s seat, where Mr. Pataki’s campaign team of Arthur Finkelstein and Kieran Mahoney suffered massive defeat in a key 1998 battleground.
“The party used to be run from the top down, and now it’s run from the bottom up,” said Mr. Silver, sounding as if he is already formulating excuses for defeat next November. “At a statewide level, you’ll see those successes in five to 10 years as the new Democratic officeholders make a name for themselves and step up for higher office.”
Perhaps by then Ms. Hope, or whoever succeeds her, will have convinced national Democrats that they should leave behind a few of the millions they raise so easily and often in New York.