Meet James Larocca, a Would-Be Governor From Central Casting

It is boyishly full, yet gubernatorially gray. It effortlessly circumsweeps the ears, then, at the forehead, tumbles into a tuft that could make a Kennedy cry. Even in the rain that pelts it as its trim, quick bearer leaps out of a family Ford Explorer and into the soaking specter of gridlock in Manhattan, hot-footing it to the third of the five Democratic clubs on the hit list for this evening, it neither wilts nor scrunches nor frizzes. As candidates for governor go, James Larocca of Long Island may not have the big money; he may not have the neon name; he may not have the elusive streak of personal lightning to take a real stab at the statehouse. But ask anyone in politics and they will tell you, as they told The Observer with frightening consistency: He definitely has the hair.

On paper, though, he also has the profile, and that is why, unlike so many other Little-Engine-That-Could candidates, Mr. Larocca achieves at least the ring of rationality when he tells you how, against some pretty perpendicular odds (the political reach of City

Council Speaker Peter

Vallone; the merry moola of Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross), he can pull off the Democratic primary. “I’ve had the thesis all along that it’s not just about money, it’s not just about patronage, it’s not just about name recognition,” said Mr. Larocca, who thinks that his race is about “being able to put together an old-fashioned, grass-roots, item-by-item political effort.” More on that later, but sitting opposite the man from Huntington, L.I., as he sips a Coke in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental New York, where the Liberal Party has been having its candidate go-sees, one’s basic read is that this fellow isn’t a governor, but he could play one on TV. In addition to the statesman ‘do, there is the patiently modulated voice talking jobs and prekindergarten and clean air; the mild wit; the tendency to recycle themes from the stump into conversation, by delivering it more softly and while sitting down. “Seven out of 10 households where there is no mother at home for young children,” he said. “That is as profound a demographic shift as we have ever had in our modern history, and we haven’t even begun to address it.”

If all this central-casting stuff sounds dismissive, it is precisely the opposite, for it is in emanating all things governor-esque that Mr. Larocca finds a fair measure of plausibility in a field where he is, after all, running third on a good day. In the perception of the party, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes seems to be swapping places with Mr. Larocca as the second-alternate candidate, who will get to serve as standard-bearer in the event that Mr. Vallone implodes and Ms. McCaughey Ross self-destructs, while developer Richard Kahan is still a midnight-dark horse. Go down the checklist of suitable candidate characteristics, and Mr. Larocca is, as Cary Grant once said of Grace Kelly, a jackpot of admirable qualities. Ethnically, he is an Italian Catholic. Geographically, in a state where governorships are won or lost on suburban battlegrounds, “I think people have the conception that I’m a suburban square,” he said, not incorrectly. Professionally, he is a lawyer who has worked for two governors (for Hugh Carey, as energy commissioner in the shortage days of the 1970’s, and for Mario Cuomo as transportation commissioner), and therefore wouldn’t frighten the woodwork in Albany. He also put in a stint at the helm of the business-minded Long Island Association, and therefore wouldn’t frighten the capitalists, or at least not much for a Democrat. Ideologically, Mr. Larocca calls himself a “card-carrying moderate,” but on some social issues, he is, handily enough for purposes of a primary, to the left not only of Mr. Vallone, but of the liberally reconstituted Ms. McCaughey Ross: He is, for instance, not only against Defense of Marriage Act-style legislation, but in favor of gay marriage. Indeed, Mr. Larocca is perhaps the only suburban square ever to throw a meet-and-greet at Splash, a gay bar in Chelsea.

Little Money, Lot of Honey

Not that Mr. Larocca is without his political points of interest. Mr. Larocca is a former partner in and consultant to the law firm of Cullen and Dykman, a major client of which is Brooklyn Union Gas, on whose board Mr. Larocca serves. Brooklyn Union is, of course, the utility set to merge with the Long Island Lighting Company. Lilco is, of course, the entity better known as the Great Satan to Long Islanders who pay the highest utility rates in the continental United States, thanks to the long and litigious progress of the Shoreham nuclear power plant. “BUG is the company that’s coming to the rescue,” said Mr. Larocca, who seems to view the current state deal with Lilco, which is a bonanza for Brooklyn Union, as the least of the evils left available at this juncture. “I think people see that advent of BUG coming into Lilco as a very positive development.” This may very well be true, but if Mr. Larocca comes within striking distance of the nomination, it’s hard to imagine his opponents not making some conflict-of-interest hay out of his support, however qualified or even justified, for a still-controversial deal from which Brooklyn Union stands to make a killing.

But he is still quite a ways from striking distance, though not for lack of industry. For well over a year, Mr. Larocca has been working the campaign trail like nobody’s business, particularly in the upstate settings where a little money and a lot of honey can go a long way. In the March 21 Schenectady straw poll, Mr. Larocca came in a close second to Ms. McCaughey Ross, and the following week, at the Democratic Rural Conference in Ithaca, which is more significant because those polled are political leaders, not random rank-and-file, he whipped both her and Mr. Vallone nearly 2 to 1.

“All the highly powered, highly paid consultants are going to have trouble explaining away this profound victory,” Mr. Larocca told The Observer at the time.

Well, let’s not get carried away. Mr. Larocca won Ithaca because he worked Ithaca, a fact that points up both the long and the short of his prospects. It is true that Team Larocca has been diligent and wise in its decision to take it slow and steady in a race where the high-speed, high-profile package is not an option. “This is going to be slow and methodical,” said campaign manager Ron Foley. “There is not going to be some huge bounce here. While people are saying we’re not getting it together, we are getting it together, and people will see it when we’re ready for them to see it.” Mr. Larocca’s upstate inroads may not mean much in terms of the Democratic primary vote, but they do signal that he has built something of an organization, which is more than some of his opponents can claim. “He’s the only one who has a group of people working locally,” said Steven Paquette, chairman of the Onondaga County–that’s Syracuse–Democrats. But it is also true that in order for such a relentlessly retail approach to ensure a successful campaign, the campaign would have to last five years and forbid the electorate to watch TV. Neither condition being operative at the moment, Mr. Larocca will have to do his surging through a window of opportunity that is about half an inch wide. That window will further open or close at the state Democratic convention, to be held in Westchester at the end of May. In order to secure a place on the ballot without the costly and time-consuming proposition of petitioning for signatures, candidates must secure votes from at least 25 percent of the delegates to the convention. Drawing mainly on support from his home territory of Long Island, the aforementioned rural counties and some parts of Manhattan, Mr. Larocca expresses confidence that he will clear the threshold. If not, he is prepared to petition, but that would have other ramifications for the overall building of steam. “Our financial plan is to build on a very good showing at the convention to ratchet up the fund raising,” he said.

Wild Card: Betsy!

And not a moment too soon: Once political types get finished rhapsodizing about the profusion of hair on Mr. Larocca’s head, they get right onto the dearth of money in his purse. Whatever their regard for his résumé, it is hard to imagine that too many Democrats will sit still for the notion of putting Mr. Larocca up against the fatly funded Gov. George Pataki. Between the year-plus of elbow grease that he has invested in this effort and the fact that the party structure per se is constantly declared dead, it is amazing to contemplate the kaleidoscope of ways in which Mr. Larocca could be summarily screwed or saved at the convention with almost no reference to his own performance.

On the “screwed” side of the ledger, there is, interestingly enough, Long Island. While the support for Mr. Larocca of the Democrats’ Suffolk County chairman, Dominic Baranello, is supposed to be solid, that of Nassau County chairman Stephen Sabbeth is widely assumed to have the approximate firmness of a baby’s bottom. In fact, those of you who enjoyed the abortive attempt, a few months back, by county leaders to formulate a slate of “consensus” candidates may be in for a real treat at the convention, where we may see a second attempt at candidate swapping. Mr. Sabbeth may repeat his offer to support Mr. Vallone if Representative Thomas Manton, the Queens county chairman and head cheerleader to Mr. Vallone, abandons Oliver Koppell, his candidate for Attorney General, in favor of Eliot Spitzer, the rich, rich would-be Attorney General whose candidacy is the one Mr. Sabbeth really wants to advance. Mr. Manton refused then, but might be tempted now. (Variables include how much of the Nassau delegation is controlled by Mr. Sabbeth, and how much Mr. Manton will trust him to cut a deal.)

On the potential “saved” side, there is Ms. McCaughey Ross herself. If, as is certainly possible–though not, surprisingly enough, inevitable–she falls short of the 25 percent, she may decide to throw what delegates she does have to Mr. Larocca, so as to ease her own ascent by keeping as many men in the race as possible. Then there’s always Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has been considered a force behind Mr. Hynes, but who is said now to be making nice noises about Ms. McCaughey Ross. No word yet on the Speaker’s disposition to card-carrying moderates with candidate coiffures.