Local politics in the quiet Westchester village of Briarcliff Manor have never been confused with the Upper West Side’s spleen-venting, lefter-than-thou, activist-driven campaigns. Enter Donald Trump–and suddenly the town’s sleepy mayoral election took on the look of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Election Day on March 16 started quietly enough. Mayor Keith Austin stopped by the red-brick Municipal Building on Pleasantville Road to cast his ballot before leaving for work. He was confident he would be re-elected. No wonder: He was running unopposed.
But at 8:30 A.M., the Mayor received a disturbing call at his office. People were showing up at polling places and asking to cast write-in votes. Later in the day, Mr. Austin learned that the write-in campaign was being orchestrated by Richard Mattiaccio, a local lawyer who had complained that village leaders weren’t taking a tough enough stand on Mr. Trump’s proposal to transform an old country club in town into–yes–the Trump National Golf Club.
Mr. Mattiaccio was staging a coup d’état by stealth. So the Mayor began calling his allies. By nightfall, the Municipal Building was mobbed by hundreds of partisans for both men. A woman was arrested. The Mayor and some of his sympathizers ganged up on one of Mr. Mattiaccio’s supporters and heckled him for trying to “steal” the election. “It was disgraceful,” said a witness.
Many people in Briarcliff Manor would say similar things about Mr. Trump’s proposal. The developer is seeking a range of approvals from the village planning board and its board of trustees to transform the 147-acre Briar Hall Country Club into a private club with a championship golf course and 87 luxury town houses and condominium units. “I think when it’s built, it’s going to be one of the finest golf courses in the world,” a characteristically modest Mr. Trump told The Observer . Memberships start at $150,000 a year.
Mr. Trump’s chilly reception in Westchester comes at a time when he is battling East Side residents such as Walter Cronkite and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who believe the developer’s plan to build a 90-story building across from the United Nations will overwhelm their Turtle Bay neighborhood. Those are exactly the concerns of many people in Briarcliff Manor. They believe that Mr. Trump wants to shoehorn an oversize project into the middle of their tiny village of 7,000. They predict Briarcliff Manor’s streets will be clogged with thundering trucks and earth movers as the developer reduces the existing country club to rubble. They fear the project will rob the village of some of its most bucolic scenery. Most of all, people are up in arms about plans to host spectator events at the proposed new golf club.
“All the roads in Briarcliff Manor are all circuitous,” said Nancy Pine, a member of the village planning board. “They are all winding, narrow and hilly. They are almost designed to discourage visitors. So it almost goes against that to invite thousands of people to come here.”
What sets the uproar over the proposed golf club apart from Mr. Trump’s usual not-in-my-backyard struggles is the political strife it has engendered in this usually calm village. Mayor Austin got 483 votes, easily defeating Mr. Mattiaccio. But the two men are still trading nasty charges.
Mr. Austin, 60, a vice president for Pitney Bowes Inc. in Stamford, Conn., bristled at the suggestion that he hasn’t been tough enough with Mr. Trump. “I personally can’t visualize this project being approved in its present form,” he told The Observer .
On a more personal note, the Mayor accuses his opponent of making a cowardly attempt to steal the election at the 11th hour instead of openly debating him on the issue. But Mr. Mattiaccio, 45, who practices international law in Manhattan, makes no apologies. He said he mounted his campaign at the last minute because he thought the Mayor’s allies on the village planning board turned a deaf ear to residents at a March 11 public hearing on the golf club’s environmental impact.
He said the Mayor’s strong words about the Trump project were influenced by the fact that 194 residents cast write-in votes on Election Day. “It comes as news to me and I’m sure it comes as news to many other people in the village,” Mr. Mattiaccio said. “If the write-in campaign is what it took to get the Mayor to come out and make a statement, then the campaign was a success.”
What does Mr. Trump, who is seeking to build three other golf clubs in Westchester County, make of the situation? Well, he thinks things would be going a lot smoother in Briarcliff Manor if only he was wasn’t, well, if he wasn’t a Trump. “I think being Trump is a huge asset and it’s a huge liability,” he lamented. “I think that if I were a developer up in Westchester, I think probably [the golf club plan] would have been a little less controversial, probably a lot less controversial. But it wouldn’t have been the quality that it is.”
Most people in Briarcliff Manor think they are doing just fine without Mr. Trump’s golf club. They reside in a picturesque town with rolling hills and a quaint downtown only 44 minutes by car from midtown Manhattan. Over the years, the village has attracted celebrities like WABC-TV newscaster Roz Abrams and comedian Robert Klein.
Mr. Trump came on the scene in December 1996 when he brought the Briar Hall Country Club for $8 million. Soon after, the developer approached the village about his plans for the Trump National Golf Club.
His only appearance before the planning board has become a local legend. Some people have said he arrived in a white stretch limousine accompanied by Al Pirro, the powerful Republican lobbyist recently indicted for tax fraud. According to several people who attended the meeting, Mr. Pirro stepped forward in one of his expensive suits and introduced Mr. Trump as “an intellectual genius.” The developer rambled for a bit about the project’s wonders and Briarcliff Manor’s “charm.”
Mr. Trump disputes that account. He said Mr. Pirro wasn’t at his side. Then there is the matter of his car. “It may have been a limousine,” Mr. Trump said, “but it wasn’t a white limousine.”
It seemed to many in Briarcliff Manor that Mr. Trump thought he could schmooze his way through the village’s review of his project. Several residents who criticized the size of the proposed club said Dino Bradlee, Mr. Trump’s project manager, hinted that a free membership might be theirs if they toned down their rhetoric. Mr. Bradlee strongly denied this. “That is an outrageous slander,” he told The Observer .
Mr. Pirro tried to do lunch with members of the planning board. Mr. Trump made personal calls. “You know Donald, he’ll try to work the phone,” Mr. Austin said. “He’ll try to talk his way through an approval. He’s trying to make a deal. We said, ‘There’s nothing to make a deal about.’”
Instead, the planning board began a lengthy study of the Trump National Golf Club’s environmental impacts on the village. The developer apparently got the message. Mr. Pirro vanished. He was replaced by Stephen Kass, a congenial environmental lawyer.
After months of wrangling with village officials, Mr. Trump agreed to scale back the plan. Among other things, the developer agreed to build a smaller clubhouse and move his town houses 165 feet back from one of Briarcliff Manor’s most picturesque roads.
The planning board accepted the developer’s final environmental impact statement in January. The board then began to prepare its own findings, which the village will rely on when it considers whether to grant Mr. Trump the approvals he needs to build.
That’s when residents discovered that Mr. Trump’s plan calls for staging huge spectator events. That hadn’t been mentioned in a draft version of the environmental statement. (Mr. Kass told The Observer that such events would be scheduled once every three years and that the village would have the right to veto them.)
Not surprisingly, then, about 300 residents crowded into the hall above the village fire station for the planning board’s public hearing on March 11. Only a handful of people spoke in favor of the project.
Who Needs a Hero?
The planning board’s patience seemed to fray as the night wore on. An attorney for a neighborhood group hit a nerve when he urged the board to be heroes and not roll over for Mr. Trump.
“It’s not our job to be heroes,” snapped John Rapoport, a board member and supporter of Mr. Austin.
Sitting in the audience was Mr. Mattiaccio, who had spent much of the previous weekend devouring the environment impact statement. The lawyer was appalled, and when he showed up at the train station the next morning to catch the 8:12 into Manhattan, he found many other commuters shared his anger. During the short trip to midtown, they hatched the plan to write in somebody’s name on Election Day. But whose? “Several people said, ‘Well, somebody should run,’ and somebody said, ‘Well, Richard should run,’” Mr. Mattiaccio said. “It ended up being a sort of tag–you’re it.”
The plot almost worked. By Election Day, everybody in Briarcliff Manor was talking about Mr. Trump and the golf club. The fiery public hearing had been shown repeatedly on a local cable television station. A group of schoolchildren circulated a petition against the project.
But when the insurgents went to vote on March 16, they found the actual write-in process more cumbersome than they anticipated. Some showed up without pens. (Imagine what Mr. Trump would make of that!) Others spent considerable time fumbling around in the voting booth before they successfully cast their ballots.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Austin’s allies in the Municipal Building realized something was wrong. The day ended with throngs of people waiting as long as 45 minutes to cast their ballots.
Just before police shut the doors at 9 P.M., a woman who had been waiting for nearly an hour to vote dashed out to check on her 10-year-old son, who was waiting in the car. When she tried to get back into the building, the door was shut and a police officer refused to let her back inside. They argued. The cop wound up taking her into custody for obstructing justice. Her lawyer told The Observer she is innocent.
Then there was the ugly scene between Mr. Austin’s camp and Mr. Mattiaccio’s coup-plotters, who made the mistake of sticking around while the votes were counted. “He tried to say, ‘We didn’t do anything illegal. We didn’t go anything wrong,’” Mr. Austin said. “Yeah, he got heckled.”
Mr. Austin won. Nobody was more thrilled than Mr. Trump, who saw the election as a vote of confidence in The Trump National Golf Club. “They had a write-in candidate who was opposed to the course and he failed miserably,” he said. “That tells you that they want it.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Austin and Mr. Mattiaccio are still spinning. Mr. Austin accuses his opponent of needlessly inflaming passions in the village. But what really ticked off Mr. Austin is that Mr. Mattiaccio never called to ask him about the Trump project. If he had, the Mayor insisted, Mr. Mattiaccio would have learned they have many of the same misgivings.
“Frankly, Mr. Trump made a big mistake by saying, ‘By the way, we are going to have special events with 5,000 people,’” Mr. Austin said. “You are not going to get one vote for that in the village.”
Mr. Mattiaccio laughed. He said the Mayor is talking tougher because of the write-in campaign. “Sometimes you just have to do something to shake things up,” Mr. Mattiaccio said proudly. “Even if you’re living in The Truman Show . Or to take something a little close to home, Pleasantville.”
Mr. Austin strongly disagreed: “There isn’t anything that Richard Mattiaccio did that’s going to change my feeling about this one way or another.”
If Mr. Trump is worried about the fate of his project, he isn’t showing it. “You know, most people are in favor of it,” he said. “And I believe that when it’s completed, they’ll be even more in favor of it.”
Follow Devin Leonard via RSS.