Liberal Boss Ray Harding: Will He Take Rudy Over Hillary?

Not long ago, Raymond Harding–head of the influential Liberal Party and a key confidant of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani–reached out to an old friend who happens to be the top political adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harold Ickes Mr. Harding wanted to reassure Mr. Ickes that a rumor making the rounds in New York’s political circles was false, according to one of Mr. Ickes’ friends: No, he hadn’t secretly decided to give his party’s line to Mr. Giuliani in next year’s Senate race.

Mr. Harding has been talking quite a bit with Mr. Ickes about the Senate campaign, according to the friend. And Mr. Ickes has good reason to stay in touch with the Liberal boss, because Mr. Harding’s party can deliver tens of thousands of votes in a statewide election. The Liberal Party’s endorsement could decide what is expected to be an extremely close race.

“Harold touches base with [Mr. Harding] frequently,” the friend said. “He asks him where things are.”

And in a previous conversation with the Democratic Party’s state chairman, Judith Hope, Mr. Harding apparently sought to quash yet another round of rumors, according to an associate of Ms. Hope. At the time, political insiders were confidently predicting that Mr. Harding would secretly help Mr. Giuliani by running a spoiler candidate on his party’s line, intending to siphon crucial votes from Mrs. Clinton.

But Mr. Harding wanted Ms. Hope to carry a clear message to Mrs. Clinton, according to the associate: He hadn’t made up his mind at all. So when, he asked, would Mrs. Clinton be calling him?

Through a friend, Mr. Harding denied the conversation with Ms. Hope. But the person close to Ms. Hope insisted that he had indeed sought to convey the message to Mrs. Clinton.

These developments suggest that cracks and strains may soon develop in what has long been New York’s most blissful political marriage of convenience: the relationship between Mr. Harding and Mr. Giuliani. In providing Mr. Giuliani with the Liberal line in the mayoral races of 1989, 1993 and 1997, Mr. Harding became one of the Mayor’s most important political allies. Thanks to public perception of his intimacy with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Harding’s lobbying business exploded and two of his sons ascended to lofty positions in city government. Mr. Harding and Mr. Giuliani remain close and have often talked politics over late-night dinners and cognac.

But those evening bull sessions may soon become a thing of the past, as the Giuliani-Harding relationship comes under the strains of Mr. Giuliani’s shifting political imperatives. In a simpler world, Mr. Harding would simply hand his endorsement to Mr. Giuliani. According to one top supporter of the Mayor, however, Mr. Giuliani has all but decided to pursue the ballot line of the Conservative Party, which is considered vital for any Republican seeking statewide office. But the Conservative Party refuses to endorse candidates who also run on the Liberal line.

That has left Mr. Harding pondering three other options, none of which is particularly appetizing. He can leave his party’s line blank–but then he’ll have played no role in the most-hyped statewide race in a generation. He could endorse Mrs. Clinton–the Liberals generally support Democrats in statewide races–but then his prized relationship with Mr. Giuliani presumably would come to an end.

“If he goes for Hillary, it will have to be with a wink from the Mayor,” observed one close associate of Mr. Harding. “And I can’t imagine the Mayor winking.” Indeed, one mayoral supporter hinted ominously that an endorsement of Mrs. Clinton would mean an end to Mr. Harding’s place in the Mayor’s inner circle. “If he endorses Hillary, he’s obviously not going to have any role with the Giuliani campaign,” the Giuliani supporter said.

So the Mayor’s allies are hoping that Mr. Harding will embrace a third way–running a left-of-center spoiler candidate against Mrs. Clinton. One top supporter of the Mayor told The Observer that the spoiler option would be “extraordinarily helpful.”

So what to do? “I’m not worried,” said Herman Badillo, who is Mr. Harding’s longtime law partner and Mr. Giuliani’s special adviser on education. “[Mr. Harding] likes being in what seems to be a difficult dilemma because he likes to show he can get out of it.”

Mr. Harding certainly is a wily fellow. His leadership of the Liberal Party dates back to 1976, when he inherited the mantle of a party that had been formed as an alternative to Tammany Hall machine politics and the communist-leaning American Labor Party. Though the party’s original base has all but vanished, Mr. Harding has managed to keep the party–and himself–relevant with a series of cunningly brokered alliances and endorsements.

A Political Throwback

Mr. Harding is almost comically perfect in his role as one of the last of the old-time political bosses. (He has been described as a “one-man smoke-filled room.”) A Giuliani insider recalled that Mr. Harding would puff away on Camels during strategy sessions over antipasto in the Gracie Mansion library. He is a large man–viewed from the side, he looks as if he stuffed a cowcatcher under his suit. He speaks in a clipped, nasal tone that sounds something like a cross between a mongoose and Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Here is Mr. Harding telling his life story to a reporter a few years ago: “So–thumbnail history of Ray. Born Yugoslavia, 1935. Nazis come in 1941, beat up Dad. Dad reads signals. we go to Italy. Then, 1944–Nazis tell Italians, ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy.’ Round up Jews, ship us to camp in Calabria. Barbed wire. Machine gun turrets. But no ovens, no work detail–not bad, given what might have happened.”

Given Mr. Harding’s long and extremely lucrative relationship with Mr. Giuliani, many insiders expect him to do his friend’s bidding and go with the spoiler option. But others insist that Mr. Harding may have little choice but to defy the script that political insiders have written for him, an act that would be fraught with all sorts of political peril.

Mr. Harding didn’t return several calls requesting an interview. But one Liberal Party member noted that it is no easy task to find a credible third-party candidate. If Mr. Harding finds one who has no effect on the outcome, he will have lost perhaps his main selling point: his ability to persuade politicos that he can make or break their electoral ambitions.

“If the spoiler makes no difference, then the party becomes irrelevant,” said Martin Begun, who is on the party’s policy committee. “The one thing about Ray Harding is that he doesn’t like to be considered irrelevant.”

He certainly doesn’t. In 1993, when his line pulled enough votes for Mr. Giuliani to squeak past then-Mayor David Dinkins, Mr. Harding went around bragging about his role as “Ray ‘margin-of-difference’ Harding.”

If Mr. Harding does, in fact, run a third-party candidate against Mrs. Clinton, he risks arousing the anger of the city’s Democratic establishment, which he may need to keep his business flush and his sons gainfully employed after Mr. Giuliani leaves office. In fact, leading Democrats are so worried about the spoiler option that they are already sounding ominous threats. “If he’s smart, he’ll keep himself in good Democratic graces to protect his fiefdom after 2001,” one top Democrat told The Observer .

Finally, observers say, sooner or later he will have to start worrying about his party’s image as an ideologically bereft institution more interested in patronage than in policy. If Mr. Harding fields a candidate designed to help Mr. Giuliani at a time when the Mayor appears to be moving rightward, he risks losing members and credibility. Indeed, any Liberal Party member who believes in the party’s platform might not be pleased if the party tacitly aids the Mayor. The party’s web site (www.liberalparty.org) offers a range of positions that might elicit sneers from the right-tilting Mr. Giuliani.

The Liberal Party on health care: “We must … complete the design of a universal health-care program for all Americans.” On juveniles: “We must … develop a community-based ‘aftercare’ system … to deal effectively with the thousands of damaged young people among us.” On workfare recipients: “We must provide them with … literacy, education and training [and] affordable transportation to get them to work and their children to child care.”

For his part, Mr. Giuliani has thrown himself behind Federal tax cuts that slash money for hospital and child care programs, and he has assailed those who oppose a strict workfare system as “apostles of dependency.”

If Mr. Harding’s history is any guide, he is likely to wiggle out of his strange predicament. Even his enemies marvel at his Houdini-like ability to extricate himself from impossible political quagmires. In 1998, for instance, his party suffered a near-death experience when Wilbur Ross, then the wealthy husband of Mr. Harding’s candidate for governor, Betsy McCaughey Ross, suddenly pulled his formidable resources from her campaign. The insiders scripted Mr. Harding’s demise, predicting the Liberal Party wouldn’t pull the 50,000 votes needed in any gubernatorial election to retain its place on the ballot. He survived.

“He has a lot of skill in maneuvering around land mines, and I’m sure he hasn’t lost any of those,” Mr. Badillo observed. “I don’t know how he’ll work it yet. [But in the end], all of us will look with admiration at how he pulled it off.”