Conservative McConkey Could Oppose Pataki, Causing G.O.P. Havoc

When Roger Stone, the blond and perpetually tanned

Republican consultant, first floated the idea of a challenger to Governor

George Pataki for the Conservative Party nomination, it seemed he had found the

perfect vehicle: Phil McConkey. The good-looking former New York Giants wide

receiver, now a Wall Street banker, had some experience in politics. And just

the mention of his name elicited some positive press.

For conservative Republicans, running Mr. McConkey would

serve the Governor right. Mr. Pataki had betrayed conservative principals, they

said-increasing the state’s debt, mushrooming the

budget, supporting gun control. Worst of all, he had “cozied up” to the

Reverend Al Sharpton on the issue of Naval bombing in Vieques-unforgivable to Mr.

Stone and his crowd.

But the selection of Mr. McConkey, it seems, may have been

premature. He’s not registered to vote in New York City,

where he gives a Columbus Avenue

address, according to city Board of Elections spokeswoman Naomi Bernstein. Nor

is he registered in Hunterdon County, N.J.,

where he ran for Congress in 1990. He wasn’t registered in 1990 either,

according to Irene Ballantine, who works for the Hunterdon Board of Elections.

Not registering to vote-or not voting in at least a decade,

according to the public records-does not preclude Mr. McConkey from pursuing

the Conservative Party line in 2002. But it does signal a rough start to a

candidacy that Mr. Stone clearly hoped would force Mr. Pataki slightly more to

the right-if not fully undermine his chances for a third term. (As

conservatives like to point out, no Republican in 25 years has won election to

statewide office without the Conservative Party line.)

Complicating things for Mr. McConkey is his contribution in

June to Andrew Cuomo, one of Mr. Pataki’s Democratic challengers and the son of

former Governor Mario Cuomo, who is still the very face of liberalism to

conservatives. The donation has caught the attention of Conservative Party

chairman Michael Long, who has already put out fund-raising letters listing Mr.

Cuomo as the conservatives’ Public Enemy No. 1.

Mr. McConkey has explained the $500 gift, saying he was

asked to donate by his friend Christopher Cuomo, Andrew’s younger brother. Mr.

McConkey, however, not only gave money to Mr. Cuomo, he attended a “Young

Professionals for Cuomo” fund-raiser at the club Light in late spring, The Observer has learned.

Christopher Cuomo said Mr. McConkey is his friend-one he

sees “not as often as I’d like. He’s someone you would go out with, but you

don’t always have time to.” He said he invited the 1987 Super Bowl star because

he is “not poor,” and because “on a lot of levels he respects my brother. Phil

would not have given money just because I asked him.”

Mr. McConkey’s donation to Andrew Cuomo was especially

notable, since it’s one of the few donations he’s made over the years. Federal

electronic databases, which go back 13 years, show that he gave $1,000 to Dick

Zimmer in 1990 after losing the Republican congressional primary, and $1,000 to

George W. Bush in 2000. State databases, which go back three years, show no

donations other than the one to Mr. Cuomo.

The revelation that Mr. McConkey attended a Cuomo event will

doubtless fuel speculation-much of it fanned by the Pataki camp-that the McConkey

candidacy is a revenge plot cooked up by

Mr. Stone, in cahoots with Andrew Cuomo. Mr. Stone’s marquee client is Donald

Trump, who has been fiercely trying to stop Mr. Pataki from allowing casino

gambling in New York. Mr.

Cuomo-who is facing his own challenge to the Democratic nomination, in the form

of State Comptroller Carl McCall-could obviously benefit from a challenge to

Mr. Pataki, should Mr. Cuomo be the Democrats’ choice.

Both Mr. Stoneanda Cuomo spokesman,

Peter Ragone, vehemently denied that the two have dreamed up the McConkey

candidacy together, though they acknowledged knowing each other.

But the Associated

Press, which is not prone to speculative reports, ran a story on July 16

quoting two Republican sources-one named, one unnamed-who said Mr. Stone told

them he was helping Mr. Cuomo. The unnamed source said he overheard a

conversation between Roger Stone and Andrew Cuomo about a Conservative Party

primary. Both Mr. Stone and Mr. Cuomo’s spokesman denied that the conversations

took place.

 

A Memorable Catch

Mr. McConkey declined to be interviewed for this story. Mr.

Stone, however, speaking for him, explained that Mr. McConkey had registered in

Manhattan as a Conservative in late June (a few weeks before Mr. Stone began

floating his name as a candidate), but said the form was sent back because Mr.

McConkey had forgotten to check the box that said he was a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Stone said Mr. McConkey believed he had registered as a

Republican in New York in 1996,

but added the former football player could not remember the last time he’d

actually voted. Mr. Stone insisted that his client’s lack of a voting history

would make little difference in a primary where voters are motivated by

ideological causes.

Certainly, Mr. McConkey is an attractive candidate. He’s

best known for making a diving catch in the 1987 Super Bowl against the Denver

Broncos that put the ball on the one-yard line and led to a touchdown that

busted open the game. The McConkey catch also had sentimental value. The former

Naval Academy

player was seen as a scrappy wide receiver who was short and not particularly

fast, but who made up in hard work and dedication what he lacked in physical

gifts.

After retiring from the N.F.L. in 1989, he became an

insurance broker. But in the late 1990′s, he displayed some of that old

gridiron scrappiness by suing a former employer, Frank Zarb. He accused Mr.

Zarb-who by the time of the lawsuit had come to head the parent company of the Nasdaq stock exchange-of making false promises when he

recruited him. Mr. McConkey, who is now an investment banker at Garban

Intercapital, won a $10 million judgment against the company, though Mr. Zarb

himself was dismissed as a defendant; the case is now on appeal.

In 1990, Mr. McConkey ran as the most conservative of four

candidates seeking the Republican nomination for a New

Jersey Congressional seat that eventually went to Mr.

Zimmer. Now he’s mulling the New York

State run.

In a July 13 letter to Mr. Long, the Conservative Party

chair, Mr. McConkey said he was interested in running because “the Pataki

Administration has veered sharply left.” Among the slights Mr. McConkey listed:

increasing the budget, fiscal gimmickry, increased state debt. But most galling

to Mr. McConkey and like-minded conservatives was Mr. Pataki’s joining “Al

Sharpton and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in opposing the U.S.

military bombing of Vieques.”

Already he’s received

favorable billing in the New York Post ,

the Buffalo News and, most glowingly,

in conservative pundit Tucker Carlson’s column in New

York

magazine. Mr. Carlson depicted him as a man who could pose a serious threat to

Mr. Pataki. “He is well-spoken, self-consciously ethnic (half-Sicilian and

proud of it) and he has a great bio: Naval Academy graduate, helicopter pilot,

self-made Wall Street guy,” Mr. Carlson wrote in his Aug. 13 column.

Christopher Cuomo describes him as a “real mensch …. To a

lot of people, when Phil was playing football he was the common man’s champion,

because he wasn’t the biggest or the strongest. Then he gets in the insurance

business, and he gets involved in this huge imbroglio with Frank Zarb, and he

takes on the man who was then the chairman of Nasdaq and wins on the principle

[that], if you tell somebody something, [you] should have to deliver ….  I’ve got a lot of respect for that. Most guys

wouldn’t take on that fight, you know?”

 

First Is Long

That’s the kind of grit that some conservatives are looking

for-though it’s unclear whether Mr. Long is one of them.

William Newmark, the Bronx County Conservative Party

chairman who’s among a handful of state Conservative Party leaders publicly

supporting a Pataki alternative, says Mr. McConkey is a man of principle; Mr.

Pataki, he says, is not. Mr. Newmark said he’s not sure whether Mr. McConkey

will be Mr. Long’s man. “What it comes down to is,

will patronage win out over principle? For Mike, patronage comes first; for me,

principle comes first.”

Mr. Long angrily denied Mr. Newmark’s characterization,

saying if all he cared about was patronage, he would have supported Rudolph

Giuliani for the U.S. Senate, and he didn’t. Mr. Long also came to the defense

of Mr. Pataki: “The Governor, while he’s done some things we totally disagree

with on the conservative side of things, he has consistently cut taxes-one of

the biggest personal-income-tax cuts in the history of the state. He has peeled

away regulations, and clearly I give him credit for holding the line on the

budget this year, refusing to negotiate an upward budget.”

So far, the Conservative Party has supported Mr. Pataki.

Indeed, the thinking goes, it gave Mr. Pataki his margins of

victory in 1994 and 1998-even though the Governor is pro-choice, pro–gay

rights, pro-environment and supports government-funded health insurance for

poor children.

But “cozying up” to Al Sharpton may have turned the tide,

the Governor’s critics said. And a likable popular former sports star with a

lot of money is just the ticket for them-especially one who’s had a bit of

political experience.

Mr. Stone’s firm has performed a poll-one widely disputed by

Mr. Long and Pataki advisors-which found that Mr. McConkey could easily defeat

Mr. Pataki in a Conservative Party primary. (One of the questions in that poll

referred to Mr. Pataki’s recently named Secretary of State, Randy Daniels:

“Governor George Pataki recently appointed a black liberal Democrat as

Secretary of State. Does Governor Pataki’s appointment make you more likely or

less likely to vote for him?” Fifty-nine percent said “less likely.”)

But countering the Governor’s lack of conservative bona

fides is that Cuomo donation by Mr. McConkey. Mr. Long is already attacking Mr.

Cuomo in fund-raising letters. In a letter that frequently invokes

“ultra-liberal Andrew Cuomo,” Mr. Long talks about the “painful impact of Mario

Cuomo–style Big Government policies.”

Meanwhile, Pataki spokesman Mike McKeon hasn’t been shy

about getting into the controversy, accusing Mr. Stone and Mr. Cuomo of being

“two dirty tricksters” working together. The vehemence of the response

indicates that Mr. Pataki does not want a Conservative Party primary. (It also

suggests that Mr. Pataki has decided Andrew Cuomo is going to be his opponent;

Mr. Cuomo has already pulled even with Mr. McCall in the fund-raising race,

despite being officially in the gubernatorial contest only since January.)

It would certainly be troublesome, to say the least, for Mr.

Pataki to have a Conservative Party primary. “When there’s already a primary on

the ‘D’ side, you just want to be above the fray,” one Republican strategist

said. No Republican candidate wants to defend his conservative credentials on

the one hand, while also reaching for the center, where the vast majority of

New York Republican votes lie. Indeed, upstate populations (where the

Republicans reside) are shrinking, while the metropolitan region, rife with

Democrats, is growing. That dynamic helped propel Democrats Hillary Clinton and

Charles Schumer both to Senate victories.

Mr. Stone says the Pataki camp is so worried about Mr.

McConkey that Pataki associates have approached his candidate with offers to

support him if he ran on the Comptroller’s line instead of for Governor. He

said one friend of the Governor also hinted that the appeal of Mr. McConkey’s

lawsuit would be dropped if he got out of the race.

To which Governor Pataki’s spokesman made an indignant

response: “Roger Stone has got more conspiracy theories because he is involved

in more underhanded things than he can shake a stick at,” Mike McKeon said.

“What’s going on here clearly is: Roger Stone and Andrew Cuomo are two dirty

tricksters working together. People will see it for what it is and reject it.”

-with Joey Cohen