In 2000, it was Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio. In 2001, it was Mike Bloomberg vs. Mark Green.
And now, in New York’s first electoral battle of 2002, it’s … John Ravitz vs. Liz Krueger!
Granted, Republican Assemblyman John Ravitz may be a slightly more mundane figure than a billionaire media magnate turned Mayoral candidate, and Democratic social activist Liz Krueger somehow lacks the magnetism of a First Lady seeking to become a U.S. Senator in an adopted state. The office they covet-state senator-has likewise failed to capture the imagination of voters in elections past.
But there is much at stake. For Republicans, it means the defense of a lone remnant of the silk-stocking Republicanism that produced Jacob Javits, John Lindsay and Roy Goodman, the longtime state senator who resigned his office after 33 years to take a job with Mr. Bloomberg. (Mr. Goodman’s resignation prompted the special election between Mr. Ravitz and Ms. Krueger.) For Democrats, the race could be a chance to narrow the Republicans’ six-seat majority in the State Senate going into next fall’s gubernatorial and legislative campaigns.
If voters aren’t interested-only a tiny fraction of registered East Siders are expected to turn out for the special election on Feb. 12-New York’s most powerful political figures most certainly are.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg demonstrated just how seriously he takes the race, showing up at 7:40 a.m. on a recent overcast Thursday morning to campaign with Mr. Ravitz on a windswept and empty sidewalk outside the Stuyvesant Town apartments. Mr. Bloomberg stuck out his hand to greet potential voters who happened along, introducing himself and then, in a procedure he was to repeat a hundred times over the next half hour, steering the unsuspectingandsleepystrap-hangerstowardsthe
large, bespectacled man to
“Meet Assemblyman John Ravitz-he’s running for State Senate,” said the Mayor. “You gotta vote for this guy.”
A similar scene was played out the next day at a Gristede’s in Kips Bay, where U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer was taking a break from federal lawmaking to engage in some retail politicking on behalf of Ms. Krueger. All told, there were more reporters, aides and politicians in the store than customers, leaving Mr. Schumer to sweep through the dimly lit aisles in search of shoppers for Ms. Krueger to meet. At one point, Mr. Schumer and the would-be state senator, finding themselves alone in the cosmetics aisle, debated the merits of a hairbrush. (“I can’t walk around with this,” said Mr. Schumer about a particularly bulky model.)
Near the checkout area, Mr. Schumer addressed himself to one woman shopper, apologetically, for the second time: “Tell everyone you know-Feb. 12 is the election!”
The presence of the Democratic Party’s star performers at Ms. Krueger’s side-in addition to Mr. Schumer’s shopping expedition, Ms. Krueger is also scheduled to receive campaign help from New York’s other U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton, on Feb. 1-should come as a surprise to no one. Democrats have been dreaming for decades about controlling the State Senate-coupled with their ironclad control of the State Assembly, the party would have absolute power over, among other things, the redrawing of Congressional districts, a matter of great interest to politicians across the country. It would also give the Democrats a second seat at the policy-making table-the one currently occupied by upstate Republican Senator Joe Bruno, majority leader of the Senate-alongside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. (Governor Pataki, a Republican, fills the other seat in Albany’s three-person policy roundtable.)
Partisan enthusiasm aside, the 44-year-old Ms. Krueger has an enormous task in front of her. She will be heavily outspent by her opponent, despite an infusion of $50,000 to her campaign from her father, an executive for Lehman Brothers. She has never held office-she was narrowly defeated last year in attempting to unseat Mr. Goodman-and therefore lacks any store of political chits to call in for financial or political help. And she can’t realistically promise to deliver anything significant as a minority-party member in the Republican-controlled Senate.
While she is running on the premise that the Senate status quo needs to be changed, that very stasis makes her current task extremely difficult. “The Republicans are not only in the majority, but seem to be approaching this race like their lives depend on it,” she said somewhat ruefully. In her favor, Ms. Krueger received the endorsement of The New York Times, which has a particularly big impact in neighborhoods like the East Side.
For Mr. Ravitz, who is 41, the challenge will be entirely different. Quite simply, his biggest problem will be that he’s running on the Republican line in a district where Democrats have a two-to-one majority. So despite 11 years as a Republican assemblyman, two of them spent as his party’s whip under the leadership of upstate conservative John Faso, Mr. Ravitz seems determined to make it through the campaign without so much as mentioning the R-word.
During a conversation in the Metropolitan Republican Club on 83rd and Lexington, the elegantly appointed birthplace of Rockefeller Republicanism, Mr. Ravitz took great pains to describe his brand of politics without actually making reference at any point to his party affiliation. Asked about his connection to the Republican Party, Mr. Ravitz answered: “I look at it more as being another strong, progressive, moderate urban voice in Albany.”
He also said that New York suffered from too much “partisan crap.”
As evidence of his independence, Mr. Ravitz pointed to past endorsements of such groups as the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay-rights advocacy group, the National Abortion Rights Action League and a number of other organizations that tend to back Democrats.
But it was party as much as ideology that has helped Mr. Ravitz win the endorsements of a murderer’s row of the heaviest-hitting unions, business groups and advocacy organizations in New York for his Senate bid. The key dynamic in many of those decisions is a stark but simple rule of doing business in Albany: If you want something from the Legislature, you had better support the majority party in both houses. The impotence of minority-party members-the Republicans in the Assembly and the Democrats in the State Senate-is notorious.
That’s why weird things happen in the state capital. For example, the fiscally conservative Senate approved the generous and highly expensive health-care package that was pushed by Dennis Rivera, head of Local 1199 of the health-care workers’ union. Mr. Rivera, a longtime Democrat, donates large amounts of money to Republican Senate candidates, and he recently endorsed Mr. Ravitz. The United Federation of Teachers, which has no shortage of business in Albany, also endorsed Mr. Ravitz despite his support for measures they oppose, such as private school voucher programs.
Then there’s the Empire State Pride Agenda, which is supporting Mr. Ravitz and is highly interested in the passage of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, a measure that the Senate Republicans blocked in the past.
“If you have business to do, it’s definitely foolhardy to vote your heart rather than your pocketbook,” said lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who is organizing a fund-raiser for the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. “To help a Democratic senator, unless it would produce a change in the whole leadership, would be bad for business.”
Now loaded with cash, Mr. Ravitz is already on TV and radio with Bloomberg-like frequency, and has hired big-gun consultants like Rick Wilson and Norman Adler from outside the New York Republican establishment to help him craft his message. He will also have a superior Election Day organization, thanks to an army of volunteers supplied by his union backers to hand out leaflets and knock on voters’ doors.
What Mr. Ravitz’s fate may mean for the survival of East Side Republicanism is a matter of debate. The assemblyman, however uncomfortable he may be with the idea of party labels, would very much like to inherit the “outsider” mantle of the popular and durable Mr. Goodman. ” I would do what I can to get voices from outside the party heard within the party,” he said “That’s certainly a role I can play.”
Senate Democrats who served with Mr. Goodman, and who often found themselves allied with him on contentious issues, think differently about his would-be successor. “Ravitz is not an independent actor like Roy Goodman was,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who is still looking for his first win as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “He will owe whatever success he has to Joe Bruno. It’s a mistake to think he’ll have anything to do with any particular brand of progressive Republicanism.”
Of course, for all the tumult, the outcome of the race will have no practical impact on the way business is done in Albany. The majorities in both houses allow the leaders of each body to rule with near absolute power, and the legislative means by which those majorities are protected make it a virtual certainty that the people currently running things in Albany will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“At the end of the day, even if Liz Krueger wins, everyone will still have to deal with Joe Bruno,” said political consultant Harry Gianoulis, who has worked on Democratic Senate campaigns. “Nothing is going to happen in this election to change that fact.”