For the first time in more than a century, there are no Republican legislators on the island of Manhattan.
In a campaign that remained in the balance for days after Election Day, Democrat Jonathan Bing, a 32-year-old lawyer, is all but certain to prevail over Republican Gail Hilson, a former cosmetics executive, in a little-noticed race for an Assembly seat on the Upper East Side. If Mr. Bing does in fact win, he’ll replace the Republican incumbent, John Ravitz, who chose not to seek re-election. And it will mark a historic moment in New York politics.
While the city has elected two consecutive Republican Mayors for the first time in more than a century, Manhattan will have no Republican Representatives in Congress, the State Legislature and the City Council. The only Republican elected official with a full-time Manhattan address will be Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Ms. Hilson’s defeat marks the end of Rockefeller Republicanism-the urbane, socially liberal Republicanism founded in the 1960′s by Nelson Rockefeller and adopted by John Lindsay, former State Senator Roy Goodman, former Congressman Bill Green and others. While that brand of Republicanism has been out of date since the rise of Ronald Reagan in 1980, it established a stronghold on the Upper East Side through the 1980′s and into the 1990′s.
But over the course of several elections, beginning in 1992, East Side Republicans began losing offices they had held for years, leading to Ms. Hilson’s apparent defeat this year. As recently as 1991, the Upper East Side seemed to be the breeding ground for a new generation of Rockefeller Republicans-most of them with no adult memories of the former Governor-who represented the neighborhood in Washington, Albany and the City Council.
Now, they’re all gone.
“We have been overwhelmed by changes in the population,” said Mr. Goodman, who was a State Senator from the Upper East Side for more than three decades, resigning this year to take a post with the Bloomberg administration. “A lot of Republicans have moved to the suburbs, and Democratic registration has increased on the Upper East Side. As one who, for a long while, has been associated with the Republican Party in Manhattan, I do wish to see the trend reversed and to regain the strength we’ve had in a former day.”
The 72-year-old Mr. Goodman, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, was the personification of the type: wealthy, courtly, socially liberal, a patron of government funding for the arts and culture, but a supporter of lower taxes and other Republican issues. There weren’t many Roy Goodmans in the national Republican Party-and now, say some Democrats, there are none left in New York, either. “The blueblood Republicans are extinct,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “The East Side represented the last of Rockefeller-style thinking in the Republican Party. But Rockefeller died in a brownstone [in 1979], and the East Side Republicans have been losing strength ever since.”
Until the last few years, however, few people noticed that loss of strength. If anything, it seemed for a while that the opposite was true: The New York G.O.P. won a string of local races in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s and was well-positioned to solidify its gains with the emergence of Rudolph Giuliani in the late 1980′s. Mr. Goodman and Mr. Green were considered unassailable, and the party sent young, ambitious candidates like Charles Millard and Andrew Eristoff to the City Council and Mr. Ravitz to the State Assembly. They were considered the next generation of East Side Republicans, heirs to the Rockefeller tradition and prepared to one day take the place of Congressman Green and Senator Goodman. Democrat Carolyn Maloney noted that, at the time, the “Upper East Side was an extremely lonely place” for her party.
But Ms. Maloney began to make the neighborhood more Democrat-friendly in 1992 with her shocking defeat of Green, who died just a few weeks ago. Her victory marked the beginning of the end for East Side Republicans. Mr. Millard challenged her in 1994, lost and then resigned from the City Council to take a job with the Giuliani administration. Gifford Miller, a young Democrat-and the current Speaker-inherited Mr. Millard’s seat. Then Mr. Eristoff also quit to become a commissioner, and his seat went to Democrat Eve Moscowitz. Mr. Goodman left earlier this year, and in January, Mr. Ravitz will give way to Mr. Bing. “Now,” Ms. Maloney said, “I’m happy to say that the East Side-and Manhattan-will be ‘Republican-free in 2003.”
East Side Alamo
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the Metropolitan Republican Club on East 83rd Street-the ornate building that has served as campaign headquarters for nearly every elected Republican since the 1930′s-became a Silk Stocking version of the Alamo. The building, which is filled with oil paintings, old oak furniture and a grand piano, was buzzing with campaign staffers and volunteers busily preparing for their last stand.
Playing the roles of Davey Crockett and William Barret Travis in this drama were two Upper East Side Republicans out of the classic mold: Mr. Eristoff, a millionaire descendant of elite colonial New Yorkers and old Russian royalty who grew up on Park Avenue, and Ms. Hilson, a well-coiffed woman-about-town with a taste for pearl necklaces and bright, silky scarves.
Mr. Eristoff was running for State Senate against incumbent Democrat Liz Krueger, who captured Mr. Goodman’s seat earlier this year in a special election after Mr. Goodman’s resignation. Ms. Hilson, of course, was trying to keep Mr. Ravitz’s Assembly seat in Republican hands. Both campaigns were well-funded and well-organized, the kind of campaigns that Republicans are able to run on the Upper East Side.
At the Metropolitan Club, miniature war rooms were set up for each race, with detailed maps pinpointing targeted areas in each election district. Big guns were brought in from outside, like Rob Ryan, the burly conservative operative who managed Governor George Pataki’s campaign in 1994. But their efforts and money were for nought. Mr. Eristoff was defeated by 16 percentage points, even though he outspent Ms. Krueger by more than 10 to 1. Ms. Hilson came close enough to warrant a tally of absentee ballots-but in the end, Mr. Bing prevailed.
The G.O.P. grip on the East Side has been weakened by a number of factors. The moderate wing of the party has been marginalized on both a local and national level by the party’s conservatives. In New York State, the G.O.P. morphed from the party of Rockefeller and Jacob Javits into the party of Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki, both of whom were elected with the support of the Conservative Party, which was founded as a counter to Rockefeller’s influence on the state party. More recently, the Upper East Side has seen a huge influx of young, single people who vote Democrat nationally, and many old-line Republicans have died or moved to the suburbs, or have transferred voter registration to second addresses in Connecticut or the Hamptons.
“When someone just moves into the neighborhood out of college, it takes a while to make them understand that local Republicans aren’t the same as national ones on social issues,” said Mr. Ravitz, who will continue to serve as chairman of the Manhattan G.O.P. “The other side has successfully done guilt by association. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been accused of being Newt Gingrich’s illegitimate son.”
“It’s an anomaly that Manhattan, the wealthiest borough, is now the only one without a single Republican legislator,” said Brice Peyre, a longtime East Side Democratic activist. “The cradle of Rockefeller Republicanism now lies shattered in pieces on the townhouse floor.