Republican Leader Has Inspiration: Run Real Judges

When James Ortenzio became chairman of the Manhattan Republican Party in May, he took over a franchise in ruins. The party organization was in debt. Its last elected official had retired and had been replaced by a liberal Democrat. And volunteers to run in future races were few and far between.

But Mr. Ortenzio, a multilingual meat magnate with a degree in medieval cartography, believes he’s about to accomplish a renaissance of two-party politics in Manhattan. With no members of Congress, State Senators, State Assemblymen or City Council members in the Republican column, Mr. Ortenzio is starting at the bottom of the ballot, with contests so obscure that they have come to be regarded as formalities: judicial elections for State Supreme Court.

“I think that the process of selecting and running candidates for judgeships has an effect on other offices, including legislative offices,” he said. “I think a number of people who were involved with this will kind of catch the spirit, and it will bring other people in who are interested in running for office.”

This unlikely effort comes at a time when New York Republicans are preparing to host the party’s national convention next year. The convention is very much a part of the rebuilding process, although the process itself promises to be painful.

“They’ve got about as much chance of electing Supreme Court judges in Manhattan as getting their pet pigs to fly from the 40th story,” said political consultant Norman Adler, who actually laughed when asked about the G.O.P.’s judicial candidates. “There was a time when Republicans could win in the judiciary. But now, it’s just not going to happen.”

He said that it was more an exercise in party-building than an actual attempt at winning office. “They want to show the flag,” he said. “They’re looking forward to the convention in 2004 and the [city] elections in 2005. The hope is that their partisans can get in the habit of voting Republican, because at least they’ll see that there’s a Republican candidate. If there’s not, they’ll actually forget how to do it.”

The importance of such party-building was evident last July, when the leadership of the Republican National Committee made an unusual trek to Washington Heights to open Manhattan’s first G.O.P. outreach center. The next stage will be fielding candidates in even the most obscure races.

In the most recent State Supreme Court elections, Democrats ran unopposed. This time, the Republicans have come up with three judges to carry their banner: Dean Vigliano, a former assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau; Gregory Reed, a commercial and criminal lawyer; and Stephen Crane, an incumbent Democrat who will be running on both lines this time around.

Though the Republican candidates will struggle to be competitive with their Democratic opponents, the very fact that they are running is meant to be more than just a symbolic gesture.

The Upper East Side was once a bastion of what was called Rockefeller Republicanism, socially (and sometimes even fiscally) liberal, symbolized by people like John Lindsay, Bill Green and retired State Senator Roy Goodman. Now, in the face of dwindling numbers of registered Republican voters in Manhattan, the party is trying to revisit that time when it enjoyed some success.

Witness the scene before the start of a judicial screening-committee hearing convened recently at the once-grand Metropolitan Republican Club on East 83rd Street, as Mr. Ortenzio stood outside giving a discourse to a small group of Republican staffers on how the proceedings would go. (The last time Republicans got together to select judicial candidates in Manhattan was in the early 1960s.)

“Do you know why it took Champollion 28 years to translate the Rosetta Stone?” he asked, gesturing with a cigarette as his charges looked on blankly. “Because little by little, the world had forgotten Coptic, and without Coptic you can’t read hieroglyphics.”

More uneasy silence.

“That’s what happened here,” he continued. “No one remembers what the rules are or how to do this …. We’re remaking the freaking wheel!”

Inside the club, an old brick building with creaky wooden floors, a battered grand piano and a giant oil portrait of Nelson Rockefeller, about 30 people had gathered to perform the rites of selection. Seven of them were judicial candidates, and the rest were district leaders and local activists.

What then took place was a quaintly democratic process described by Mr. Ortenzio as a “colloquial colloquium,” during which each candidate talked about himself and then answered some questions from the floor. After the candidates left, the delegates discussed their merits.

What Next?

A week later, at a judicial convention at the Metropolitan Club, they reached decisions on their candidates. Because of the strict rules governing judicial races, as well as a lack of precedent and lack of means, no one is quite sure what’s supposed to happen next. (As of Oct. 21, the extent of the campaign strategy was a plan to run a newspaper ad in support of the three nominees.)

Despite the fact that this was all a quintessentially partisan activity being planned at the headquarters of a political club, the people involved with the process talked earnestly of having a higher purpose. “If a competing party like the Republicans-if you can call it competition in a one-sided county like this-is fielding candidates, it has to have an upward effect on the candidates of the Democratic Party,” said Mr. Crane, the incumbent Democratic judge who will be running on both lines this November. “To be competitive, the Democrats are going to want to field excellent candidates as well. This is very conceptual, but I think it has a psychological impact on the electorate, and I think it’s an important aspect of encouraging confidence by the electorate.”

Mr. Ortenzio, too, casts the Republican effort to field judicial candidates as a public service. “The judiciary has withered,” he said. “It’s withered within the Republican Party and, ironically, within the dominant party. Whether one party has gotten fat, and the other has gotten so skinny that it can’t function, it has been bad for the public.”

But it’s not clear that more candidates will amount to more competition. Because of the huge disadvantages of the Republicans, the outcome is all but predetermined. Judicial races are extremely low-profile affairs, meaning that those voters who even bother to vote that far down the ballot tend simply to do so along party lines. And with the massive registration deficit in Manhattan-there are approximately five Democrats for every Republican in the borough-it would all seem to be too much for the new Republican contenders to overcome.

As for the candidates themselves, they seemed resigned to play their role in New York political history. “I appreciate that New York County is a solid Democratic county, and that I am an underdog,” said Mr. Vigliano, one of the two candidates running solely on the Republican line. “But I’m not going into the tank. I’m not like a wrestler who’s designated to lose. I believe the process can be improved, and I believe as long as coverage is given and the points we’re trying to make are made, I don’t think that’s academic at all. If we can get away from one political party always dictating who the judges shall be, that’s a positive thing. And if I end up losing, I can live with that.”