Joseph Bruno, the majority leader of the State Senate, took the floor at a meeting of New York’s most influential conservatives with something between caution and contrition.
It was early November, and Mr. Bruno had recently pushed through a package of tax increases over the objections of his fellow Republican, Governor George Pataki. Now, in a low-ceilinged meeting room in the back of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown, he faced an audience of about 100 skeptics.
“I am told that many of you are tough when it comes to fiscal issues,” he began delicately, before laying out his argument that temporary tax increases had spared cuts to education and health care. “We solved it as we thought we had to.”
But the room seemed unconvinced, and little disposed to treat the tuxedo-clad Mr. Bruno with any special respect just because he’s one of the three men who run the state. (The others are the Governor and the Assembly Speaker.) When Mr. Bruno’s five minutes were up, a young Citibank vice president, Anton Srdanovic, spoke up.
“We got nothing short of spanked,” he told the 74-year-old Mr. Bruno, to applause from the crowd. “What’s the point? The Republicans are raising taxes as much as the Democrats. How are we supposed to go forward as a party when you’re making these kinds of decisions?”
“We felt that the decision we made temporarily was a quality-of-life issue,” Mr. Bruno said. This was greeted by much groaning and shaking of heads.
“What is it going to take for you to listen to us and stop spending and stop raising taxes?” called out one woman in the audience.
Mr. Bruno absorbed the flak, looking a bit pained.
“I would like to open up a line of communication with you,” he said.
It wasn’t that Mr. Bruno wanted to have a conversation with his heckler. He was asking for a dialogue with members of his audience, who make up one of New York’s newest, quietest and most powerful political institutions. Founded by Mallory Factor and investment adviser James Higgins, it’s called, simply, the Monday Meeting. And it has turned into the conservative movement’s preeminent beachhead in the hostile territory of New York City.
An invitation-only, off-the-record gathering (Mr. Bruno and others are quoted in this story with their permission), the monthly meeting has brought together the right wing of the city’s financial and intellectual elite-among the regulars are major Republican donors and members of The Wall Street Journal ‘s editorial board. It also has created a power center whose guest list has included half a dozen U.S. Senators.
The meeting’s fund-raising clout is informal, but fearsome. Representative Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is challenging incumbent Senator Arlen Specter in a primary this year, spoke to the group last spring. That prompted the Senator himself to come to New York to deliver a rebuttal and, he says, “shut off” the money. Mr. Factor and Mr. Higgins have even begun to rebuff members of Congress who ask for invitations.
The Monday Meeting offers a clue to understanding the conservative movement’s success and its continued vitality. Liberals talk endlessly of building coalitions-Senator Hillary Clinton has suggested that the left needs a meeting on this model-but infighting, inertia and a lack of discipline have kept them from pulling off this union of ideas, money and power. The right, meanwhile, often acts like the embattled minority that it was in the days of Barry Goldwater, protecting its own and keeping disputes in the family.
“The meeting serves the Grand Central Station function,” said John Fund, a Monday Meeting regular who writes a column for The Wall Street Journal ‘s Web site. “This is where everyone meets; this is where people coordinate, get updates and gather support for projects.”
Guest speakers, who get five minutes to talk and another five minutes to answer questions, are drawn from the ranks of national and local conservative luminaries. National figures have included legislators like Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Richard Burr of North Carolina. On the local level, Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro recently wowed the crowd by declaring, “I don’t think the jails are full-they’re not full enough, anyway.” Author Ann Coulter, by all accounts, knocked them dead. Lower-profile speakers fill out the six- to eight-person monthly line-up. Recent visitors have included one Manhattan Institute scholar pushing tort reform, another arguing for legal status for illegal immigrants, and a representative of the liquor industry railing against regulation.
The inspiration for the Monday Meeting comes from Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Mr. Norquist is an implacable anti-tax lobbyist and part-time provocateur who has won some notoriety recently by comparing the principle behind progressive taxation to the principle behind the Holocaust. His weekly Wednesday meetings of conservative activists in Washington, D.C., were an intellectual engine for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.
Mr. Norquist, an occasional visitor to the Monday Meeting, has created a network of these gatherings around the country, most of them in state capitals. He pushed Mr. Higgins and Mr. Factor to start the New York branch.
The leaders of the New York meeting, however, are quick to say they’ve retained their independence. They say they don’t show Mr. Norquist their list of members, and they don’t participate in his conference calls for leaders of similar meetings around the country.
“Given the power in this room, it’s more like a national meeting,” Mr. Norquist said during a December 2003 visit.
In many ways, the Monday Meeting has followed a recipe that Mr. Norquist developed during the 1990′s. Conservative reporters are invited, but asked not to report on the meeting. The attendees share a Reaganite notion that government is too big, and that taxes and social programs should be cut. The principles, Mr. Factor and Mr. Higgins say, are “freedom and opportunity.” Meeting-goers’ views diverge widely on issues like gay marriage and immigration. At Mr. Norquist’s Washington meetings, legislative staff and lobbyists compose a solid portion of the crowd; in New York, the crowd is divided fairly evenly among journalists, political operatives, policy wonks, donors and corporate types.
Key to this kind of institution is that the leader stay in the background. Mr. Norquist, a small, bearded man who speaks without affect, seems so focused on his aims as to lack an ego.
“You needed a group or an individual who’s sui generis, that’s all by himself and that nobody thinks of himself as competing with or minds competing with,” Mr. Norquist said.
Mr. Factor and Mr. Higgins fit that model even better than Mr. Norquist, who is a registered lobbyist and whose organization runs on private contributions. They make a nice pair: Mr. Factor, 53, is ebullient and a little noisy, eager to help, delighted when he can get a Senator to return a reporter’s telephone call. Mr. Factor grew up in Bridgeport and discovered Milton Friedman while on scholarship at Wesleyan. He made his money first as a consultant and investment adviser, while dabbling in Republican politics as a fund-raiser and activist. He now runs a merchant banking firm.
Mr. Higgins, who prefers “James” to “Jim”-”I explain to people that ‘James’ is stuffier”-is quiet and wonky. He was chairman of the College Republican National Committee when he was at Harvard. (Karl Rove was among his predecessors in that position, and Mr. Norquist was executive director of the group when Mr. Higgins was chairman.) Now he’s a 42-year-old managing director at Lawrence Kudlow’s economic-advisory firm and a fellow at the Claremont Institute, a small-government think tank in California.
“We’re not interested in talking to ourselves,” said Mr. Factor, snacking on olives and red wine at the slick Q56 bar at the Drake hotel, as Mr. Higgins sipped coffee. “We’re trying to cause action; we’re trying to get support for people who deserve support.”
Like Mr. Norquist’s meetings, the New York conclave has emerged as a potent draw for the ambitious and the powerful. Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, a rising star of the conservative movement, came by to share his views on taxes and regulation.
“It’s like Grover’s meeting in Washington-it’s a chance to exchange ideas,” Mr. Sununu told The Observer .
The meeting can also smooth the way for an out-of-stater looking to tap into New York’s legendary vein of political money. After speaking to the group, Representative Toomey raised $5,000 from two Monday Meeting regulars, Richard Gilder and Charles Brunie.
Mr. Gilder is among the founders of the Club for Growth, an influential anti-tax lobbying group in Washington whose wealthy members are well represented at the Monday Meeting. The Club is also out to get Senator Specter because he fought to reduce George W. Bush’s first tax cut. After the Club’s executive director called for the Senator’s scalp, Mr. Specter decided that he needed to speak at the Monday Meeting last May.
He’s No Satan
“I think they expected to see Satan,” Mr. Specter said. “They needed to see my conservative credentials, and they needed to know the facts.” He told them of his support for lower taxes and the death penalty. They razzed him over blocking the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. He reminded them, “I’m the guy who saved Clarence Thomas … in my questioning of Anita Hill.”
Mr. Specter said he thought his appearance dealt a blow to his opponent. Afterward, he said, he was told “that I turned a lot of minds and shut off a lot of money.”
“He froze a lot of money that was going to go to Toomey,” confirmed one member of the Club for Growth board, who asked that his name not be used.
Incumbent Senators with unchallenged conservative credentials have also taken advantage of the amount of money in the room at the Hyatt. “Talking to people after the meeting, some folks offered to help us with events we were working on later in New York,” said Jon Deuser, the chief of staff of Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, of the Monday Meeting. “So it sure worked out for us.”
But the Monday Meeting isn’t a fund-raiser. Indeed, donors are attracted to the meeting because there’s more intellectual content, said Charles E. Dorkey III, the managing partner of the law firm Torys L.L.P.’s New York office and a major Republican contributor.
“The great thing about these Monday Meetings is, people actually talk about ideas and issues and policies on their minds,” he continued. “You get something other than the stump speech.”
With the combination of money and buzz in the air, the Monday Meeting is also a perfect forum if you’re a Congressman trying to become a national figure, like Representative Tom Feeney of Florida, who stopped by in February 2003 to preach what he calls “the pure, unadulterated Goldwater message.”
“I’m happy to go anywhere that you’ve got some of the movers and shakers available and you can explain to them that there’s an optimistic vision for the future,” he said. “The notion that there’s a thriving, principled conservative movement in New York is very exciting.”
Of course, New York City’s conservative movement remains distant from local power. Here, liberals still dominate the culture and the politics. One of them, former Public Advocate Mark Green, has also been trying to imitate Mr. Norquist’s model, convening a breakfast on the first Friday of every month for the chiefs of liberal organizations in the city.
“Of course, Norquist has a direct pipeline to President Bush’s White House,” Mr. Green said. “We pretend no such impact.”
Like members of most successful political movements, attendees at the Monday Meeting have their eyes on the long game; the rhetorical drubbing they gave Mr. Bruno left some with a sense of their power, and potential, even in this liberal stronghold.
“I think it got Joe’s attention; it sent a clear message,” said Mike Long, chairman of the state’s Conservative Party. “If this thing can continue to grow, it will set the stage when someone steps up to the plate here in New York to run for the Senate or Governor. There will be a mini-grass-roots army willing to go to work for a good conservative Republican candidate.”