For the legendary political boss of the Bronx, Ed Flynn, the most powerful epithet in the English language was the word “amateur.” Flynn was a political professional who surrounded himself with other professionals. In today’s political climate, we seem to have developed a romantic attachment for amateurs (business leaders, Hollywood actors), who, we believe, are preferable to professional politicians-a phrase we spit out regardless of our ideological persuasion.
Personally, I find dealing with professionals, as opposed to amateurs, a good deal more pleasant and infinitely more efficient. I don’t understand why so many of us believe that government ought to be taken out of the hands of trained professionals-would we trust our finances or psychological health or golf swings to an amateur?
Peter King, the Republican Congressman from Long Island, is a political pro of long standing. And that’s why he is almost beside himself about the future of the state Republican Party as the statewide elections of 2006 grow nearer. An amateur might have dismissed this year’s returns in New York as a fluke-sure, the Republicans were never going to beat Charles Schumer in the Senate race, so who cares that he got 71 percent of the votes? John Kerry was going to carry New York, so who cares that so many Republicans distanced themselves from George W. Bush?
Mr. King, the political pro, saw something most amateurs would never have noticed: In his home base of Nassau County, the Republicans lost a slew of judicial races.
Yes, judicial races-you know, those contests about which you know nothing and invariably cast your vote according to whatever party you identify with. You cast that vote and then never check to see who won.
Mr. King, however, did check the results: The Republicans lost races for Family Court, for district judges, for County Court. “Republicans had gone 20 years, from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1990’s, and lost maybe two or three out of 100 judicial races,” he said. “And this year, we lost almost all of them.” Six of eight, to be exact.
A pro knows why these little-noticed races matter. “These are the lines where people vote their feelings,” he said. “They may not know much about the candidates, so they vote for the party.” Once upon a time in Nassau County, “the party” meant the Republican Party. No longer.
The breakup of the Republican monopoly on Long Island is hardly a new development, and can be explained as a function of changed demographics and local controversies. But there is more at work here, said Mr. King.
“The Republican Party is pursuing no overriding themes,” he said. “It seems to be just a collection of small cliques around the state who are working for themselves. The Schumer race is an example-maybe it would have been impossible to beat him, but we should have been lining up a candidate and raising money two and a half years ago. But that didn’t happen.” Instead, the party dragooned poor Howard Mills into the race, and he was thrashed.
Mr. King, who safely won re-election himself, believes that as 2006 approaches, the state G.O.P. has to look back at what it did after a disastrous performance in the 1990 gubernatorial election. The G.O.P.’s ill-starred candidate, Pierre Rinfret, barely beat the Conservative Party’s nominee, Herb London. “That’s when [former U.S. Senator] Al D’Amato got involved,” Mr. King said. “He didn’t want to go into his own re-election in 1992 with a broken party, so he recruited a strong chairman in Bill Powers.” And that work paid off in 1994, when two unknowns-George Pataki and Dennis Vacco-won races for Governor and State Attorney General, respectively.
Ironically, the Republicans ought to be in good shape, because they’ve controlled the Governor’s office since Mr. Pataki’s victory in ’94. Through the judicious use of patronage, a Governor can build a strong party organization and bring in young, ambitious people. That happened a bit in the early Pataki years, but that was a long time ago.
While refusing to criticize Mr. Pataki’s leadership of the party, Mr. King said that the New York G.O.P. could be facing a “double hit in 2006” if it can’t field a strong challenger to Hillary Clinton or find a suitable replacement for Mr. Pataki if he declines to run for a fourth term. Even the State Senate, long a bulwark of Republican power in New York, seemed ripe for the Democratic taking if some party stalwarts decided to retire-or even if they don’t.
What to do?
“For starters, we should have a statewide summit of the party’s elected leaders-let’s come up with an agenda and a building-block plan and a real commitment to work together,” Mr. King said.
He, and his party, can only hope it’s not too late for 2006.