The tension among New York Democrats was palpable. Rumors were flying, insiders were whispering and watching, and the media were hunting for clues about the future.
This wasn’t about 2004. This was all about 2006.
With the Presidential campaign over, New York Democrats can get on with the business of figuring out who will be running for what in the statewide races that are now two years away. The focus was on two men: State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the scourge of corporate America, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who won a smashing re-election over token opposition on Nov. 2.
Both are believed to have their eyes on the Governor’s race in 2006, when the incumbent, George Pataki, very likely will choose not to run for a fourth term. While national politics, especially in a time of war, is important, local politicians never lose sight of what really matters. And control of the state capital tops their list of priorities.
The would-be candidates themselves, however, deflected talk of furture campaigns, focusing instead on the murky present. “Ohio and Florida-it still comes down to Ohio and Florida,” Mr. Spitzer was telling no one in particular as results trickled in from the battleground states.
The Attorney General monitored returns in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, seat of the New York Democratic Party’s national hopes and local ambitions. Mr. Spitzer had the Presidential Suite on the 34th floor. Downstairs, Mr. Schumer was closeted in a private party off the packed Imperial Ballroom, where CNN was blasting from two huge screens. He finally emerged just after 10 p.m., and his long victory speech offered a tableau of New York ambition as the victor was joined by Mr. Spitzer and Senator Hillary Clinton, whose Presidential ambitions remain very much in play.
The consequences for New York on Nov. 2 were many: If Mr. Kerry won, would Mr. Spitzer go to Washington? Would Mr. Schumer stay there, clearing the field for Mr. Spitzer’s run for governor?
The mood was decidedly local. Mr. Spitzer was going nowhere-his televisions were tuned to the local ABC affiliate, and his staffers were obsessing about State Senate elections in Buffalo. The Attorney General’s main plug into the national election was a clean-cut aide with a clunky black laptop, checking the blogs.
Mr. Schumer’s staff paced the floor of the ballroom, stressing about the exact dimensions of the Senator’s victory in Nassau County.
Elsewhere across the city, the national results were being piped into New York’s political labyrinths, their effect on each player weighed and pondered. By early afternoon, with early exit polls surfacing on the Internet and buzzing through the city, the mood had begun to shift in Mr. Kerry’s favor.
“How ya doin’?” former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked a pack of young women on their way to class as he left his polling place at Hunter College with a dozen cameras in tow.
“I’m voting for Kerry! I’m voting for Kerry!” they chanted in response.
The usually combative Mr. Giuliani was surprisingly conciliatory.
“There is no losing side when the election’s over,” he said. “You come together.”
When he was asked whether he would take a job in Washington-with a Kerry administration-he answered politely: “I have no desire to work other than where I’m working, at Giuliani Partners,” he said.
Election Day revived a city whose political relevance had faded in the fall as the dramas in Florida and the upper Midwest left New York a political ghost town, its 31 electoral votes assured for Mr. Kerry, its politicos deployed to battleground states and its remaining civilians jittery with their powerlessness.
“The Electoral College sucked all of the air out of New York,” said Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party.
Election Day itself, though, saw the air rush back in. The city Board of Elections saw its Web site crash for the first time on Nov. 1, with 127,000 page-views, according to its executive director, John Ravitz. Its help line also crashed on Monday and Tuesday, and even incoming calls to Mr. Ravitz’s office were met with a busy signal or a message indicating a dead line.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Mr. Ravitz said in a brief interview at his exhausted, still-frantic office on the afternoon of Nov. 2. “The system just went on overload. Verizon just basically told us the down-and-dirty reason is that the system has never had that much service.”
And that record turnout was driven by the voters left behind. The electoral meaninglessness of voting in New York had already prompted an unprecedented political diaspora. Lawyers, union members, operatives and baby-boomer liberals packed themselves onto buses and planes and made for the swing states in the final days and months of the campaign. Most of these foot soldiers were Democrats. New York partisans on both sides, however, poured money into the campaign, leading the national fund-raising race: Donors in the New York metropolitan area gave $18,406,265 to Mr. Kerry’s campaign and $7,522,925 to Mr. Bush’s before Oct. 25, according to the Web site opensecrets.org. Donors in the 10021 ZIP code alone gave more than $5 million to Mr. Kerry and the Democratic Party, and more than $2 million to Mr. Bush and the Republican Party. That’s not to mention the vast contributions to Democratic-leaning groups from George Soros, who had poured $23.65 million into the advocacy groups referred to as 527′s (named for their line in the tax code) by Oct. 31.
But in the final week of the campaign, New York didn’t get much attention for its money. The only Presidential contender who appeared here was Ralph Nader. And while Mr. Nader made his case over the shouts of hecklers outside the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 1, New York’s political celebrities also hit the road. The days before Election Day saw Mr. Giuliani make two stops in New Hampshire, one in Ohio and four in Florida. Everyone from former President Bill Clinton to Mr. Pataki to lesser luminaries like Representative Gregory Meeks and former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik made themselves scarce.
Mr. Giuliani’s main rival in the bright-future department, Senator Clinton, spent Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 in New Jersey, skipping from a senior center to a small meeting with Democratic women to a rally on the steps of the Bergen County courthouse.
At the Lyndhurst senior center, Mrs. Clinton, in a black suit and rich, pink blouse, was smiling indulgently as New Jersey’s 80-year-old junior Senator, Frank Lautenberg, laid into Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. “I call them chickenhawks,” he said, playing the slightly out-of-control relative at the family gathering. “That’s an expression that I developed.”
Soon, Mrs. Clinton was giving her own hiding to the Bush administration, one of three nearly identical talks that day.
“We turn on our TV’s this week and what do we see?” she asked, scorn for the President and loathing for the enemy in what seemed like exactly equal measure. She was talking about Osama bin Laden, “looking healthy, new gold robe.”
The Jersey politicians at Mrs. Clinton’s side all swore that their state was securely in the Democratic column, but the Senator’s very presence-and her last-minute plans to make a second day of appearances-seemed to belie their confidence. She also faced those inevitable questions, this time from a WPIX reporter who’d trekked across the river: Wouldn’t a Bush victory reward her own Presidential ambitions?
“Oh, that’s just pundit talk,” she scolded.
Back across the Hudson, Mr. Schumer saw Republican distraction turn his first re-election fight into a fading sideshow. His challenger, Howard Mills, an Assemblyman from Orange and Rockland counties, was not the Republican Party’s first choice. By the time they got around to tapping him in February, the impish Mr. Mills was as good as dead, not even fit to be chewed up by Mr. Schumer’s formidable campaigning skills. Republican operatives complained that the Republican National Convention and President Bush’s candidacy had distracted activists and potential donors alike.
“The convention sucked up every dollar within sight,” said one New York Republican of Mr. Mills’ fund-raising woes. “There was zero chance of eclipsing the national convention in any New York Republican’s mind.”
But it wasn’t just the money: The national campaign’s grip, on Republicans and Democrats alike, was total. From Eminem’s anti-Bush ranting on MTV to the anti-war billboards over Times Square to the salons of the Upper West Side, the Presidential election was unavoidable.
“You go out to dinner with people and they want to spend the evening converting you,” said Fred Siegel, a professor at Cooper Union.
On the left wing of city politics, strategists were already looking to capitalize on the new political energy created in 2004. Gifford Miller, the Speaker of the City Council and a likely candidate for Mayor next year, was planning to spend part of his Election Night at a party hosted by the New Democratic Majority, one of a handful of effective new organizations that grew from the Internet-based organizing of Howard Dean’s failed campaign for the Democratic nomination.
“When you travel in political circles, you meet an awful lot of people who began politics in the McGovern campaign, and you have that level of energy and excitement in this campaign as well,” Mr. Miller said. “I’ve spent a lot of time working with some of these new faces, and I hope they’re going to stay involved.”
The Working Families Party’s Mr. Cantor was another hoping that his group could capitalize on the new activism.
“The genie’s out of the bottle, and this is going to strengthen the left tremendously across the country,” he said. “The real thing that happened this year is that people saw what it’s like to live in a politicized society.”