Candidates Cramming

082205 article horowitz1 Candidates CrammingWhile the political playing field is lined with union bosses, lobbying groups and eminent ex-statesmen, this is the time of year when New York’s politicians have their sights set on the most influential—and least-known—power broker of all: a former U.S. ambassador to Belize named Carolyn Curiel.

Ms. Curiel, who served briefly as a diplomat in the Clinton administration, gained her unique clout in 2002 when she joined the editorial board of The New York Times, where she writes editorials on city government and leads the board’s subcommittee on local politics. The 51-year-old Ms. Curiel is the only member of the board who sits in on every one of the dozens of meetings with candidates from around the city.

Her blessing can mean the difference between winning and losing local elections, especially in Manhattan. It’s a given among the city’s political classes that an endorsement from The Times in a race for City Council, the State Legislature or a judgeship is tantamount to election in affluent, Times-reading neighborhoods.

“If you are in doubt about a candidate, [you] walk into the poll with a copy of The New York Times,” said George Arzt, a political consultant. “They taught us that in elementary school.”

Indeed, the power of the Times editorial page—and, to a lesser degree, its counterparts at the Daily News and New York Post—has spawned a whole infrastructure of influence. There’s a class of current and former politicians, ranging from elder statesmen like former Governor Mario Cuomo to young wonks like City Council member David Yassky, who are thought to have influence with some board members.

And then there are the political consultants and old hands who specialize in coaching their clients for their big day.

“Everybody prepares their clients for the New York Times board meeting,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant who has attended many board meetings. “My feeling has always been that you are in the hot seat. It can be the most important moment of your political life, and it could mean your short political life if it doesn’t go well.

“It’s like the Regents exam of politics. Sometimes people melt down. You want to grab them or shake them; you want to cry for them, or you want to jump out the window.”

While union bosses who supply a campaign with troops can be self-aggrandizing, and political leaders will make candidates jump through hoops to win their endorsements, members of the Times editorial board have a warier relationship with the enormous influence they exercise.

“We try to do the best we can to give everybody a fair hearing,” said Gail Collins, the newspaper’s editorial-page editor. “You really do feel really, really responsible.”

Ms. Collins reports directly to The Times’ publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., but in practice it’s her word on local endorsements that carries enormous influence. While she’s no slouch when it comes to city politics—she was a columnist for Newsday and the Daily News before joining the Times in the early 1990’s—she leans heavily on Ms. Curiel. Ms. Collins herself was the board’s main local editorial writer from 1994 to 1998. She succeeded Howell Raines as the editor of the editorial pages in 2001. That year, term limits forced an unprecedented exodus of City Council members. There was no shortage of would-be successors parading before the paper’s editorial board.

It was “the worst year we ever had,” Ms. Collins recalled. “There were trillions of City Council candidates.”

Other influential voices on the board include Eleanor Randolph, author of the newspaper’s “Fixing Albany” series on state government, and Dorothy Samuels, a long-time board member who served as executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Samuels is said to have a strong influence over endorsements in local judicial races.

With so many other issues consuming the interest and time of the full editorial board, local politicos believe that the fate of several Council candidates—especially those in Manhattan—rests almost entirely in Ms. Curiel’s hands.

Ms. Curiel, a Mexican-American, has said that she poignantly felt the burden of race growing up in northwest Indiana, where her father supported the family’s seven children by toiling in the local steel mill. She got her start in journalism covering Big 10 football, and went on to write and edit at The Washington Post, The New York Times and ABC News’ Nightline. She left journalism, temporarily, to go to work as an aide and speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and authored his well-known “Mend it, don’t end it” speech on affirmative action in 1995. In 1997, he rewarded her with the Belize post.

“She cared a lot about the issues; she wasn’t an ivory-tower poet,” said Michael Waldman, the former chief speechwriter for Mr. Clinton, who worked closely with Ms. Curiel. He added that she was “part of the process” in rethinking Mr. Clinton’s affirmative-action policy in the midst of the so-called Gingrich revolution, and that she had a talent for digesting a whole slew of issues.

“When you write for a President, it’s affirmative action on Tuesday, the Olympics on Thursday and trade policy on Saturday,” said Mr. Waldman. “You need to be able to grasp the essential facts in a wide array of topics. Dealing with all those local races isn’t that different.”

Because of Ms. Curiel’s focus on local politics, nearly all serious candidates running for municipal office this year will do anything to get a meeting with her.

They’ll even take the stairs if they have to. According to Ms. Collins, a candidate running in 2003 walked up 11 floors in a dark stairwell during the blackout in August of that year to avoid missing her appointment. “I don’t think we wound up endorsing her, but we were impressed by her spunk,” Ms. Collins said.

Ms. Curiel noted that this year’s busy calendar of municipal races has cluttered the board’s interview schedule. As a result, candidates have leaned heavily on consultants who might be able to get them an audience with board members. “I don’t begrudge any consultant trying to make a living offering that up,” Ms. Curiel said, although she added that candidates who fail to receive invitations from the board in the first place didn’t stand to gain very much from the help of a mediator.

“What matters is the individual and the seriousness of the individual,” she said.

Candidates who have been through the interview process have described the board as a tough but fair bunch. Anywhere from two to five board members sit around the 11th floor’s oak conference-room table—or pop in and out, like cops at an interrogation—for the interviews, which last for about 45 minutes.

Eva Moskowitz, a City Council member who has received several Times endorsements and recently met with Ms. Curiel and other board members in her bid for Manhattan Borough President, said that the closed-door nature of the meetings allows for honest discussion.

But others point out that the meetings can also be a pressure cooker.

“I had a judicial candidate, and I said to her, ‘All you have to worry about is giving an individual point of view—let them see that you have experience,’” said one political consultant, who asked not to be named. “So the woman walks in and she is asked, ‘And why are you running?’ ‘Oh, because Clarence Norman called me,’” the candidate replied, referring to State Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. (Mr. Norman is facing trial on corruption charges.) A board member repeated the question. The candidate replied: “Because Clarence Norman called me. No—because Clarence called my father.”

“The eyes of the editorial-board members just rolled,” the political consultant said. “I mean, just rolled through the whole interview. And I was sinking into the couch. What do you do?”

In another meltdown, the board asked a candidate how she would solve problems at LaGuardia Airport. The candidate launched into a long and meticulous monologue on how to improve the esplanade at Howard Beach.

But no matter how nerve-wracking the exam might be, no candidate can risk skipping it. So hopefuls who don’t receive an invitation from The Times turn to old pros, hoping that their influence will get them face time with the board members.

“You just call up any of several people that you know on the board,” said former Mayor Ed Koch, who helps arrange interviews for candidates, although he stressed that he never used his influence to try and sway an endorsement. “It gives you status and gravitas. It’s what people are looking for.”

Ms. Collins expressed deep concern over the notion of self-described editorial-board fixers.

“I once heard, and I found it very troubling, that there was a consultant who was going around saying that he would get you through the interviews better than anything else,” said Ms. Collins. “If anybody believes that, it is certainly a myth.”

For many local campaigns, the political season begins with a ritual: The campaign’s staff prints out every New York Times editorial on a local topic for the last several years and hands it to the candidate in a thick binder for study.

Ms. Collins said that readers of her page will know “the things we care about.”

In the mythology that surrounds The Times’ decision-making process, two storylines are evident: If you want to increase your chances of winning the paper’s blessing, you don’t challenge your rival’s petitions, and you stay within the bounds of the city’s public-financing system.

“Those are two things that we really get upset about, but we don’t have any make-or-break,” Ms. Collins said.

In its October 2001 endorsement of Public Advocate Mark Green, who was the front-runner for the Democratic Mayoral nomination, the editorial board chastised Michael Bloomberg because he “not only bypassed the city’s estimable campaign finance program in order to spend his own money on a massive TV ad campaign, but attempted to denigrate the program itself.” Mr. Green went on to win the primary, but he lost to Mr. Bloomberg in the general election.

The board is also seen as admiring independent thinkers and hostile to anything that smells of a “machine.” It punishes those that it doesn’t see as sufficiently autonomous. In 2001, the board criticized Mr. Green’s rival, Fernando Ferrer, as “the product of the Bronx Democratic machine, and his career has hewed closely to the party organization’s political rulebook.”

But one former candidate said that while the board has a keen sense of the substance of the issues, it lacks an intricate knowledge of politics at the ground level and tends to favor candidates who can speak broadly about the issues.

“You could probably bluff them; it’s kind of an ivory tower,” said the candidate, who received a Times endorsement after what he called a free and flowing conversation among policy wonks. “They were looking for electability. They don’t want to endorse losers.”

And when it comes to the borough of Manhattan and its more affluent, educated neighborhoods, they rarely do.

All but two of Manhattan’s 10 Council members received a Times endorsement, as did Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields (who is running for Mayor this year) and Comptroller William Thompson. Mr. Yassky, the Councilman who represents downtown Brooklyn, was considered an underdog until he was “enthusiastically” endorsed by The Times.

“I would not have won the election without the Times endorsement,” said Mr. Yassky.

Nevertheless, some politicians believe that in the end, New Yorkers decide for themselves how they’ll vote.

“Manhattanites make up their own mind,” said Ms. Moskowitz. “No one is going to tell them what to do. But she added that The Times “is a trusted institution, and therefore what it says carries a certain weight and significance.”

As The Times itself wrote in May 2001: “In reality, the importance of endorsements is hard to measure, and even political professionals differ about their importance.”