New Yorkers might be forgiven for thinking that Catholicism long ago became a prerequisite for our state’s highest office. We haven’t elected a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant as Governor since Nelson A. Rockefeller, who left office in 1973, or a Jew since Hebert Lehman, who ended his term in 1942. The last four Governors—Malcolm Wilson, Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo and George Pataki—have all been Catholics.
Protestants with political ambitions have sought careers elsewhere.
Consider the stories of two wealthy, blue-blooded WASP boys who, 50 years ago, frolicked on Long Island. One boy grew up on an estate in Smithtown, where a local parkway was to be named after an ancestor. The other boy spent lazy summers living in East Hampton, where his family relaxed at the exclusive (and exclusivist) Maidstone Club.
The Smithtown native, who had blood ties to Boston’s Brahmins, went to Harvard, married the great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt and took up law. The East Hamptonite, a bit of a rebel, scandalized the Maidstone clubbers by marrying a Jew after studying medicine at Yale.
Temperamentally, the two young men couldn’t have been more different. The affable Harvard man freely admitted to a fondness for cards and “amber fluids.” The Yalie, a prickly loner, sampled marijuana but ended up a teetotaler.
Neither young man, however, saw his future in the Empire State. Rejecting employment in the family business, finance, both fled the turmoil and ethnic succession of 1970’s New York, decamping for the calmer, whiter pastures of New England.
In 1991, the Harvard man, William Floyd Weld, a Republican, acceded to the governorship of Massachusetts. The same year, the Yale man, Howard Brush Dean III, became (through a death) the Democratic governor of Vermont.
Given their similar upbringings, both men espoused almost identical views, despite their different parties. Imagine! Both men balanced budgets and promoted liberal social policies: Mr. Weld appointed the Bay State judge who ruled in favor of gay marriage; Mr. Dean signed a gay-marriage law.
The similarities pile up. When they sought higher political office—Mr. Weld in a 1996 Senatorial race, Mr. Dean in the 2004 Presidential primary—both men met their political match in the form of one John Forbes Kerry (a proud Catholic, as it happens). Finally, both men are given to the grandiloquent political gesture: Mr. Dean’s famous Iowa caucus-night scream, Mr. Weld’s fully clothed dive into Boston Harbor. It’s the sign of a cockiness born of wealth.
“When you have this safety net, there’s a lot of things you can do because you know you can’t crash like the poor boys,” said Garrison Nelson, who has studied the careers of both men from perches at the University of Vermont and Boston College.
Now, Messrs. Weld and Dean are both seeking to influence the politics of the state they once abandoned. Mr. Dean, as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, uses New York as an A.T.M., of course, but even more directly he has bequeathed us an insurgent political organization in the form of Democracy for New York. That group, an emanation of his unsuccessful Presidential campaign, supports New York candidates of Mr. Dean’s progressive stripe, but so far it has not made much headway in a Democratic Party that is organized along vastly different, often ethnic lines. Recently, Mr. Dean enlisted the prestige of the D.N.C. (such as it is) behind the campaign of Mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer.
Mr. Weld, having re-established residency in the state, envisions himself the savior of New York’s foundering Republican Party, throwing his hat into the ring in the race for Governor. In this, he hopes to reprise his role in Massachusetts, in which the G.O.P. was considered a joke until, like a white knight, he arrived.
It’s a seductive argument: The deep-pocketed, swashbuckling Mr. Weld, able to toss off a novel in eight weeks, will flatten Republican and Democratic opponents alike with the keen thrust of his debating. The famously ornery press corps, meanwhile, will surrender to the tall, handsome politician that the Boston hacks nicknamed “Pink Floyd” and “Big Red.” According to Mr. Nelson, Mr. Weld is a “most Irish non-Irish politician,” which should help him in New York, as it did in Massachusetts.
Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, avers that Mr. Weld’s Protestantism is “not a bar” to his election here, provided that the rest of the G.O.P. ticket reflects the state’s ethnic diversity.
Perhaps. Mr. Weld’s politics, however, have only a circumscribed following among the New York Republicans he proposes to rescue. Even more so, Mr. Weld—who has a reputation for easily tiring of the fray—soon might remember why he departed grotty old New York in the first place.
Mr. Weld wants New Yorkers to take him back, so to speak. Why, pray tell? He’s even less well known and popular here than his fellow prodigal, Howard Dean!