A cast of pols and pranksters, drunk on venom and tabloid ink, has been staging the gradual collapse of the state Republican Party for months now. Backroom antagonists have become public dueling partners, sparring in pairs that include State Senator Joe Bruno versus Governor George Pataki, gubernatorial hopeful William Weld versus former Senator Al D’Amato, and ex-Senate candidate Jeannine Pirro versus—well, versus just about everyone, including her husband. Up in Albany, it seems that someone missed the memo: In modern politics, the buzzword phrase is supposed to be “big tent,” not “blood feud.”
The bigger problem is that the state Republican establishment can’t even get the feud thing right. For connoisseurs of political combat, the battles between party stalwarts are little more than political pigtail-pulling. The real thing is less petty, more film noir. And it takes a bunch of young G.O.P. Gothamites to get it right. To wit: Here in New York City, two Republican houses—each alike in dignity? That depends on whom you ask—have been fighting over turf, title and patrimony for more than a decade.
The two factions share one name—the New York Young Republican Club, Inc.—and one logo: a bald eagle grasping a lightning bolt. Each club claims around 500 members, ages 18 to 40, and meets once a month on a Thursday, supplementing the monthly gatherings with a calendar of speakers and social events. Both groups say that they were founded in 1911, and both claim the mantle of America’s Oldest Young Republican Club.
Thankfully, there’s a bit of shorthand that observers use to tell the two clubs apart: One is affiliated with the state and county arms of the Republican Party, and the other is not. Not surprisingly, however, past and present officials of both clubs cast that distinction in slightly different terms.
“Their group was founded in 1991. They’re now claiming to be us, basically,” said Robert Hornack, who, at 40 years old (“I’m in the process of aging out,” he explained) is the not-particularly-young chairman of the New York Young Republican Club, which is not affiliated with the state and county party. “We’re more ideological; we don’t bend as easily on matters of convenience,” he added. “They take their marching orders from the party leadership: Whatever the party says, goes.”
Thomas Robert Stevens, an attorney and past president of Mr. Hornack’s club, suggested that his former rivals are legally, if not morally, in error. “They got the color of authority by getting recognized by the formal structure of the state, but they don’t have the legal authority,” he said, referring to the other club’s use of the club name and logo. Mr. Stevens added that during his tenure, he and his colleagues often referred to the other group as the “puppet club.” Or, in more sinister tones, as the “puppet regime.”
That doesn’t make Dennis Cariello, the president of the affiliated club, very happy. “I dispute that, and I take great offense to it,” he said. Barbs aside, however, Mr. Cariello would rather be diplomatic than disparaging. “I never say a bad word about them. It’s my hope that they’ll still join us,” he said.
It’s baffling to see New York’s young Republicans so Balkanized. Shouldn’t the party’s next generation of partisans—young, energetic and vastly outnumbered in the city—begin their political lives on common ground?
Alas, their resentment is hereditary. The history of the two clubs reads like Hitchcock on acid, complete with an attempted frame-up for murder, a private detective, an episode on Phil Donahue’s talk show and even a bit of … dwarf bowling.
In the beginning, there was peace. The city’s first Young Republican Club was an effort at like-minded community, founded by 32 enterprising young men in 1911, with an inaugural dinner at which President William Howard Taft was the guest of honor. Over the following decades, the club built a roster and deepened its political influence, seeing dividends in the 1940’s, when several onetime club members were elected to prominent offices, including Jacob K. Javits and Thomas E. Dewey.
The seeds of acrimony were sown a few decades later, when the club’s former president, John V. Lindsay, ran for a second term as New York’s Mayor in 1969. Originally elected as a Republican, Mr. Lindsay lost the 1969 party primary to State Senator John Marchi of Staten Island. Lindsay ran on the Liberal Party line and won. His acolytes in the New York Young Republican Club stood behind him, failing to support Mr. Marchi, the party’s nominee. Republican elders were furious with the young whippersnappers, eventually leading to a schism between the club and the official G.O.P organization.
But the real break came in 1991, according to Mr. Stevens, who served as the unified club’s president from 1982 to 1988. At that time, the club had begun to splinter between young Republicans who sought a return to the official party, and a group led by Mr. Stevens, which favored the status quo. In the background, resentment simmered over Mr. Stevens’ public profile, which included an appearance on Donahue, during which he argued the merits of male virginity and touted his role as a leader of New York’s Young Republicans.
The rival factions wound up splitting into two separate clubs, one affiliated with the official party and the other independent.
The sharpest knives came out several years later. In 1993, after Mr. Stevens had been reinstated as president of the independent club, he was charged with conspiring to kill a leader of the rival group. Federal prosecutors had tapes of Mr. Stevens talking to a presumptive hit man— part of the deal involved laundering money through the bank account of his Young Republican club.
Mr. Stevens said he was framed by members of the other club, who had arranged his introduction to what turned out to be a phony hit man. To learn the truth, he said, he had hired a private investigator and began playing along with them.
The charges were dropped in 1994. Mr. Stevens had already moved on by that point. Earlier that year, he’d been making unlikely news as the legal counsel to Baird Jones. Mr. Jones, a Manhattan impresario and self-proclaimed king of the urban avant-garde, was fighting for his legal right to run dwarf-bowling events in bars.
Mr. Stevens’ tenure as president of the nonaffiliated Young Republican Club ended in 1998. In 2003, he left the G.O.P. altogether to become a devout Libertarian. Still, he sighed, “it would be wonderful if the two clubs got together and make peace.”
Three years ago, they tried. Leaders of the two clubs were negotiating a merger, but the agreement broke down. Officials from both sides remain tight-lipped about the details.
Name Tags, Anyone?
So nowadays, how can an armchair activist tell the two clubs apart?
Among some party officials, Mr. Hornack’s nonaffiliated club has earned a reputation as a conservative band of Republican renegades. Tempers have flared over that club’s endorsements, which included Herman Badillo rather than Michael Bloomberg for Mayor in 2001.
“The Hornack group, I guess, are considered the bad boys of the Young Republican Clubs by the establishment, because they’re very activist,” suggested Assemblyman Patrick Manning, a dark-horse candidate in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Mr. Manning added that, while Mr. Hornack’s group “treated me like family,” the state-affiliated club hasn’t returned his phone calls, even though it recently hosted one of his rivals, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, for an evening at the Harvard Club.
Mr. Cariello, the president of the state-affiliated club, bristles at the idea of an ideological distinction between the clubs and said that his organization welcomes Republicans of all stripes. “While perhaps the market can bear two Young Republican Clubs, I think we’d be much stronger if we were working in unison,” he told The Observer.
They’d also bicker less. In 2004, members of the affiliated club were welcomed as volunteers for the Republican National Convention. According to Mr. Hornack, his group was denied access. They watched the opening night from the depths of an Irish pub in Brooklyn and, later that week, held court in a Manhattan hotel.
Even minor slights can inflame tensions between the two clubs. During her recent campaign for City Council, Democrat Jessica Lappin sent out a mailer attacking her opponent, Republican Joel Zinberg, with a quote from Mr. Hornack. The quote, which was pulled from a political blog, accused Mr. Zinberg of cloaking his Republican affiliation to deceive voters, attributing that sentiment to “Robert Hornack, Chairman, NY Young Republican Club.” Needless to say, the state-affiliated Young Republicans were not pleased.
Considering the clubs’ contentious past, such squabbles seem petty, but they still bewilder a new generation of G.O.P. partisans.
“The story of the two Young Republican Clubs in New York reminds me of the story of the two Jews in Kabul after America invaded Afghanistan,” mused Karol Sheinin, a local blogger and Republican activist who attends both clubs’ events.
“The story came out that there were only two Jews living in Kabul, and they hated each other and wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street,” she continued. “There’s like 12 Republicans in New York. How come we can’t get along?”
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