There is an elephant in the room of New York politics. It is the issue of social class.
The centrality of class in many electoral races should be obvious, yet much of the media avoids candor on the topic. Perhaps they see it as too touchy and troublesome.
Class is both those things, but underplaying its importance is fundamentally dishonest.
Just look at this year’s battles.
Contesting the Republican nomination for Governor are William Weld and John Faso. Mr. Weld’s parents were born into two of the richest families on Long Island. He attended Harvard University, Oxford University and finally Harvard Law School. His time as a Harvard undergrad, according to New York magazine, was characterized by “snoozing at the Fly Club [and] shuffling out pithy put-downs in Latin.”
Mr. Faso also grew up on Long Island. That’s where the similarities end. His father kept a small TV-repair store. Mr. Faso graduated while working full-time during the day and going to school at night.
A similar pattern is playing out in the struggle for the G.O.P.’s Senate nomination. The latest entrant to the race is Kathleen Troia McFarland, the wife of a wealthy investment banker. The couple lives on Park Avenue.
In a memo written last summer, as Ms. McFarland pondered a run for a Congressional seat, she noted that among the people willing to help her campaign would be about 40 women “whose husbands run the major law firms, investment banks [and] financial institutions.”
Ms. McFarland hopes to defeat John Spencer, the former mayor of Yonkers. Mr. Spencer is a onetime steamfitter and a Vietnam vet. “I didn’t come from money,” he told the Journal News in January. “I don’t have money. I’ll never have money.”
Class tensions are not confined to Republican races. Across the Hudson, a rematch for the mayoralty of Newark looks likely between incumbent Sharpe James and challenger Cory Booker, Democrats who first faced each other in 2002. Mr. James is the son of a single mother who ran a small restaurant. Mr. Booker grew up in an affluent area of Bergen County before going on to Stanford and then Yale Law School.
For many Americans, the whole concept of class is discomfiting. By its very nature, it suggests that there are barriers created by the circumstances of one’s birth that may be impossible to clamber over.
For most Europeans, including this writer, that notion seems self-evident. But it receives a more skeptical hearing among citizens of a nation where the idea that anyone can become President is an article of faith.
“The American political dialogue has essentially avoided the topic of class,” Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College said.
The New York Post’s Fred Dicker broke through the obfuscations last week with an incisive article noting that the current G.O.P. battles in the Senate and gubernatorial races mirrored “Al D’Amato’s paradigm-shattering struggle against Sen. Jacob K. Javits” in 1980.
Messrs. D’Amato, Faso and Spencer are all cut from similar cloth—rough-edged men based outside Manhattan who share the socially conservative attitudes of the blue-collar people they grew up alongside. Mr. Weld and Ms. McFarland, by contrast, represent wealth, power and the more liberal attitudes favored in the elite circles through which they glide.
These divisions sometimes explode in personal enmity. Mr. Spencer greeted Ms. McFarland’s entry into the race with the comment that she was “a liberal Manhattan Republican elitist.” The Post claimed that Mr. D’Amato had told a friend that the wealthy Republican establishment is comprised of people who “look down on the middle class, they laugh at us, they hate us.”
The tensions do not manifest themselves in quite the same way among Democrats, in large part because the party has long ago lost—some would say forsaken—most blue-collar social conservatives.
But they do nevertheless find an echo in the alacrity with which Tom Suozzi, an Italian-American from Nassau County, has moved to claim the outsider mantle against Riverdale-born, Harvard-educated Eliot Spitzer.
The Newark contest, meanwhile, throws both race and class into one combustible mix. In 2002, Mr. James accused Mr. Booker of being a “white boy” (Mr. Booker, like Mr. James, is African-American) and maligned him for the large amount of money he’d raised. Mr. Booker enjoyed support from rich suburbanites and Manhattan liberals; Mr. James’ support was homegrown.
Mr. James’ victory over Mr. Booker four years ago suggested that an old-school rule of politics remains true: People who feel the playing field of life is skewed against them do not necessarily rush to embrace a clean-cut candidate over a rogue who gets things done. They do not tend to prize a willingness to play by society’s rules quite as highly as might a white multimillionaire like Arianna Huffington.
“Class is the dirty little secret of American society,” Mr. Muzzio observed.
Like so many dirty little secrets, its potency is massive and enduring.