A Rough Guide To NY Times Endorsements

It’s become a Saturday-night ritual for New York City primary candidates, consultants and campaign workers.

Starting about 7 p.m., they go to the New York Times Web site and click on the “New York Region Opinions” section to check the political endorsements. If the previous week’s editorials are still online, they wait about five minutes and then hit “refresh.” If it’s still old news, they’ll wait about four minutes and hit “refresh.” And so on.

I’m old enough to remember the pre-Internet, pre–City section days when the ritual was different. I used to walk over to the Times Building on West 43rd Street from the Prime New York office on 46th Street every night at about 10 p.m. starting on Labor Day and pick up the following day’s paper as it was loaded onto delivery trucks. The only others on the street at that time were other consultants and hookers.

Some may wonder if it’s all worth it, and whether the Times endorsement can possibly matter quite that much.

As someone involved in local politics since 1966, I can tell you the answers: yes, and yes.

The reason The Times matters is that it is what another consultant likes to call an “independent verifier.” That is, it’s one of those trusted and politically independent institutions or persons that can ratify both a candidate’s self-promotion and the denigration of his or her opponent.

The Times’ influence certainly doesn’t reach voters equally. Its clout is greatest in the whitest, most affluent parts of the city, in places like the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan, Riverdale, Brooklyn Heights and Forest Hills, and weakest in East Harlem, Mott Haven and Brownsville.

For example, the paper’s backing this weekend of Brian Kavanagh for the State Assembly is likely to help him more in the Gramercy Park portion of his district than it will in the housing projects on the Lower East Side. On the other hand, the paper’s criticism of Queens State Senator Ada Smith, who represents Jamaica, probably won’t mean as much.

And The Times’ impact also ranges widely depending on the level of visibility of the race. Like most endorsements, The Times matters most in contests where voters know little about the candidates. Not much The Times says will change voters’ opinions of Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg, for example, but its choice of one obscure Court Attorney over another in a low-turnout primary for Civil Court judge can be a decisive factor. Last year, with the backing of the paper, two insurgents running for Brooklyn and Manhattan Surrogate judgeships won their primaries against the normally invincible party-backed candidates.

So how does The Times decide? We only have some rough rules of thumb. It’s definitely a liberal paper. It believes in diversity and, everything else being equal, it is likely to back a woman or a racial minority.

But rarely is all else equal. Last week, for example, The Times supported a white incumbent Senator, John Sabini, over a Hispanic challenger because of Mr. Sabini’s support for The Times’ reform agenda.

And other erstwhile assumptions about Times endorsements no longer seem to apply at all.

When I started, The Times seemed to prefer incumbents. Now, because of the paper’s professed disgust with Albany politics, it seems to give the edge more often to credible challengers.

There is a general belief among people active in politics that a candidate who challenges his or her opponent’s petitions or who doesn’t go into New York City’s Campaign Finance Program forfeits any chance of receiving a Times endorsement. But The Times backs many candidates who have removed opponents from the ballot—and a few who, like Mayor Bloomberg, didn’t limit their campaign spending and also removed their primary opponents.

And once the board members make their decision, they are quite prepared to criticize one candidate over these reform issues, even if they’re silent on the matter when endorsing another candidate. Last week, The Times went after longtime State Senator Martin Connor for challenging his opponent’s residency in the Brooklyn district, citing his actions in an endorsement of his opponent, Ken Diamondstone. But in another legislative race in Queens, the paper backed the Assembly candidacy of Ellen Young—who had engaged in the same tactic.

One thing I’m pretty sure of: No outsider has such an “in” with The Times that he or she can fix an endorsement. For many years, the word among political insiders was that one well-known elected official could guarantee any candidate’s endorsement by The Times, particularly for judicial office.

Recently, that official faced his first serious primary challenge after years in office. The Times endorsed his opponent.

Jerry Skurnik is a partner in the political consulting firm Prime New York and writes a blog on Room Eight (http://www.r8ny.com/).