John Sununu served as President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff from 1989 to December 1991, when he was forced to resign after it was revealed that he’d billed the government for personal travel (including a trip via a government car from Washington to New York to buy stamps at an auction). He also alienated Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill with an abrasive, grating style.
Patrick Gaspard, the New York political veteran who runs the Obama White House’s political shop, hasn’t been implicated in any similar scandals and is known to be far more low-key than Sununu, but there does seem to be a significant common thread between them: Even after making it big on the national scene, neither of them—it seems—could resist throwing their weight around back in their home states.
Gaspard’s fingerprints are all over the White House’s clumsy and almost certainly counterproductive bid to push David Paterson out of next year’s governor’s race. Various media outlets are reporting that Gaspard personally conveyed the White House’s position to Paterson last week or that he did so through an intermediary, Queens Representative Gregory Meeks (with whom Gaspard enjoys a solid working relationship)—or both.
The move doesn’t have any precedent, precisely. Few incumbent governors have ever been in Paterson’s situation (he trails by nearly 50 points in trial heats for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary), but the last one who was—Massachusetts’ Jane Swift, a Republican, in 2002—did not face any meddling from the Bush White House as her poll numbers collapsed.
It seems apparent that Gaspard, whose resume includes stints with Margarita Lopez, David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Fernando Ferrer and 1199, has taken a special interest in New York politics.
For example, at least one well-placed Democrat (and presumably many others) received a call from on behalf of Bill de Blasio, his old friend and a candidate for public advocate, in the days immediately before last week’s city primary. This is the White House political director we’re talking about.
By most accounts, his relationship with Paterson—if you can call it that—has not be a particularly close one. At the same time, he’s well-connected with friends and allies of Andrew Cuomo who’s standing just off-stage waiting for someone, anyone, to finish Paterson off. (Cuomo was backed strongly by 1199 in his comeback bid for attorney general in 2006.)
As Gaspard may now be discovering, intervention has its risks. The call for Paterson to exit has succeeded only in humiliating the governor and making a graceful exit more difficult, if not impossible. This, after it was becoming clear that, for all his bluster, Paterson would probably elect to hang it up early next year, when it finally became clear to him just how thin his support was.
(The timing was particularly awkward, given the fact that Obama had to share an upstate stage with Paterson today.)
Gaspard’s undiminished home-state interest calls to mind Sununu, who used his perch as governor of first-in-the-nation New Hampshire to help deliver the state’s 1988 G.O.P. primary to Bush. (The famous story has Sununu calling in favors at WMUR, the only statewide network affiliate, to purchase airtime for a vicious attack ad against Bob Dole the weekend before the vote.) When Bush was elected president that November, he made Sununu his chief of staff.
But Sununu couldn’t let the Granite State go. As the 1990 elections approached, he threw the White House’s support behind Representative Bob Smith, who was vying with attorney Tom Christo for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Gordon Humphrey. Christo’s backers complained, but Smith won.
He also pushed hard for Bill Zeliff, a White Mountains inn-keeper, in the G.O.P. primary race for Smith’s House seat. Zeliff eked out a win over Larry Brady by 314 votes. That infuriated the influential Union-Leader, which supported Brady and which blasted Sununu and the White House for “ham-fisted meddling” and “persistent interference.”
In ’90, Sununu’s wife also made news by threatening to challenge the state’s other G.O.P. congressman, Chuck Douglas, saying that she’d “never appreciated his values and his morals.” In a stunning upset, Douglas went down to defeat that fall to Democrat Dick Swett. And Sununu also used his clout to give his old rival, Judd Gregg, headaches. As the guest of honor at a New Hampshire business event, Sununu made sure to sit next to the state’s G.O.P. Senate president, who was then considering challenging Gregg.
By ’91, when he was forced out of the White House, Sununu had many new enemies in his home state. A few months later, Bush was humbled in the state’s G.O.P. primary, held to barely 50 percent of the vote against Pat Buchanan—the first sign that his re-election might be in serious danger. And that fall, for the first time since 1964, the state voted Democratic in the presidential election, favoring Bill Clinton over Bush.
Sununu wasn’t to blame for all of Bush’s Granite State woes. But he sure didn’t win the adminstration many friends there. And when it comes to New York today, Gaspard isn’t doing his boss any favors either.