Smith Scandal Highlights Waning Influence of County Political Parties

(Photo: Getty)

Preet Bharara explaining the alleged bribery plot. (Photo: Getty)

“That’s politics in New York,” the New York Post‘s cover blared in stark black-and-white ink this morning. “It’s all about the f–king money.”

The quote, allegedly made from Councilman Dan Halloran to a cooperating witness, was revealed yesterday as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara unsealed charges not only against Mr. Halloran, but State Sen. Malcolm Smith and a small slew of other political figures in what Mr. Bharara called “a corridor of corruption stretching from Queens and the Bronx to Rockland County and all the way up to Albany itself.”

Specifically, Mr. Halloran is accused of “essentially quarterbacking” a scheme to secure Republican establishment support for Mr. Smith’s mayoral bid. Mr. Smith, a Democrat, would need the blessing of three of the five county Republican organizations to run on the GOP line, and he allegedly arranged for cash bribes in his attempt to do so. But, looking more broadly, the strange scandal also shines light on these county organizations and their few remaining powers in city politics.

“County organizations, like political parties overall, are dinosaurs, left over from an age where they once ruled earth,” said one Queens Republican operative. “These days, when the party says this is our candidate, the average voters says, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”

Eliot Spitzer, a former state governor and attorney general, argued that because New York City is overwhelmingly Democratic, corruption is even more prevalent in local Republican organizations struggling to make an electoral impact with relatively little amounts of money and influence.

“I don’t want to say this the wrong way,” he said on Inside City Hall last night. “The Republican Party in this the city, because it’s so weak, has been left with virtually nothing other than a series of wealthy benefactors who show up with money and therefore make the system in corrupt in virtually every way. Every party has this problem, but when you have a party with so little, money can buy the nomination.”

Furthermore, the two Republican county organizations that have been engulfed in the scandal, Queens and the Bronx, are–according to multiple insiders–dysfunctional and verging on irrelevancy. The Bronx, for example, doesn’t have a single Republican elected official, and the local party apparatus is mostly relegated to appointing patronage positions at the Board of Election and a vote to let non-Republicans run on their party’s line–the sort of vote that is at the heart of the Smith scandal. “That’s the biggest thing for them,” a veteran Bronx politico explained. “Otherwise, they aren’t really relevant.”

The Queens GOP, when it isn’t beset by infighting, has a less-than-sterling reputation itself, one highly-placed source with detailed knowledge of the county parties, told Politicker.

“Bronx Republican Chairman Joseph Savino and Queens GOP Vice Chairman Vincent Tabone are bitter enemies,” the source claimed, naming two of the officials charged with accepting Mr. Smith’s bribes. Mr. Tabone has since resigned. “They hate each other …  [Mr. Tabone] and Phil Ragusa (Queens GOP Chair) are known as ‘Super Mario Brothers’ — even the other Italians call them Mario and Luigi and wouldn’t trust them to leave the tip at a diner.”

The source additionally said that Mr. Smith’s odds of getting into the Republican primary were “zero” because the Wilson Pakula authorization–the letter needed for a candidate to run on another party’s line–involves more than simply bribing three top Republicans.

“See, the thing is, the Wilson Pakula letter is portrayed in the complaint as some document that 3 guys have to sign (3 of the 5 chairmen),” he continued. “The reality is, it’s way harder to get that. … So even if these guys were taking bribes for PROMISING to get Smith a WP letter, the reality is they had nearly no chance of actually delivering that letter.”

In what may be the most bizarre aspect to this controversy, no one we spoke to thought Mr. Smith had a chance even if he somehow managed to bribe his way into the Republican fold. In addition to Mr. Smith’s already badly-damaged brand thanks to a reported federal government probe into a nonprofit he funded with taxpayer dollars, the Republican mayoral field already contains several heavyweight contenders like former M.T.A. Chairman Joe Lhota and billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis.

“Total stupidity, the whole thing! I mean, it’s ridiculous!” former Senator Al D’Amato, a Republican, raged last night–on the same program as Mr. Spitzer. “They get players who are involved in government to be playing this almost childish, ridiculous game … Bizarre beyond words. If Malcolm Smith could–first of all, he couldn’t get the nomination, … [but] what do you think he’d get? 3, 4, 5, 6 percent of the of the Republican primary voters to vote for him? I’ve never heard anything so stupid! And then this jackass who’s a councilman … to be involved in this thing, and for party leaders to be involved? Just one more stupid than the other.”

In an AM 970 radio interview this morning, GOP Councilman Eric Ulrich–an outspoken rival of Mr. Ragusa’s and Mr. Tabone’s–largely concurred with this line of thinking.

“The whole thing is like something out of a movie or The Twilight Zone,” he mused. “I mean, let’s assume their plan had worked, does anyone think that with Joe Lhota and John Catsimatidis also in the race, that Malcolm Smith had any shot of winning a Republican primary? How stupid! The whole thing is stupid.”

Although Mr. Smith’s electoral plans could have simply been a fantasy in his own mind, some officials and good-government groups claim that the key takeaway from the allegations is the need to reform New York State’s campaign finance system. Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated over $3 million to various state and county GOP organizations over the past decade, even after he left the Republican Party to run as an independent in 2009. He received their Wilson Pakula blessing in order to do so. And Mr. Catsimatidis, who used to employ Mr. Tabone in both his campaign and his company, has been plowing plenty of his own dollars into the various county parties himself.

“Our wild-west campaign finance laws have nurtured a culture of corruption in this state,” Democratic Senator Liz Krueger told Politicker in a statement. “It has become accepted wisdom to too many people in New York politics that enough four- or five-figure checks, distributed to enough elected officials, can change anything and fix anything. At the same time, incumbents raise enormous amounts of money — the lion’s share of their money — from the established interests that are lobbying them.”

Reflecting on the multitude of political scandals that have rocked New York City in Albany in recent years, Ms. Krueger added, “The result is an environment where bribery schemes don’t seem outlandish and wrong — they seem pretty normal.”