Democrats Talk Dirty, Play Rough at Rye Town Hilton

“In the language of politics,” a political lifer told The Observer , “there are two kinds of verb: killing and screwing.” Not the prettiest point, perhaps, but seeing how it was made at the New York State Democratic convention, held at the Rye Town Hilton in Westchester May 26-28, it had to be conceded. At any given time, our own heirs to Thomas Jefferson,Franklin Roosevelt and Mario Cuomo may have seemed to be doing all sorts of things–feasting on complimentary cheese cubes; guzzling open-bar booze; floating, spinning, quashing rumors; swapping, freezing, casting delegate votes, hearing the immortal words of a visiting Vice President (and perhaps, given that our Veep was introduced by the Speaker of the State Assembly, wondering what a party in search of energy would be doing giving ’em Shelly Silver with an Al Gore chaser and also why Mr. Gore’s feel-good video was set to the sounds of “I Can See Clearly Now,” an anthem to surviving an epoch of existential muck when we’ve had six years of him and Bill Clinton.)

But at base, and at all times, the conventioneers were really, ahem, screwing, whacking, rolling, wiping, whomping, stomping or back-stabbing–unless, of course, they were being screwed, whacked, rolled, whomped, stomped or back-stabbed. (And discussing it in just such dulcet French. Overheard on the convention floor: Democrat A: “How are ya?” Democrat B: “Well, if I’m going to get fucked, I like breakfast afterward.”)

Given that the only candidate who emerged from the convention without a primary opponent (New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall) was the only candidate who arrived at the convention without a primary opponent, the Westchester summit was not, its supposed purpose notwithstanding, much of an exercise in separating politicians who get on the ballot from politicians who don’t. But it sure did separate the Democrats that rock from the Democrats that get rolled. A breakdown:

Governor

Betsy McCaughey Ross

“We-e-ll hell-oo, Betsy, well hell-oo, Betsy/ It’s so nice to see you run ’cause you know how …”

Seven-thirty A.M. in a hotel suite may seem an odd time and place to enjoy the vocal stylings of Tommi Thomas, the former host of a radio program called It Takes a Tommi who now describes herself as “Betsy’s song person.” But when it comes to the political progress of our Lieutenant Governor, there’s no reason weird can’t work. At least until the highly counterintuitive sacking of campaign manager Robert Becker (see related story on page 1), it was the reputedly crazy candidate who had the sanest, most focused campaign. And so it was at the convention. Truth be told, the much-touted Westchester triumph of Ms. McCaughey Ross was mightily eased by the blessed confluence of her interests with those of much heavier hitters who were out to whack the party favorite (see Peter Vallone, below). Still, Team Betsy was definitely up to snuff. In an obvious effort to crowd the ballot with mutually destructive men, the hyperkinetic Ms. McCaughey Ross threw her sub-25-percent support to ultra-laconic Brooklyn District Attorney Charles (Joe) Hynes. Ms. McCaughey Ross, who retained about 4 percent of the delegate vote, could have done better only if she had come in at zero, by throwing her residual support to Long Island long-shot James Larocca. Then again, maybe his demise was just as well. In the first place, in the highly lie-infested atmosphere of a delegate head-count, there was, according to Betsy-backing Assemblyman Scott Stringer, a danger in figuring, “O.K., we’re big shots, we’re going to put on Hynes and Larocca,” and then ending up putting on neither. In the second, “Larocca pulls votes from us upstate,” a McCaughey Ross staff member told The Observer . “We want [New York City Council Speaker] Peter Vallone and Hynes taking from each other downstate.”

“She knows that she can do very well against the losers–Vallone and Hynes,” said a less diplomatic Democrat, bringing us to one of the two major streams of self-defeatism running through Rye Town: indifference to the men who got on the ballot and dread of the woman who didn’t. “Totally and absolutely obscene,” was how a county chairman described the notion of jumping on the Betsy bandwagon. “If that’s what it means to be a Democrat, then something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” And something also would be rotting in the clubhouses of New York; namely, the ability of party generals to send their soldiers into battle no matter what is getting shot at them. “If Vallone becomes the nominee, I have the authority to say, ‘You don’t go with Pataki,'” said this county leader. “If it’s her, forget it.”

But might not the system-bucking avatar of fresh approaches and new ideas do it all, sweep into the Statehouse? At this, the county leader just about spit in his liquor. “She has no rationale for running except to get even with George Pataki!” he fumed. “He’s going to kill her. Absolutely.”

Peter Vallone

In a process that is becoming downright marital in its regularity, Mr. Vallone was screwed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose every action and inaction uniformly served the interests of Mr. Hynes and Ms. McCaughey Ross, and thus frustrated those of Mr. Vallone. In a press conference on the morning of May 27, as many times before, Mr. Silver denied any such designs. “I am not helping Joe Hynes,” he said. “We have an array of talented candidates, and I am prepared to support any one of them who emerges from the primary.” Yeah, yeah, but the shots fired at Mr. Vallone did seem to be coming from the general direction of the Legislature run by Mr. Silver. It’s no surprise that Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., who doubles as the Kings County Democratic Party chairman, would support Mr. Hynes, his own District Attorney. But why, the day before the convention, would Assemblyman Michael Bragman, the majority leader who hails from Syracuse, have felt moved to endorse Mr. Hynes, whose, um, minimalist campaign so far makes Mr. Vallone’s look like winged victory? “Shelly told him to,” said an Assembly insider who described Mr. Bragman’s endorsement as a guarantor for Mr. Silver’s help to Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, Mr. Bragman’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. For that matter, have a look at the Democratic elected officials who have endorsed Ms. McCaughey Ross: Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo, Assemblymen Scott Stringer and Edward Sullivan of Manhattan, Assemblyman Martin Luster of Ithaca …

Perception-wise, though, Mr. Vallone suffered wounds of the self-inflicted kind. “You tell me how getting 30 percent makes you a hero, but getting 44 percent is a disappointment,” sighed Vallone campaign manager Kevin McCabe, contrasting the major snaps given to State Senator Catherine Abate’s achieving the Attorney General ballot with five points of breathing space to the collective “That’s it?” that greeted Mr. Vallone’s having done so with 19 points to spare. Well, here’s how: You, or your boosters, spend the month before the convention telling anyone who will listen that your guy is going to sail over the 50 percent mark to become the Democratic designee, with a ballot all to himself, and then … fall short. (Whether it was the Vallone campaign or the Queens County organization that set the great optimism-wheel in motion is said to be a subject of spirited postconvention debate between the two.) This is a particular shame for Mr. Vallone. Given the obstacles being thrown in his path and the fact that the designation has historically amounted to the kiss of death, his 44 percent is, in fact, nothing to sneeze at. But at least his fellow Democrats can sympathize. “What a terrible blow to Peter Vallone!” commiserated Ms. McCaughey Ross when her day’s dividing was done. “He so expected over 51 percent. It must have been a crushing disappointment!”

James Larocca

Poor James (“Close But No Cigar”) Larocca! After campaigning for over a year and impressing everyone with his profile, if not with his pocketbook–guess which one matters more–the Long Island long-shot went home with 23.365 percent. Mr. Larocca got stabbed from at least three sides. There was Nassau County chairman Stephen Sabbeth, who had recently switched his, um, loyalty from Mr. Larocca to Ms. McCaughey Ross. “He was very forceful, insisting that everyone vote as a bloc,” said a Nassau delegate who attended a meeting called by Mr. Sabbeth the night before the vote. “He said that if anyone chose not to follow, that there could very well be repercussions.” (Not that following was as easy as it looked. “Who am I supposed to vote for?” one delegate asked into a microphone as the roll was called.) There was the handful of Larocca delegates from the hinterlands who neither showed up nor sent proxies. And there were the delegates who had come committed to both Mr. Larocca and to the 42-year-old Clyde Rabideau, who looks like a ski instructor but is the Mayor of Plattsburgh, N.Y., and wants to be Lieutenant Governor. Mr. Rabideau traded his votes to Mr. Vallone in exchange for Mr. Vallone’s tapping Mr. Rabideau as his running mate and thus guaranteeing him a spot on the ballot (a set of circumstances that later led to the rolling of Mr. Rabideau from two different directions, but more on that later).

Charles (Joe) Hynes

If our symbols were rabbits’ feet, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes would get the most, for he benefits from chance. He comes from the borough with the most weighted votes, and he is the chosen agent of those who would stop Peter Vallone. And Mr. Hynes left the convention with the un-self-conscious saunter of a man who knows his own luck. Lugging two big bags, he joked, “This is what happens when you’re not the designee.”

Lieutenant Governor

Charlie King

If the Vice Presidency of the United States is worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit, Lord only knows what the Lieutenant Governorship of New York is good for, particularly to the person who holds it. Nonetheless, an alarming plethora of people went for it this year. Of the three still standing, Mr. King is the most worth watching, not because he’s sure to win the primary (he isn’t), but because his six-month-old life in electoral politics has been a pretty lively ride already, and stands to get more so. This should be true whether the ride takes the 38-year-old Manhattan lawyer to the Governor’s mansion, where his friends say he’d like to find himself by 50, or sends him down the laundry chute to oblivion, where not a few of his fellow Democrats would love to see him slide. When he announced, Mr. King, a Mario Cuomo protégé, also sought the blessing of another of his political parents, New York County chairman Herman (Denny) Farrell Jr., who now contends that he gave it contingent upon Mr. King’s promise to get out of the race when the time came; i.e., when Mr. Vallone needed to tap the running mate he felt best served the ticket. (The King campaign denies that any such pledge was ever made. “He started having memory lapses about a month ago,” countered Mr. Farrell, whose pique was shared by, among others, State Comptroller Carl McCall.) Anyway, Team King set about showing up everywhere, working its delegates like dogs, merrily slaughtering rain forests for the sake of its happy handouts and presumably chortling over the fact that in a year full of weightier figures running for offices that count, theirs is the guy who wows the crowds. Then getting-out time came, the getting-out part was skipped, and talk turned to how best to break Mr. King’s political kneecaps. This ran right through the night before the vote at the convention, where rumor had it that Mr. King offered to get out in exchange for the co-chairmanship of the state party and was offered high-profile positions in the campaigns of Mr. McCall or Mr. Vallone (Mr. King’s people deny that anything was requested by or offered to their candidate). In any event, he stayed in and got on the ballot. Whether, in so doing, Mr. King has exhibited long-term political wisdom or folly remains to be seen, but in Westchester, he won.

Clyde Rabideau

A split decision. Coming into the convention, Mr. Rabideau (rhymes with “yabba-dabba-doo”) should have been eminently unscrewable because he had been tapped to be the running mate of Mr. Vallone, the only candidate sure to get onto the ballot. (In his enthusiasm for regional balance, Mr. Vallone has chosen a candidate from so far upstate as to elicit happy-hour snickers about the French-Canadian swing vote, but Mr. Rabideau has acquired a reputation as a political workhorse.) But Mr. Vallone’s 44 percent left plenty of room for other Lieutenant Governor candidates out of the field. Then there was the fact that the delegates who went for Mr. Larocca but abandoned him in deference to Mr. Rabideau’s deal with Mr. Vallone were infuriated that after all his hard work, Mr. Larocca did not even make the ballot. Some of these went to Mr. King. Then came the entrance of Brighton Town supervisor Sandra Frankel as running mate to Mr. Hynes –a.k.a. the way of screwing Mr. Rabideau, and thereby Mr. Vallone.

Sandra Frankel

Yes, those were the forward-pushing fingerprints of Sheldon Silver on the back of Ms. Frankel, smudged by the fingerprints of Assemblyman, and Silver stand-in, Joe Morelle.

Senator

Geraldine Ferraro

Ms. Ferraro used to teach grade school, and in the press conference after the vote, you could tell. “Those little snide comments need to be addressed,” she said, referring to her opponents’ smart-aleck cracks about her having arrived on a float of fame and fortune. Actually, Ms. Ferraro had arrived on the ballot on a cushion of spin: The morning had seen a Ferraro-camp-created caffeine buzz that the front-runner might not make it to 25 percent. For purposes of the day, this play was smart, for it probably was the dread of omitting an icon that carried Ms. Ferraro safely over the threshold. But for the front-runner, the necessity of such a gambit does not look good. Perhaps this is the downside of political celebrity. Perhaps, in order to get the credit accorded other candidates, “She always got to do so much more,” said campaign manager David Eichenbaum. “She has to be perfect.” In order to win the primary, however, Ms. Ferraro, still the indubitable favorite, has to do considerably less than either of her opponents. Charles Schumer wishfully called the convention a “microcosm” of the electorate, but seeing the poll-topping Ms. Ferraro moving among the party faithful, it was clear how untrue that was, or how untrue she should hope it was. The crowd’s most celebrated figure seemed to be greeted neither with the awe accorded by fans nor the warmth accorded to old friends. Maybe one was just thirsty but, by day 2, one had begun to picture her as the political equivalent of a can of soda that has been sitting, open, on the counter since 1984: perfectly potable, but no more fizz.

Charles Schumer

“If you disagree with him,” said a delegate who was not with Mr. Schumer, but not for Mr. Schumer’s lack of trying, “you get the feeling that he’d rip your arm off and start eating it.” Such, um, appetite may not be the world’s most adorable quality, but for purposes of a political convention, it definitely has its advantages; namely, coming away with 44 percent of the vote in a race with three strong, high-profile candidates, none of whom, as the Congressman correctly pointed out later, the room really wanted to turn away. The only reasons Mr. Schumer does not achieve highest honors is because his strong showing was fully expected, and it fell just a hair short of keeping New York City Public Advocate Mark Green off the ballot; a minor quibble, as Mr. Green could have petitioned his way onto the ballot, but coming from the smoothest operator, it would have been a nice touch.

Mark Green

Mr. Green could be seen in the adjacent empty press room, quietly practicing his acceptance speech. Meanwhile, those packed into the tension-filled tallying room down the hall could have told him that he might not need it. At the end of the vote, before absentees were called again, the computer keeping count showed that Mr. Green had 25.26 percent of the vote. If not for “the principle of 25 percent” that moved a few delegates his way, he would be preparing to petition right now. “Hey, Steve, come over here!” Mr. Green called out to Madison County committee member Steve Jones, who had just voted for him. “My daughter wants to kiss you!”

Attorney General

Catherine Abate

A slight mislabeling. With neither the way-back-when history with county leaders that helped former Assemblyman and Attorney General Oliver Koppell, nor the cash advantage of Eliot Spitzer, Ms. Abate lacked the wherewithal to screw or spoil anybody–hence the serious doubt, preconvention, that she would get on the ballot without petitioning. She did so, with 30 percent, by having the strongest field operation in the joint. ‘Nuff said.

Eliot Spitzer

Mr. Spitzer did fine with 36 percent, though given the gusto with which he is being accused of purchasing the party lock, stock and barrel (see Evan Davis, below), he may want his money back for the other 64 percent.

Evan Davis

Mr. Davis gets no screws or screwdrivers because he got no votes. The ex-counsel to former governor Mario Cuomo withdrew from the convention and announced his plans to go petition-gathering–not to mention elephant-hunting, for the fund-raising mess that he calls “the elephant in the living room of the Democratic Party.” For starters, though, he is stalking Mr. Spitzer. “I am charging Eliot Spitzer with quid pro quo vote-buying,” cried Mr. Davis, “and calling on the party to … strike the votes that he receives at this convention.” Uh-oh. A good guy with a real issue is sounding a little soft in the head. Mr. Spitzer vehemently denies said charges, but who cares? Mr. Davis is not even accusing him of anything illegal, so the worst that can be said of Mr. Spitzer is that he’s taking advantage of a system that may be bad, but that exists. And until that system changes, the last people on earth who are going to stop him are the people in the next room: the leaders of a cash-strapped party that is about to face a cash-flush one.

Oliver Koppell

Mr. Koppell, who secured 33.4 percent, did better than predicted. But is this because his political past left him with a network of convention-handy connections, or because his future is brighter than anyone thought? Has his campaign hit its stride, or its high-water mark? Stay tuned.

Democrats Talk Dirty, Play Rough at Rye Town Hilton