In the first election of the new century, New Yorkers chose First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as their first woman U.S. Senator, while the presidential election lived up to its billing as Wednesday, November 8 chugged into the East Coast without a winner.
But New York had one. With more then 92 percent of the vote counted in New York, Mrs. Clinton had 56 percent of the vote, to Republican Representative Rick Lazio’s 43 percent. In the astonishing presidential race that seemed destined to drag long into the morning, if not beyond, Texas Governor George W. Bush had 246 votes in the Electoral College, while Vice President Al Gore had 242. As in the campaign itself, Mr. Gore saw an early lead, fueled by crucial victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania, disappear as states in the South and Rocky Mountain regions came in for Mr. Bush. As 1 a.m. approached in New York, the election hinged on Florida, where the vote was amazingly close, and Wisconsin and Oregon, where the Green Party candidate, 1960s consumer advocate and Unsafe at Any Speed author Ralph Nader loomed as a spoiler of proportions that he could never have forecast.
Jon Corzine defeated Republican Bob Franks in the much-discussed Senate race in New Jersey. Mr. Corzine, a former chief executive officer of Goldman, Sachs, spent $60 million for the privilege of representing the Garden State in Washington. Republicans appeared to hold on to both houses of Congress, meaning that the G.O.P. might control Congress and the Presidency for the first time since the early years of the Eisenhower Administration.
Turnout was high in New York and throughout the country, confounding experts who predicted a record low turnout based on the public’s supposed disaffection from politics and government.
Mr. Lazio emerged from his suite at the Roosevelt Hotel just before 11 o’clock as a canned version of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” roared in the background. The crowd burst into a chorus of ” Laz-ee-oh, Laz-ee-oh ,” with Mayor Giuliani on his left, leading the applause – the man who might have defeated Mrs. Clinton.
“I feel like the Mets,” he said with a sad smile on his face. “We came in second.” Standing right behind Mr. Lazio were Governor George Pataki, Libby Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani–an awkward grouping, considering Mrs. Pataki’s attacks on the mayor Monday on Albany radio in which she had called him selfish and self-absorbed. When Mr. Lazio said he had called Mrs. Clinton to congratulate her, the crowd booed vigorously. A man standing near the podium yelled out, ” bitch! ” Mr. Lazio motioned for the crowd to calm down, then graciously offered his best wishes to the winner–even as Mrs. Clinton was emerging on to the stage at the Grand Hyatt to the tune of Billy Joel’s song, “A New York State of Mind.” Her appearance overshadowed Mr. Lazio’s last moment in the limelight, a noteworthy breach of protocol.
Networks cut away from Mr. Lazio to the Grand Hyatt, where President Clinton was in tears and Mrs. Clinton, in a teal-green pants suit, waved to the crowd with Chelsea Clinton beside her. Senator Charles Schumer gave a shouted salute to an emotional President, then introduced the Senator-elect just in time for the 11 o’clock news. “She won this election the old-fashioned way: she earned it,” Mr. Schumer said of Mrs. Clinton.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose retirement gave Mrs. Clinton a chance to launch a political career of his own, spoke briefly before turning the podium over to his successor. As she celebrated the first victory by a woman running on her own for statewide office in New York, she made reference to her wardrobe, kidding herself for her ubiquitous “black pants suits.”
“Thank you for seeing the possibility of what we can do together for our children and our future,” she said. “I am profoundly grateful to all of you for giving me the chance to serve you. I will do everything I can to…honor the powerful example of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I would like all of you and the countless New Yorkers and Americans watching to join me in honoring him for his incredible half century of service.” Mr. Moynihan gave a decorous bow as Mrs. Clinton paid tribute to him.
The First Lady thanked “both of my opponents” and said she wished the Congressman and his family well. She said she was “determined to make a difference for all of you.”
“I will work my heart out for you for the next six years,” she said. She thanked her husband and daughter, as Chelsea Clinton grabbed her father’s hand.
A Celebrity Senator
Though it will be celebrated as a milestone, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s achievement may merit an asterisk in the battle for gender equity in New York politics. She is, after all, a sitting First Lady born in Illinois, who gained prominence as the lawyer-wife of the Governor of Arkansas and had to move out of the White House to qualify as a New York resident. Mrs. Clinton was a national celebrity imported by the New York contingent of the Friends of Bill, a group that has encouraged comparisons between the First Lady and the last White House spouse-activist, Eleanor Roosevelt.
So the First Lady has succeeded where many talented, home-grown New York women have failed. In the last quarter-century, Elizabeth Holtzman, Geraldine Ferraro and Betsy McCaughey Ross have failed to win high-profile statewide races. And, in New York City, supposed home to an inclusive and progressive political tradition, Carol Bellamy and Ruth Messinger were handed devastating defeats in their bids to become Mayor in 1985 and 1997, respectively.
And what kind of legislator will Mrs. Clinton be? Will she be like Mr. Moynihan, known as the intellectual of the Senate? Or like Alfonse D’Amato, a man who obsessively got his own people in money posts at the federal, state, and local levels?
“I don’t think she’ll be a log-roller, like Mr. D’Amato,” said Columbia University Associate Professor of Political Science Phillip Thompson. “I really do sense she’ll be more interested in policy. Mr. D’Amato didn’t care if he did things that seemed contradictory, and she will.” Mr. D’Amato, for example, used to deliver federal funds every year for Housing Works, the activist AIDS housing organization that has antagonized many an elected leader.
“Neither she nor Chuck Schumer will be able to equal Al D’Amato’s ability to bring home money,” said former Mayor Ed Koch, who nevertheless said Mrs. Clinton will make “a wonderful Senator.”
But there were those who said Mrs. Clinton won’t be able to afford to ignore the gritty end of the legislative process, particularly given her emphasis on the flagging upstate economy. “She has to make the upstate economy a priority,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “She has to.”
“I think she will place a good deal of attention on Washington, and being a real player in D.C., and at the same time maintain her contacts back home,” said state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who spent a good deal of time with Mrs. Clinton rallying the faithful at black churches. “Driving around in her campaign car, it’s clear she listens very well to people and if people come to her and say this is an issue we’d like you to support, I think she’ll be smart enough to do so.”
And what of the Democratic party? There has been speculation that Mrs. Clinton’s operatives, including adviser Harold Ickes and campaign manager Bill De Blasio, are planning a takeover of the Democratic party. “I can assure you, running the New York Democratic party is the last thing on Harold Ickes’ to-do list,” Democratic Party Chair Judith Hope said, emphasizing every syllable. Ms. Hope said she intends to fill out the two-year term to which she was just elected.
Most likely, the crowd that came from Washington–including Mr. Ickes, media adviser Mandy Grunwald, and pollster Mark Penn–will go back there and fry their bigger fish. And what of Hillary herself? Will she care about who gets to be a state committeeman from the West Side? “Bill [Clinton], yes,” said one party insider. “He can’t help himself. Bill Clinton has forgotten more about politics than you or I will ever know. But Hillary, naah. That’s not what she’s interested in.”
Next year’s Mayoral race, for example, would be a third rail for Mrs. Clinton, who has drawn support from all the candidates, most Democrats agree. But the big race after that–the 2002 Governor’s race–may draw Mrs. Clinton’s attention, and at least one candidate–Mr. McCall–said he will ask for Mrs. Clinton’s help at an undefined “appropriate time.”
“I could see a situation where all the leaders, Mrs. Clinton, Senator Schumer, [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, would get together and discuss how to avoid a divisive primary in that race,” Ms. Hope said of the contest shaping up between Mr. McCall and Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. “But then again, a primary might not be so bad for the Democrats. It wasn’t for Chuck Schumer.”
But there was one point of consensus. Any Democrat wanting to raise money will have to go and ask Mrs. Clinton for help. And she’ll help raise money for Republicans, too–not intentionally, of course. “Every Republican and conservative organization will raise millions and millions of dollars,” said consultant Roger Stone. “With Bella Abzug gone and Ted Kennedy on the wane, a Senator Clinton would be a huge help for Republicans.”
Lazio Burns Out
Mrs. Clinton’s margin of victory was higher than most pre-election polls, an indication that Mr. Lazio lost ground in the campaign’s stormy final week, when the state Republican Party made tens of thousands of telephone calls trying to link Mrs. Clinton to Mideast terrorism. “Republicans think that was the biggest mistake of the Lazio campaign,” said Pat Lynch, an aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as she prepared to monitor returns at Democratic headquarters in the Grand Hyatt Hotel. A top-ranking Clinton campaign official concurred with that judgment, saying that internal polls showed movement away from Mr. Lazio after the controversy over the calls erupted.
Mr. Lazio’s defeat was not only forgotten, but barely remarked upon as good news from the Mountain states and the Midwest came tumbling in after 10 p.m. Republicans who were spying the doors leading to East 45th Street suddenly found themselves cheering, ordering more drinks and fiddling with their American flags. In the Grand Hyatt, the mood darkened as 11 o’clock neared, and Mr. Bush continued to march through the nation’s heartland. Word was passed down that Mrs. Clinton would give her victory speech in time for the 11 o’clock news, concession from Mr. Lazio or no. But the room was oddly silent, and the band struck up “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
The mood in the Grand Hyatt had been both chaotic and celebratory early on, as top Democratic donors and elected officials prepared to party in the hotel’s ballroom. The VIPs exchanged the latest optimistic gossip–urban turnout was high in the battleground states; unions were bringing out the vote in the Midwest –and were presented with a rude reminder of the night’s historic significance. They were unceremoniously barred from the ballroom at 7:30 p.m. as the Secret Service began its security sweep of the area, not a procedure associated with Senate races, except, of course, when the candidate is the spouse of the President of the United States.
As a result, the Democrats reconvened in a restaurant area with just a single, small television. Great cheers erupted when Mr. Gore was projected as the winner in Florida and Michigan. At 9:45 p.m., two workers approached the podium in the ballroom, removed a Gore-Lieberman sign, and started applying Windex. Eternally frazzled Harold Wolfson, the Clinton campaign spokesman, was asked what he’d do next. “Go to Disneyland,” he said. He seemed relieved. But while the news was good for his candidate, Mr. Gore’s momentum seemingly had peaked.
New York Republican recriminations started early and often, as it became clear that Mr. Lazio would go down to defeat. As Manhattan Republicans began gathering in G.O.P. headquarters in the Roosevelt Hotel, the talk was not about the Electoral College or about Mr. Lazio’s dwindling chances, but about Libby Pataki’s comments earlier in the day in which she harshly criticized Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, saying he waited too long to get out of the race. She told an Albany radio station that she was “very disappointed by the selfish behavior on his part.”
“He basically does what he feels like doing … Mayor Giuliani is just an entity to himself,” she said, ensuring that Mrs. Clinton’s victory will set off a bitter round of infighting within the state Republican Party.
Mr. Lazio tried to put aside the bad news as he went through his campaign’s final paces. He and Mr. Giuliani greeted commuters in Grand Central Terminal during rush hour, with Mr. Lazio smiling as though he knew nothing of the mid-afternoon pre-mortems. His staff members, however, were not quite as able to put aside their disappointment. One press aide quite literally got between the media and the candidate during the Grand Central meet and greet. A photographer politely asked Mr. McCarthy to get out of the way, so he could get a picture of the Congressman. The aide refused. “Where’s your press pass?” he said, twice, before planting himself firmly between the candidate and the photographer.
A few minutes later, a commuter began shouting insults at Mr. Giuliani, ignoring the candidate who took his place and stood by his side, smiling and waving.
Until about 10 p.m., there was never a moment at the Roosevelt Hotel during which the mood was anything but somber. State Republican Party chairman William Powers was slumped in a chair in a room above the ballroom, his white shirt still starched and pressed. He occasionally stared out a window, exhaling every so slightly when the networks projected Mr. Bush a winner, as expected, in Ohio. In another room down the hall, Lazio campaign official Eileen Long paced frantically. Downstairs, however, several young Lazio aides brought in by consultant Mike Murphy watched the news and looked relieved to be leaving New York. Perhaps Mr. Lazio was glad to get rid of him – the Congressman did not thank Mr. Murphy in his concession speech.
The first cheers of the evening at the Roosevelt Hotel were inspired by news that the networks had changed its projection of a Gore victory in Florida just before 10 p.m. A blond woman on the ballroom floor leaped up and shouted, “This changes everything!” She was right. In the next hour, Mr. Bush piled up victories in the Midwest, and was challenging Mr. Gore in Oregon, Wisconsin and Florida.
Additional reporting by Andrea Bernstein, Andrew Rice, Josh Benson, Greg Sargent