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Who Will Save The N.Y.C. Gop?


Who Will Save The N.Y.C. Gop?

January 13, 2002
Urban PolicyNYC

No one could be more astonished by Republican Michael Bloomberg's stunning victory in the mayor's race than the city and state Republican Party organizations, which backed the recently converted Democrat chiefly because he offered to fund his own campaign.

So unsure were they of Bloomberg's chances that GOP leaders made little effort in the rest of the city elections, running no candidates for the other city-wide offices and only a few ill-supported ones in the City Council races.

If they had, they might have discovered that Bloomberg's post-Sept. 11 message of no new taxes, a free-market solution to the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan and a promise to continue Rudy Giuliani's initiatives on law and order actually can attract widespread support in New York.

That Bloomberg—competent, plausible and rich—came forward so that voters who favor fiscal discipline and activist policing could elect him was a sheer fluke. Whether he turns out to govern in accordance with the beliefs of those who voted for him can't be foreseen. And if he does try to govern as a Republican, he will face a hostile left-wing City Council with almost no allies inside government as he attempts the difficult task of rebuilding New York.

After two Giuliani victories followed by Bloomberg's election, no one can claim that key Republican ideas are nonstarters in New York. And so the GOP's failure to develop and support a full slate of candidates to represent and battle for these positions is a disservice to all New Yorkers. Without a credible two-party system, providing genuine political competition and the clash of ideas it entails, special interests almost inevitably will prevail against the common good.

Can anything bring the Republican Party back to life in New York City?

When Giuliani first ran for mayor in 1989, Gotham's GOP, a minority party ever since its founding in 1854, was already on life-support—discredited and nearly extinguished by the famously disastrous reign of Republican-Liberal John Lindsay.

So feeble had Lindsay left it that in 1977, GOP mayoral candidate Roy Goodman collected just 4.5 percent of the vote. By the early 1980s, Democrats held Gracie Mansion, every seat on the City Council and every borough presidency.

Giuliani galvanized the local GOP back to a semblance of life with his 1989 run for mayor. With crime soaring and the economy sinking, tough prosecutor Giuliani's message resonated: Although David Dinkins won that election, Giuliani's unexpectedly strong showing helped spur a bevy of new GOP candidates to run for City Council in 1991—the year New York lost an astounding 191,000 jobs and suffered more than 2,000 murders.

Though until then Republicans had won only a single municipal election since 1983, these new challengers wrested four council seats away from the Democrats. When Giuliani upset Dinkins two years later and successfully slashed crime and reined in the city's runaway budget with amazing speed, the Republican future began to look rosier.

Sure enough, Giuliani's agenda of activist policing, tax cuts and welfare reform sparked a broad-based revival that gave a new generation of New Yorkers a stake in the city's restored prosperity. In 1997, this revived city re-elected Giuliani with a 13 percentage point margin that demolished the notion that New York is an unfailingly left-wing town.

The vote overturned traditional city patterns: Giuliani won 75 percent of the Jewish vote—a greater percentage than his Catholic vote—and he also garnered 43 percent of the Hispanic tally. Queens, which had a scant handful of GOP elected officials, gave him 65 percent of its vote. Brooklyn, with only a single GOP office-holder, handed him 53 percent of the votes cast. He won in polyglot neighborhoods like Flushing and the Lower East Side by 3:1 and 3:2 margins, respectively.

Giuliani's '97 victory should have been the beginning of a new Republican coalition in New York.

The platform was clear: the effective crime-fighting that has made New York the safest big city in America; tax reduction to spark continued economic growth; welfare reform based on a culture of personal responsibility; education reform centered on school choice. There was every reason to think, back in 1997, that the city that had re-elected Giuliani would listen seriously to a party based on those principles.

But Giuliani was unconcerned with building his party or grooming a successor. His giant political blunder of endorsing incumbent Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo over George Pataki in 1994 completely fractured Gotham's already weak GOP.

When Cuomo lost, an understandably outraged group of Pataki loyalists took the Queens County GOP organization away from Giuliani. A leader of that revolt, Councilman Tom Ognibene, snatched the City Council Republican leadership from Giuliani ally Michael Abel.

War also broke out in Brooklyn, where a new county leadership scored a primary victory over the incumbent Giuliani supporter, the only Republican representing the borough in Albany. The insurgent then lost the seat in the general election.

The mayor also clashed with members of his administration who might have emerged as viable successors and Republican leaders—most notably former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, a Democrat once likely to switch to the GOP. Giuliani did nothing to cultivate for higher elected office either the Republican city councilmen whom he'd drawn into his administration, or the prominent black and Hispanic officials who might become part of the party and broaden its appeal—people like former Housing Commissioner Richard Roberts, Health and Hospitals Chairman Luis Marcos, or Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington.

"You would think that people who worked for the Giuliani administration would have rushed to run for office [last year]," says political consultant Joseph Mercurio. But except for CUNY Board Chairman Herman Badillo, none did.

As a strong mayor, Giuliani had what it took to energize the city's GOP: a vision, money and a grassroots following. But he largely let the party organizations lie, and without a challenge, they have drifted their own way, serving as patronage mills or appendages of the state party.

For years, county leaders in Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan have been state senators, more attuned to the politics of Albany than to the city. Similarly, the new leader of the Staten Island GOP is a Pataki loyalist.

The task of these local organizations is unglamorous, but it is the fundamental grassroots work that builds parties: voter-registration drives, candidate recruitment, petitioning drives and fund-raising. And their lethargic leaders did nothing to exploit Giuliani's momentum.

Longtime Manhattan County Chair Roy Goodman routinely came under fire from party members for paying more attention to his own fragile political future than to building the party, and, since 1995, the Manhattan GOP has lost both of its City Council seats. A continuing bribery investigation of State Sen. Guy Velella, the Bronx Republican county leader, curtailed his influence and effectiveness.

'The decline of the party seems to correspond to the increasing vulnerability of the county leaders," says one former high-ranking GOP campaign strategist. "They've spent more of their time trying to save themselves."

So Giuliani's victories turned out to be the high-water mark of the party's very brief resurgence instead of a springboard to further gains—and now the party is shriveling up again. GOP voter registrations in the city have slumped by about 10,000, or 2 percent, to 523,761, in the past five years, with the worst losses in The Bronx (enrollment down 6 percent) and Queens (down 4 percent).

By contrast, Democratic registrations have surged citywide by 157,400, or 6 percent, to 2,748,538. Today, there are 5.25 Democrats in the city for every Republican, down from one Republican for every 3.5 Democrats in 1965, the year Lindsay ran for mayor.

Gotham's GOP even seems to be losing core supporters to new players like the Independence Party, whose registrations in the city have more than tripled in five years to 51,900.

During this fall's campaign, despite Bloomberg's $69-million efforts on his own behalf, the city's official Republican leadership radiated defeatism from Riverdale to the Rockaways. GOP candidates and volunteers tell of being instructed not to campaign in heavily Democratic neighborhoods and not to set up voter registration efforts there, for fear of inciting an anti-Republican backlash and increasing Democratic voter turnout.

Party advisers even warned City Council candidate Michelle Bouchard, running in a Manhattan district that encompasses Chelsea, not to campaign in public housing projects because it would stir up minority turnout against her.

This frame of mind made Republicans virtually invisible throughout large swathes of the city. David Herz, a GOP City Council candidate on the Upper West Side who took to the streets to meet constituents, says that locals reacted with astonishment: "I ran across people who said they hadn't seen a Republican in years."

But these young turks have utterly rejected their GOP elders' stance of embarrassment and inferiority. "You get the feeling that some of the current Republican leadership want to discourage [party-building] activities so they can keep the party small and weak—and controlled by them," says Robert Hornak, president of the New York Young Republicans Club.

Nowhere are the GOP leaders' shortcomings clearer than in their failure to recruit candidates. No Republican ran last year for the city-wide offices of comptroller or public advocate. The Republican line in City Council and state Assembly and Senate races often stays empty in Gotham. In 2001, for instance, the Brooklyn GOP organization, which frequently endorses Democrats, ran no candidate in six of the borough's 16 City Council races.

Assemblyman John Ravitz, heir-apparent to Goodman as county leader, defends the practice of leaving ballot lines empty: the party doesn't want to put up "sacrificial lambs," he says.

But in many cases where the party won't fight, it's not a foregone conclusion that it couldn't win. In many neighborhoods where Giuliani won decisively in 1997, for instance, GOP county organizations didn't run Assembly candidates the next year. This year, too, Bloomberg swept to easy victory in places that fielded no Republican City Council candidates.

When GOP organizations do recruit, they often do it so haphazardly that every race becomes an uphill fight. City Council candidate Michelle Bouchard reports that nearly four years ago she casually mentioned at a Republican club's Christmas party that she might like to run for office some day. Nothing happened: no coaching, no grooming—until last May, when a GOP leader e-mailed her out of the blue, asking if she would like to run.

When candidates emerge on their own, they can't count on help from the local GOP organizations. After Jay Golub decided to run for a Manhattan City Council seat last year, Wall Street trader Jim Vigotty signed on to manage the energetic newcomer's campaign. In June, Vigotty began to collect the signatures needed to get Golub on the ballot, but, when the Manhattan Republican organization told him that petitioning was the responsibility of district leaders, he backed off.

A week before the deadline, he discovered that the party functionaries had collected just 100 of the nearly 500 signatures his candidate needed. He scrambled (successfully) to print petitions and get signatures.

"I couldn't even get some of the district leaders to return my phone calls," says Vigotty bitterly. Energetic young volunteers like him conclude that their biggest obstacle to running effective campaigns is often the party itself.

When Susan Cleary ran for Congress in 2000 in a district that mainly encompasses Brooklyn, the district leaders collected few signatures for her; the state party did nothing. Though discouraged by this lack of party support, she found that voters—especially poor parents—listened intently to her ideas about how school choice might benefit pupils, a sharp contrast to the way her own party organization treated her.

In those stretches of the city where the two-party system has disappeared, voters don't get to hear the Republican message and Democratic candidates never get called to account for policies that may be out of step with their constituents.

"It's very easy to find neighborhoods where Democratic officeholders consistently vote against the interests of their constituents," says Gary Popkin, a former Brooklyn GOP congressional candidate. "But since we often don't run Republican candidates in these neighborhoods, we don't get our ideas out there."

Without an engaged local leadership, the party has stood by passively as Democrats have courted new New Yorkers. For example, Democratic mayoral hopefuls Mark Green and Alan Hevesi far more actively romanced New York's new breed of technology entrepreneurs than any Republican and over the summer Green picked up endorsements from 50 top new-economy executives.

"Why isn't the Republican Party reaching out to these people?" asks Kristi Kaepplein, an Internet executive active in local Young Republican organizations. "This industry is a hotbed of entrepreneurs who despise government regulations and benefit from lower taxes. They are natural Republicans."

Voters like this are clearly searching for an alternative to candidates put forward by the city's Democrats. In the mayor's race, Bloomberg scored an easy victory among voters who work in the private sector—56 percent of them voted for him, while only 40 percent pulled the lever for Mark Green, according to exit polling commissioned by City Journal.

The local GOP has displayed, if possible, even less energy and creativity in pursuing minority voters, soon to be the majority of the city's electorate and, evidence increasingly suggests, up for grabs in ways Republicans don't fathom.

Among Asian-Americans who have recently enrolled as Gotham voters, for instance, 17 percent are registered as Republicans, 50 percent as Democrats, but the remainder as independents, says political consultant Jerry Skurnik. He sees a similar pattern among non-Puerto Rican Hispanics.

Herman Badillo argues that the GOP's future in the city lies in appealing to minorities. The increasing number of middle-class Hispanic households, he points out, want the safe streets Giuliani provided, reasonable taxes and good schools. These bread-and-butter messages resonate with other minority and immigrant groups.

"Many immigrants have a conservative family background," says Rene Lobo, an Indian-American woman who garnered 30 percent of the vote running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic Queens City Council district. "We should be appealing to them."

Giuliani captured a hefty 43 percent of the Latino vote in 1997. Four years later Bloomberg did even better, winning nearly half the Hispanic vote. Even so, heavily Hispanic districts continue to send liberal Democratic members to the City Council, state Assembly and Senate. Party leaders just don't see the opportunity.

Former deputy mayor Rudy Washington recounts that he pressed GOP brass to find a black Republican to run in 2000 for an open state Senate seat in southeastern Queens—a neighborhood of middle class, home-owning African-American families, who, Washington thought, would applaud an agenda of lower taxes, less bureaucracy and school vouchers. But his effort sparked no interest and the GOP county organization endorsed the Democrat running in the district.

"We're not thinking outside the box," says Washington.

Bloomberg's election unexpectedly hands the GOP another chance. The new mayor has it in his power to reshape the county organizations by advancing promising young Republicans.

Some of these potential leaders are already active in reform groups like the New York Young Republican Club, the Forest Park Republican club of Queens and in an insurgent movement in Brooklyn that just unseated the old leadership. Promising players from minority communities are also waiting in the wings.

If Bloomberg demurs, then the state GOP still could spark a New York City Republican revival, especially by putting more resources into this November's state Assembly and Senate races in the city. "Bloomberg's success after eight years of Giuliani should encourage the party to put up more Republican candidates in the next election," says William Fling, one of the founders of the Gramercy Park Republican Club. "But so far I don't see any organized effort to recruit candidates."

A revived city party would give both the state and the national GOP a significant boost. No Republican presidential candidate will win the Empire State (as Ronald Reagan did in 1984, when he garnered 884,000 votes in the city) without a stronger party in Gotham.

And the state GOP faces more trouncings, like those it took in the last two U.S. Senate races, unless it can generate more New York City votes.

A revival will need strong-willed funders, too. One of the great ironies of New York City Republican politics is that the city's candidates and organizations—save for the Manhattan GOP or Rudy Giuliani—are often starved for money, even though many of the party's biggest national and statewide contributors live in New York.

In the 2000 presidential election, New Yorkers gave more money to the Bush campaign than the residents of any city outside of Texas. But local candidates complain that little of the money that contributors pour into state party coffers makes its way back to the city.

"The problem is that there aren't credible Republican candidates to give to," says one local member of the Club for Growth, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that contributes to candidates who support small government and low taxes.

Grassroots GOP insurgents in the city argue that it is time for the big givers who live or work here to demand more state and national resources in New York for party building. Only then will more credible candidates emerge that contributors can support.

And, whether those candidates win at first or not, they will change Gotham's political culture by providing the genuine debate that is American democracy's lifeblood.

Adapted from the Winter issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Steven Malanga is an institute senior fellow and a City Journal contributing editor.