Is the Party Over?

Ray Harding Throws His Weight Behind the Improbable Betsy

Though Wilbur was nowhere in sight at the primary night party, and went unthanked by his bride, his $1,749,975 in still-listed contributions is probably the largest in state history, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands he raised from friends or donated in kind, like the townhouse rent. While Ross's rapid demise from frontrunner to bottom chaser has been widely attributed to her husband's abrupt withdrawal, she spent enough to finance a real campaign—$2.5 million—but was only able to go on the air at the last minute with a single, ostensibly half-million-dollar buy.

In her concession speech, Ross cited Mario Cuomo as her precursor, a Democrat who lost a primary and continued to run aggressively on the Liberal line. The reference was to Cuomo's 1977 mayoral race, but as the former governor told the Voice: "There was no danger I'd deliver the city to the Republicans," noting that the GOP nominee that year, Roy Goodman, got 5 percent of the vote.

During Harding's impromptu press briefing at the Intercontinental, he cited the only example of the Liberals backing a candidate other than the Democratic nominee against a Republican incumbent: the 1966 gubernatorial race between Nelson Rockefeller and Frank O'Connor, when the Libs endorsed Franklin Roosevelt Jr. Roosevelt collected 507,000 votes on the Liberal line, far more than Rockefeller's 400,000-vote margin over O'Connor. It was well known that the Libs were trying to help Rocky—consciously and covertly. So Harding's use of 1966 as a precedent raises the specter of history repeating itself, this time, however, on behalf of a governor totally antithetical to the party's name and supposed philosophy.

Betsy & Wilbur in a 1997 Xmas card paid for by the campaign
Michael Sofronski
Betsy & Wilbur in a 1997 Xmas card paid for by the campaign

With 92,000 registered Liberals in New York, Harding would seem to have the base to stay alive. But only 43 percent of them voted in the last gubernatorial election, and 22 percent are under 30 years old, suggesting that they registered as Liberals because they see themselves as liberals, but have little connection to the party itself. The city has not purged the voting rolls since legal questions were raised a decade ago about the practice of disqualifying voters who'd missed two consecutive elections, meaning that many older Liberals may only exist on registration lists.

Harding also faces the new challenge of the Working Families Party, a union-backed alternative led by David Dinkins, Sal Albanese, and others, which intends to do targeted mailings on Vallone's behalf to every Liberal.

Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano is spending $10 million to appeal to the small percentage of voters who stray from the two major parties. What this adds up to is big-time trouble for a party that has shaped city and state politics for more than half a century—with all that history riding on a woman whose specialty is surprise.

Research: David Kihara, David Shaftel, and Nicole White

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