Is the Party Over?

Ray Harding Throws His Weight Behind the Improbable Betsy

The day before Betsy McCaughey Ross took a 35-point drubbing in the gubernatorial primary, she wired $15,082 from her personal account to her campaign committee. The contribution—her third since her smitten-to-bitten husband withdrew the $2.2 million he'd given this soap opera campaign back in January—paid for the tiny ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel where Ross hosted a "victory" party that Ray Harding quickly turned into a Liberal Party rally.

Beneath a big blue Liberal banner, without a single poster that mentioned the name of the party whose nomination Ross had sought, the ex-Republican, soon-to-be-ex-Democratic candidate and the savvy, sweating boss of her new party announced their joint determination to run "with vigor" all the way to November. Harding blasted Democratic state chair Judith Hope for warning Ross in a TV interview that evening that "things will get ugly" if she persists in a campaign that can only damage Peter Vallone, who faces the daunting challenge of George Pataki, the most conservative governor in state history.

Six weeks from now, Ross, who was invented whole cloth by Al D'Amato in 1994, portrayed as the GOP's beauty-with-brains answer to the gender gap, and then dumped like a played-out toy, will likely return to obscurity. Until then, however, she will remain a big story, even though all she is seeking is a minuscule 50,000 votes, roughly 1 percent of the expected November turnout but the legal requirement for the Liberals to keep their position on the New York ballot. Harding, asked by a couple of reporters off the hotel stage to define success in the Ross race, mumbled something about establishing her issues. Pressed about whether or not winning was a goal, the two-packs-of-Camels-a-day lawyer and prime-time lobbyist snapped: "I've been smoking cigarettes today. Nothing else."

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

The fate of the Libs—without whose endorsement no Democrat has won statewide office and no Republican citywide office since the party's founding in 1944—hinges on Ross's willingness to be used again, even at the expense of whatever future she might have as a Democrat, and Harding's ability to bankroll a media buy everyone, including him, expected Ross's husband Wilbur to finance.

Ross's eagerness to burn her bridges to a second state party in two years is a mystery, but she did tell the Voice in August that she expected to land a Washington policy job if she lost this election, and Harding is close to Al Gore and Andrew Cuomo. The Giuliani administration also collects unemployed Harding stars. Maybe Ross will be the next, Bess Myerson-like, cultural affairs commissioner, rewarded for helping Harding and Pataki. Certainly the stated rationale of this chameleon—that she is honoring a commitment—convinces no one.

As for Harding's capacity to raise the necessary hundreds of thousands, it has always been candidates, like Giuliani and 1992 Senate nominee Bob Abrams, who've bolstered the party's meager coffers, not the other way around. The mayor—busy jump-starting three national and state finance committees—may in fact be the only man with the juice to get Ross's clearly gender-based campaign off the ground. That is, unless there's a way to bring wandering Wilbur back.

The so-far unexplained war between the Rosses has grown so bitter that Betsy had to put up $63,082 of her own money in the final four days of the primary, which still left her campaign committee $52,941 in debt. Her $43,000 contribution on September 11 covered the campaign's last payroll, and now all but three staffers are said to be gone, two of them reportedly being shifted to her state payroll. Arthur Fox, the campaign treasurer who has long been Wilbur's personal accountant, filed a termination report with the state Board of Elections on September 15, resigning without immediately naming a replacement. On Sunday, the campaign's computers were disconnected at the East 80th Street townhouse that Wilbur owns and had once donated to the gubernatorial effort, completing the move to Harding's party headquarters on Park Avenue South.

In one of those devilish coincidences that haunt New York politics, Walter Tolub, the judge currently hearing a suit filed against Wilbur by his former wife, is a registered Liberal and Riverdale neighbor of Harding's, who was installed on the bench by the party in 1989. Tolub and his wife, Marjory, who describes Harding as "a long-standing friend," have contributed $19,900 to the Libs, with Marjory having given three $500 donations in the first six months of 1998.

All of this post-1989 largesse came from Marjory, who's a registered Democrat and apparently the most generous nurse in New York (it's illegal for a judge to make contributions). Tolub, once the law secretary to Michael Dontzin, another Liberal Party judge, employs a third Lib, Paul Alpert, as his secretary, and all three have been donors to the party. Dontzin's son has long been listed as a client of the Harding lobbying firm.

Asked by the Voice if there had been any Harding contacts about the Ross case, Alpert said: "Not that I know of." Tolub is particularly vulnerable to political pressure now, since his 10-year term as a civil court judge ends next year and Alpert says he "assumes" Tolub will "run again as a Liberal." With Harding denouncing Wilbur last week as untrustworthy, the Rothschild investment banker, who is fending off an ex-wife's attempt to attach assets that she contends he hid from her, must be wondering if he faces a Hobson's choice: either he pays his former wife in court or his current wife on the campaign trail.

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.

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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