Sundown on the Patronage Party

Liberals Sink as Working Families Rise

By the time the Liberal Party finally bit the dust in last week's electoral drubbing, it had few friends and allies left to bemoan its demise.

Even the New York Post, proving that its favorite pastime remains kicking those who are down, chose the moment to run its first editorial denunciation of the party, calling it "little more than a patronage mill." Allowing that the liberals deserved credit for the election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor in 1993, the Post hit squad went on to chide party boss Ray Harding, stating that the loss "was the inevitable end result when a political party no longer stands for anything but its own leaders' personal interests."

To have pointed out that the chief dispenser of that patronage was none other than Giuliani himself would have violated the tabloid's sporting rules, since Giuliani's star remains ascendant while Harding's has crashed and burned. Had the Post looked, it would have found the tattered remains of the party in the patronage holdovers from the Giuliani administration who dutifully anted up more than half the contributions in the party's last campaign filings.

The rest of the party's cash (it claimed just $56,000 in its state and federal accounts going into the race) flowed from members of Harding's once mighty law firm, Fischbein Badillo Wagner and Harding. At the height of the Giuliani era, the law firm boasted more than 70 lobbying clients. The list included contractors and developers, hospitals and colleges, advertisers and insurers, unions and employers; anyone, in short, seeking favor or consideration from City Hall. But a review of the firm's clients as of last week's election showed only half that number remain. The firm's main lobbying practice now is aiding those seeking zoning variances from the city's Board of Standards and Appeals, an agency where one of Harding's Liberal Party members remains as chairman.

Probably no New Yorker cheered louder at the news that the once mighty Liberals had lost their line than former mayor David Dinkins.

"I wish I was the first person to say the Liberals are neither liberal nor a party," he said. "I've repeated it so many times people think I said it first." (In fact, it was Democrat Mark Green who said it first, back in 1986, when Harding ran a spoiler candidate in that year's Senate election to aid Republican Al D'Amato.)

But Dinkins says his opposition to the party began long before Giuliani, running as a fusion Liberal-Republican, defeated him in 1993.

"I met [Liberal Party founders] Alex Rose and David Dubinsky in 1967, when I was a delegate to the state constitutional convention," he recalled last week. "Later, when I was president of the [city] Board of Elections, Rose was always very correct and proper. I had such respect for them then. But that was a different Liberal Party. It hasn't been like that for a very long time. It has been a patronage mill, that's it."

Before his election as mayor in 1989, Dinkins ran three times for Manhattan borough president, finally winning in 1985. By then, Harding had taken over as party leader. "They didn't support me, ever," said Dinkins. "I'm not sure why. They chose other candidates. When they went for Rudy it became clear, given his posture on issues they claimed to care about, such as affirmative action, and mine, that they weren't really concerned with these things. Rudy attacked me on our women and minority business programs, calling them quotas, which they weren't. But the Liberal platform was in support of efforts like ours."

Dinkins later made a firm decision not to endorse any candidate who also took the Liberal line. "I just decided I couldn't do that any longer. The party was hurting people in the city," he said. He also helped launch the union-based Working Families Party and urged Democrats seeking additional lines to take the WFP endorsement as an alternative to the Liberals.

Dinkins turned out to be firmer in his resolve than the party he helped start. When a longtime friend, then-councilwoman Helen Marshall, ran for Queens borough president this year, Dinkins refused to endorse her because she had also accepted Harding's support. The Working Families Party gave her their line anyway.

"They oughtn't to have done that," said Dinkins.

But Dinkins was more successful with Carl McCall, whose decision not to seek the Liberal line became the instrument of Harding's defeat last week.

"It was bitter for Carl to lose," said Dinkins. "But it was sweet what he did for us."

By the final tally, the Working Families Party is expected to have almost 90,000 votes, well over the 50,000 minimum threshold needed to qualify for state ballot status. The Liberal tally is expected to fall short of 17,000.

Under state election rules, Liberal Party registrants will be officially notified early next year that they must change their party registration in order to remain on the rolls as voters. State records list more than 86,000 such Liberals, but Liberal Party officials say the real number is far less, about 65,000, since county officials haven't purged the rolls in years in some cases.

The Working Families Party will try to persuade those voters to join their ranks, according to party co-chair Bertha Lewis. "We will be writing them, urging them to sign up," she said.

Like the early Liberal Party, which was launched by garment workers leaders Rose and Dubinsky, labor unions played a key role in founding and funding the WFP when it was launched in 1998. They were joined by Lewis's organization, ACORN, a membership group based among public housing tenants, low-wage workers, and others.

"We put up a challenge to Ray Harding, and we chipped away at him, and now we've won," said Lewis. "We won because we are a real working party. We knock on doors, we phone-bank, we ID each and every voter. This is what distinguished us. Ray Harding had back rooms and cash; we had nothing but our sweat."

The party's situation was complicated this year after many of its largest member unions, including the state's biggest labor organization, health care workers local 1199/SEIU, opted to endorse Republican George Pataki. That was a sign of strength, argued Lewis, demonstrating that the party can have severe internal disagreement about key races and still survive.

The party faces a weightier problem, however, in the perception that it operates as little more than an echo of the Democrats, cross-endorsing candidates in exchange for consideration of the pro-worker issues it champions.

Indeed, the WFP ran its own candidate in just seven races this year, endorsing Democrats and an occasional Republican in the rest. The party's own candidates finished with predictably woeful numbers. Lewis said the WFP's real influence will be felt when it backs Democrats who are out of favor with the county leaders, as it did in several primaries this year.

"The [Democratic leaders] don't really care for us," said Lewis. "We turn out the vote and that makes them uneasy."

Meanwhile, Ray Harding was on TV last week, gamely answering questions from the Times' Sam Roberts about his political misfortunes, acknowledging that his is now a party without a ballot line, a house without a home. He has shrunk physically as well. Once an enormous and imposingly rotund figure, Harding has shed 140 pounds this year, according to friends, the result of a rigorous diet. The weight loss came as he and his family tried to cope with an ongoing city and federal investigation into actions of his younger son, Russell, who, after being rewarded with a sinecure atop a city housing agency, spent more than $250,000 in an extravaganza of travel and fine dining, as revealed in a Voice series earlier this year.

Giuliani, who, as mayor, appointed Russell Harding to that post, may ultimately be the one to feel the absence of the party the most keenly. Should he run for governor in 2006, as many expect him to, the Liberal line won't be there for him as it was in his mayoral races, unless the party somehow reconstitutes itself.

"Those are the guys this hurts the worst, conservatives like Giuliani who want to try and look moderate," said political consultant Richard Schrader. "The Liberal Party offered camouflage. There wasn't anything there except the name, but it worked."

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