Serph's Up

Friendly Democrats forget muscle, fumble state senate again

In fact, the free pass for Maltese was a by-product of a non-aggression pact between him and Queens Democratic bosses that dates back decades, to when Tom Manton, the Democratic leader who died earlier this year, was still in Congress. Maltese gave Manton the run of his life in 1984 and then made peace. "He and I were friends," explains Maltese. "We were both Korean War veterans. Two years after the 1984 race, he said, 'You going to go this time?' I said, 'Tom, if you get hit by a truck tomorrow, I am not running for Congress.' Four years after that, I ran for senate. He was happy and I was happy." After Manton became ill, the gang around him was so friendly with Maltese that opposing him remained unimaginable.

Maltese has also routinely given the Republican line on the ballot to Supreme Court judges handpicked by Manton, though Maltese sometimes fails to cross-endorse blacks or women nominated for the bench by Queens Democrats, as he did this year. Manton and two of his law partners have raked in millions in fees from Queens Surrogate Court, and last year, Maltese did not run a Republican candidate against the surrogate that Manton arranged an initial, 14-year, term for in 1991. Manton and Maltese also manuevered last year to put a Manton-tied judge, Lawrence Cullen, on the Pataki-appointed Court of Claims, while Manton elevated Pataki's counsel to a Queens Supreme Court vacancy.

"Tommy and I cooperated on that," Maltese told the Times' Joyce Purnick in February. "We have a cooperative relationship for the people of Queens. There is nothing improper or unethical about that." In a more recent interview, Maltese freely discussed two other times he and Manton had reached a judicial agreement. The arrangement did mean, however, that until Baldeo, no Democrat had run against Maltese in 12 years. One senate leader recalls Manton telling him Maltese was "a friend" when he approached the resistant party boss about fielding a candidate against him.

Baldeo's near-win may end the arrangement, however. Addabbo said in a pre-election interview that he would be watching how Baldeo did, predicting that his numbers might be "very interesting." Saying that 2006 wasn't "the right time" for him, Addabbo added: "I suspect things might be different a couple years from now." A recent federal court decision eliminating the judicial nominating conventions that have allowed party leaders to jointly handpick Supreme Court judges has ended the prime rationale for this relationship. Malcolm Smith, a Queens state senator, has been unofficially selected as the new minority leader, and will replace lieutenant governor designee David Paterson in January, making it in the interests of the county party to take both Republican seats.

Mike Reich, the party's executive secretary and a law partner of Manton's, expressed confidence on Election Day that Addabbo and Avella, who's created a committee for a 2009 mayoral candidacy, would run for senate in 2008, potentially giving Smith two of the three new seats he'd need to control the senate. The new county leader, Manton protégé Joe Crowley, who also took over Manton's congressional seat, says he's committed to making Smith majority leader and is salivating for 2008. "I have a relationship with Serph and I respect him," says Crowley. "We both have jobs to do." Smith is an active alumnus of Christ the King, a Queens Catholic high school whose board Maltese chairs, and is also friendly with the likable senator. But he is unlikely to be able to figure out a way to win the senate without finishing the job Baldeo has begun.

Arrangements similar to Maltese and Manton's prevented a race in Brooklyn, where one party leader said that Golden made it a point to help Democratic senators on reapportionment and "member item" grants to their districts. Democrats like Senator Carl Kruger and Assemblyman Peter Abate, whose districts intertwine with Golden's, are seen as so cozy with him they discourage competition, as does Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, whose GOP ties are legion.

In Staten Island, McMahon, perhaps Richmond county's most popular Democrat, is biding his time for a run for borough president in 2009. By staying out of the senate race, he may have cemented his ties with the island's powerful Conservative Party, whose leader, Jim Molinaro, the current borough president, had his own candidate in the race early on. McMahon calls any suggestion of a deal an "unfounded rumor," but he has run with Conservative Party support in the past, and both he and term-limited Molinaro have to give up their current posts in 2009. He says that running with the party's backing three years from now "is certainly something any candidate would consider."

Faced with these obstacles in the city, Eric Schneiderman and Liz Krueger, the two Manhattan state senators who ran this year's campaign, focused their resources on protecting Syracuse incumbent David Valesky and taking another shot at Spano, who beat repeat challenger Andrea Stewart-Cousins by 18 votes two years ago. Schneiderman invoked Stewart-Cousins's 2,000-vote win as justification for their strategic choices, though the committee may have overspent in Syracuse, where Valesky coasted to a 19-point triumph. The committee invested next to nothing, for example, in the campaigns of Suffolk County aide Jimmy Dahroug, who got 45 percent of the vote against 80-year-old Caesar Trunzo, or Susan Zimet, an Ulster County legislator pitted against the lackluster John Bonacic, though both were regarded as competitive races.

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