Dead Man Running

Harding: looking for an escape hatch
photo: Frances M. Roberts

You might remember the movie El Cid, where the great general is mortally wounded, so his supporters tie him on a horse and he leads the people in battle. Everybody thinks he's still alive even though he died.

Well, maybe Andrew Cuomo is El Cid, but the Liberal Party is the rope and the horse.

—Liberal Party leader Ray Harding, speaking on WROW-AM in Albany on September 4 (as quoted by Marc Humbert, Associated Press)

The Ray Harding mystique was on full display last week as he posed for selected reporters behind his desk at the law firm he joined in 1994 to help capitalize on his then-close ties to City Hall. Speaking in his halting, rasping voice, from a throat cauterized by the unfiltered Camels he chain-smokes, Harding tried to explain why he wasn't worried by the suddenly grim circumstances of his Liberal Party, which now finds itself without an active candidate in this year's gubernatorial race. Andrew Cuomo's decision to drop out of the Democratic primary and endorse former opponent Carl McCall means the party runs the risk of not winning the required 50,000 votes required to maintain its ballot line, Harding acknowledged. But Cuomo's own situation or desires weren't the most important things, Harding insisted. What mattered was that Cuomo's name would still be listed on the Liberal Party line, beneath its tolling Liberty Bell symbol.

He toned down his remarks for the visiting Times and other papers (the Voice was excluded, as usual). But he gave vivid vent to his political cynicism in the interview cited above with an upstate radio station. Give me a political dead man with a well-known name and I can still save my party's ballot status, the old warhorse bragged, even if those votes on our line help propel a conservative Republican to victory.

It was the kind of performance that has helped keep most of the state's news coverage of Harding and his party focused on him as a caricature of an old-style political boss, instead of on the venality of his ambitions and the smoke-and-mirrors manipulations that disguise his political operation. "Ray-noir" was what Paul Schwartzman of the Daily News tellingly dubbed the act in 1993, shortly after Harding hit the daily double by electing Rudy Giuliani mayor and then joining a law firm that lobbied the same city commissioners he helped pick.

Access to power and jobs has been the underlying rationale of Liberal Party activism for decades, and in the heyday of Giuliani's political love affair with Harding there was no better place to be for those on the make.

The whole city knew that Harding was the voice closest to Giuliani's ear in setting city policies and making appointments, and Liberal Party fundraisers were the hottest ticket in town for those eager to ease past the well-guarded gates outside the mayor's City Hall office. The events were held at the cavernous Imperial Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt, where the price of admission was $500 a head. Throngs attended, including scores of high-ranking Giuliani administration officials and scores more of those either already doing business with the city or eager to do so. The parties were a see-and-be-seen extravaganza, the political equivalent of a Hollywood post-Oscars bash.

In 1994, the year Giuliani took office, the Liberals' soiree raked in $500,000. In December 1996, Voice reporters Wayne Barrett and Richard Kornylak counted 145 city aides in attendance among the 1028 guests on the seating list. The event featured Giuliani seated on the dais, with the jowly Harding on one side and Fran Reiter, the Liberal Party chairperson and deputy mayor, on the other. Looming behind them was a figure of national prestige, then-vice president Al Gore, there to pay homage to Harding's clout as custodian of the party's ballot line.

This year, however, was a different story.

The party's spring fundraiser was a quiet, modest event. It was held May 23 at the Jade Terrace Rooftop Lounge and Garden above the China Club on West 47th Street, and the price of admittance was a bargain at $250 per head. Still, attendance was sparse, limited to diehards and those who still owe their employment to party patronage. Among them were several officials from the Housing Authority and the Department of Youth, an assistant in the Mayor's Office of Film, and a deputy commissioner in the city's records department. The take, finance reports show, was a mere $38,000.

"Yes, that's about the figure," acknowledged Martin Oesterreich, another former Giuliani commissioner who rose through the ranks with Harding's backing and now serves as executive director for the party. The falloff was to be expected. With Giuliani gone from City Hall, and new mayor Mike Bloomberg owing no political debt to the Liberals, there was no reason to flock to the party standard.

Reports filed by the Liberals show that its federal political committee is sustained mainly by $37,500 in loans from Harding's family and closest associates.

"Parties wax and wane," said Henry Stern, another Liberal stalwart and ex-Giuliani aide. Stern was the last person to win election to city office on the Liberal line alone, serving as councilman at large for Manhattan from 1973 until 1983, when he became Ed Koch's parks commissioner. The long view, Stern was saying last week, requires that one remember the glory years of Giuliani and former governor Hugh Carey, another Liberal Party favorite, as well as the bleak times. "The party is 58 years old," said Stern. "That is the longest-running third party in the country; that's an extraordinary achievement. It has a great and honored history."

Indeed, there was a time when the party could boast of having made a constructive difference, not just locally, but nationally as well. Running on its line in 1960, John F. Kennedy achieved his winning margin in the state with Liberal votes, an edge that helped him squeak past Richard Nixon into the White House. The party sent Averell Harriman to the Albany statehouse as governor and put John Lindsay in City Hall as mayor.

Party founders David Dubinsky of the garment workers union and Alex Rose of the old hatters union were both masters at successful political maneuvering, but they were guided by the essence of the party's mission—its small-L liberalism.

In the more than 20 years (with one interruption) in which Harding has led the party, the maneuvers have become the mission.

The party's decision to keep incumbent GOP senator Jacob Javits on its line in the 1980 Senate race put the seat in the hands of Alfonse D'Amato, who beat Democrat Liz Holtzman by just one percent. Six years later, when D'Amato faced re-election, the party kept pushing its candidate, John Dyson, even after Dyson had endorsed the Democratic candidate, Mark Green. Whom did that help? A few months after D'Amato was overwhelmingly re-elected, he hired Harding's younger son, a college dropout named Russell Harding, as a new aide in his Washington office.

Along with a bevy of other close Harding associates, Russell Harding and his brother Robert both won high posts in the Giuliani administration, where loyalty and connections were the most highly prized attributes. This month, city and federal investigators are completing an investigation into Russell Harding's abuses of office during the three-and-a-half years he ran the city's Housing Development Corporation. More than $250,000 was spent to fly Russell Harding and a friend and top aide around the world, staying at the poshest resorts and dining at the finest restaurants.

"Minor parties are supposed to exist because of a social base," Dan Cantor, director of the Working Families Party, was saying last week about the Liberals' dilemma. Cantor's party was started by labor unions and community organizations to push New York politicians to the left, while at the same time hopefully starving the Liberal Party of political allies. It endorsed Carl McCall last spring, and McCall returned the favor by blasting the Liberal Party as a bastion of patronage and corruption.

"What you have instead is the Ray Harding horror show," said Cantor. "There is no core there."

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