Becoming ‘Dem-ato’


Chuck Schumer was climbing into a camera, leaning on the tips of his toes in the front of the Rye Town Hilton ballroom, reconstructing the hour-and-a-half-long roll call for U.S. Senate at last week’s state Democratic convention just seconds after it ended. ”I believe we should have everybody on the ballot,” he was saying, without so much as a wink or a blush.

Only a few yards away from teary-eyed Christine Pozmante, the Westchester delegate whose weighted vote had narrowly qualified Schumer rival Mark Green for the September primary ballot, the congressman was taking credit for her conversion. ”She was committed to me and I released her,” deadpanned Schumer.

Almost simultaneously, Pozmante, a perfume saleswoman with a blue Schumer button pinned to her bright red dress, was telling the Voice: ”I did this on my own.” She recalled how Schumer had called her repeatedly at her home to secure her pre-convention commitment, but in the end, she said, she felt an obligation to help put Green on the ballot.

Schumer’s claim was an exhibition of such transparent chutzpah, so inconsistent with his two-day blitzkrieg of buttonholing and bullying delegates, that any Democrat who heard it could be excused for wondering, at least momentarily, if the party might at last have discovered an Alfonse antidote. The $11 million congressman who can almost match his senatorial target buck for wily buck is so driven to defeat D’Amato he just may be willing to become him.

Paul Adler, the Rockland County chair who was seated directly behind Pozmante, described the mad scramble for the vote that gave Green two-tenths of a per cent more than the 25 per cent he needed to make the ballot: ”It was the best theater. Schumer descending, Ferraro darting, Green hovering. Schumer was looking for every vote he could get, hoping to get 50 per cent and become the designee of the party. He was saying the Westchester votes were Schumer votes, let them vote their commitment. Ferraro was telling Dave Alpert, the Westchester leader: ‘I need it. You promised me votes.’

”When it came to the final vote with Christine,” the pro-Green Adler recalled, ”there was virtual necking going on. They embraced. They cajoled. But Alpert did the right thing. Way back in February, the 13 big-county chairs agreed that they would put all three of the senate candidates on the ballot. At the most recent meeting, some of the chairs retreated from that unanimous commitment. But Alpert kept his word.”

Adler and Scott Levenson, Green’s floor manager, said that Schumer wrapped his arm around Alpert, asking him to ”give me as many votes as you can,” and insisted that if Green ”can’t get it on his own, don’t put him on.” Alpert remembers both Ferraro and Schumer approaching him, but maintains he ”was not tuning in to them,” that he was fixated instead on his February pledge to marshal whatever votes were necessary to put Green on. That’s why 11 of the 14 Westchester delegates had passed on the first call, and seven, including Pozmante, wound up voting for Green on the second call. ”I don’t think I responded to Gerry or Chuck; I wasn’t hearing them,” says Alpert, referring the Voice to Adler for confirmation.

Twenty minutes after taking credit for Pozmante’s vote, Schumer acknowledged when pressed by skeptical reporters that he had indeed pushed Alpert for ”as many votes” as possible, but argued that he wasn’t trying to block Green, only to finish first (his 14-point lead over second-place Ferraro at the time was insurmountable). Flip-flopping again a few hours later, Schumer appeared at the endorsement vote of the west side’s Community Free Democrats and, according to two witnesses, left ”the impression” that he had allowed his delegates to give Green a winning margin.

Schumer’s last-minute rush on Westchester–Levenson yelled at him, ”Chuck, you’re being a pig”–was the climax of a weeks-long, subterranean strategy designed to deny Green a spot on the ballot, forcing him either to go the expensive petition route or drop out. Had Green, who won more votes than any other Democrat in both citywide races this decade, failed to win his party’s insider minimum, his senate candidacy could have been fatally damaged. To camouflage the squeeze on Green, Schumer kept telling delegates right up to the final moment that he was near the 50 per cent threshold necessary to become the party’s designee (a hollow honor in any event). But the ostensible search for 50 was really an attempt–in a three-way race–to deny an opponent 25.

Delegates told sordid stories of Schumer’s personal pressures, threatening, in one instance, to expose a Green delegate from a conservative upstate county by publicly connecting him to Green’s liberal policies. Schumer could be seen in the corridors cornering delegates like Buffalo’s black assemblyman Arthur Eve, who was pledged to Green, and glaring at him. ”After all the years we’ve known each other,” Schumer said, referring no doubt to his own old days in the assembly. ”It’s nothing personal,” Eve protested. A snarling Schumer walked away, spitting Eve’s name out in disgust.

Tom Manton, a congressional colleague of Schumer’s who doubles as Queens county leader, said ”every time I walked through the halls,” Schumer would come up ”and push me to help him go over 50.” Manton, who endorsed Schumer despite Ferraro’s Queens origins, kept telling his candidate that he would give him as many votes as he could, but that he also ”had to help Gerry get over 25.” No sooner had Manton recounted this tale, even as the roll call was winding down, than Schumer appeared, sitting next to him in the midst of the Queens delegation, his mouth puckered up against Manton’s ear.

Manton, like Alpert, had held back votes on the first call. But when Ferraro qualified, Queens went overwhelmingly for Schumer. He finished with 44 per cent, far short of his self-justifying goal. The 47-year-old Schumer has been running for office since he was 23 and a student at Harvard Law School, commuting to Brooklyn for his first race for assembly. He has never lost because he will not let himself lose. He is as inexhaustible as he is elastic–meaning he can glad-hand as well as he can goose–a mirror image, in some respects, of the senator who rules New York.

The other big player at the party conclave also came from Brooklyn: district attorney and gubernatorial nominee Joe Hynes, a two-time statewide loser now poised for a third impossible shot at Albany. Hynes’s 28 per cent was a gift from assembly speaker Shelly Silver and baby Democrat Betsy McCaughey Ross. On his own, the 62-year-old warhorse would’ve missed the magical 25 again, just as he did in his two races for attorney general in 1978 and 1994.

Appropriately, as soon as the roll call for governor was over and Hynes was on, Ross walked off the floor and directly into Hynes’s suite, first greeting his staff and finally finding Hynes himself in the hallway. Hynes could be heard thanking her and she could be heard saying, ”You’re welcome.” Eight months a Democrat, Ross had strategically used her paltry collection of convention delegates to shape a three-way September primary, making herself the plausible top nominee of a party she only joined after exasperating the alternatives.

Ross won just 3 per cent of the convention vote–which will force her millionaire husband to bankroll a petition drive to qualify her for the race against Hynes and city council speaker Peter Vallone–but it was the rest of her 10 per cent or so that helped Hynes over the hump.

None was more helpful than Steve Sabbeth, the Nassau leader who abandoned homeboy hopeful Jim LaRocca to endorse Ross on the eve of the convention, and then passed the mike from delegate to delegate during the roll call, eliciting 14 votes for Hynes–the third candidate for governor he’d backed in a week. While Sabbeth was publicly claiming he’d swung to Ross (and to Hynes temporarily at her behest) because she was better financed than ex-transportation commissioner LaRocca, he was privately intimating, according to sources, that the Ross campaign had pledged $100,000 to the Nassau party.

The joke on the floor was that the hulking Sabbeth, who is under a federal fraud indictment that Ross dismissed as ”irrelevant,” never takes so much as a moment of rest from manipulation. Yet in a Voice interview, Ross raved about him as ”wonderful” and ”one of my top advisers,” observing that he hadn’t been convicted yet. The Brooklyn D.A. was as unabashed about an indicted felon putting him over the top as LaRocca was aghast at what he blasted as Sabbeth’s ”extraordinary betrayal,” a switch that cost the telegenic businessman his shot at 25 per cent.

Hynes was so ill-prepared for his surprise win that he stumbled through an apparently unexpected post-qualifying press conference. Asked what he would do about identifying a lieutenant governor, he recounted a tale of a legendary Brooklyn party boss who refused to take part in judicial selections because all it led to were enemies and ingrates. Like the old boss, Hynes said he’d leave the choice to the electorate. Within hours, however, his camp had picked an unknown upstate town supervisor, and aided again by the Silver convention forces, he put her on the ballot the next morning as his running mate.

Questioned at the same conference about how he would distinguish himself from front-runner Vallone, Hynes pointed to a single issue: the death penalty. Hynes is against it, Vallone is for it. Hynes is so against it that he has sought to enforce it more than any D.A. in the state, and his assistants were, even as Hynes denounced it, presenting the first capital punishment case to a jury. Of course, it would take a majority in both houses to reverse the state’s death penalty law, making it a somewhat bizarre basis for a gubernatorial campaign.

But Hynes was holding a trump card. Sylvia Friedman, the east side state committeewoman who voted for Hynes, says he ”promised” her that if elected, ”no one would be executed in New York” because he would ”commute the sentence” of anyone slated for execution under the new law. ”He hesitated before he said it,” said Friedman. Maybe Hynes was a bit confounded about how he would square this quiet promise with the explanation he publicly offers for seeking executions: namely, that it’s his duty to carry out the law whether he agrees or disagrees with it.

Hynes’s committee has $50,000 in the bank as of the latest filing. He wasted $200,000 for a 1997 reelection campaign though he had no real opponent. Until Ross and Silver rescued his campaign, Hynes blew so hot and cold that he missed his own county party’s recent annual dinner dance and disappeared periodically from the campaign trail, sometimes on trips to Florida. LaRocca says Ross chose to put Hynes on the ballot and not him because she only wanted ”the weakest” male alternative to Vallone to qualify. Hynes’s 22 per cent showing in the 1994 attorney general race–after petitioning to get on the ballot–cost incumbent Oliver Koppell the primary, nominated Karen Burstein, and ultimately elected Dennis Vacco. He may now repeat the calamity.

Yet Shelly Silver, the most powerful Democrat at this convention, steered key votes in Erie and Onondaga counties to Hynes. Steve Paquette, the Onondaga leader who’s a counsel on the assembly payroll, snared six votes for Hynes, conceding in a Voice interview that he ”had the impression the speaker was not unhappy” with his performance. The state committeewoman from Silver’s Lower East Side club, Ruth Bekritsky, voted for Hynes. Nominally neutral, Silver told the Voice right after the vote that he was pleased that Democrats would have choices.

Vallone manager Kevin McCabe told delegates that ”it would be a major benefit for real Democrats to have a clear Vallone-Ross runoff,” emphasizing that such a race was the surest way of avoiding a November catastrophe, with Ross as the potential biggest Democratic loser in decades. McCabe recalled a 2 a.m. conversation the night before the vote with Erie County leader Steve Pigeon, pleading with him to ”drive the party in a new direction.” Instead, despite the fact that every important Democratic elected official in Erie was backing Vallone, Pigeon delivered the decisive votes for Hynes.

”Maybe, like a drunk,” says McCabe, ”we have to hit rock bottom before we can start rehabilitating ourselves.”

Research: Matthew Dalton

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 9, 1998

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