News & Politics

Governor Wilbur


Though she calls herself a “scholar” in her high-priced campaign literature, Betsy McCaughey Ross’s only published work of academic quality is her doctoral dissertation from Columbia, written more than 20 years ago.

In ironic anticipation of her own metamorphosis, the Republican/Conservative lieutenant governor who’s trying to become the Democratic/Liberal candidate for governor wrote a biography of onetime Columbia University president William Samuel Johnson. An influential Connecticut lawyer at the time of the American Revolution, Johnson was a leading loyalist denouncing “those who separate the Crown” from the colonies as “traitors to both.” Yet as soon as the British were beaten, he became a delegate to the first Congress, saluted a couple of centuries later by Ross as “a patriot” whose wide political swings were a principled consequence of “personal conviction.”

Trailing City Council Speaker Peter Vallone in most statewide polls, Ross remains the focus of a listless gubernatorial primary, taken seriously solely because of the $3.4 million her no-pre-nup husband, millionaire investment banker Wilbur Ross, has given—not loaned, as some have suggested—to her campaign.

She has competently honed a half-dozen hard-edged issues from auto insurance rates to HMOs, and demonstrated, in a recent eight-hour soundbite to Albany and back with the Voice, that she can talk nonstop about each without a note, a pause, or even one of her famous Perotlike charts. If her husband lets her buy millions in last-two-weeks airtime to get this message across—as well as a planned negative commercial from the left on moderate Vallone—she could add the Democratic line to the Liberal nomination she already has.

Sixty-one-year-old Wilbur Warbucks, who is the senior managing director of Rothschild, also owns a passel of weekly, and unconditionally pro-Betsy, newspapers distributed in every fashionable nook from Manhattan to the Hamptons. He is so busy that Betsy tells another aide on her cellular during the ride on the campaign van that she “saw a memo” that morning that he was going back to Korea—where he is consuming bankrupt companies for American investors—and thus if “we want anything from him, we’d better get it today.”

Married for two and a half years, the Rosses are already so familiar that when she was informed that her husband was in fact at home in bed, diagnosed with “fluid on the lungs,” Betsy dialed two more business calls before trying to reach Warbucks, missing him altogether when the cellular went dead. As the driver took a shortcut through Jersey, she was asked about Wilbur’s roots, got his home county wrong, and said she didn’t know that her 94-year-old mother-in-law was still a Hudson County party leader.

She even indicated that should she lose the gubernatorial race, she might well “go to Washington” to really “do” policy at a level that “gets something done,” presumably making Wilbur a weekend respite shortly after he spends millions on her quixotic quest. “I never see him now,” she said, recounting how she’s awakened nightly by 4 a.m. calls from Korean businessmen looking for her husband, and how she painstakingly tells each of the other-time-zone-callers that he’s in Korea, where she says he’s been for most of the last three months.

Her campaign is being run out of a five-story townhouse on East 80th Street just off the park that Warbucks paid $2.9 million for in 1996, taking out a $2 million mortgage formally listed in the name of “Wilbur Ross Jr., a married man.” Wilbur has installed Mike Nussbaum, a top executive from his newspaper company, at the helm of the campaign and only Nussbaum can approve expenditures, suggesting just how foolish Wilbur thinks voters would be to trust Betsy with the $71.5 billion-a-year checkbook controlled by a governor.

There’s almost no money in the campaign but Wilbur’s. What doesn’t come from him directly comes indirectly, with Rothschild associates like Cheryl Gordon donating $10,000 and clients like Donald Trump giving $12,000 through intermediaries Nick Ribis, George Ross, Charlie Reiss, and Jay Goldberg, all of whom are on his payroll.

The National Organization for Women­backed candidate has even collected $5000 from Victor Kiam, the owner of the New England Patriots and Wilbur business associate, whose Remington shavers were boycotted by NOW after he derided sexual harassment charges filed by a female sportswriter. Kiam had to eat his “flyspeck-in-the-ocean” dismissal of the Patriot locker room allegations when a Harvard law professor confirmed the incident in a 60-page report.

The campaign also got $5000 from another of Wilbur’s friends, Stephen Swid, the onetime owner of Spin magazine, who testified on behalf of partner and publisher Bob Guccione Jr. in a losing sexual harassment case, though Guccione had allegedly pressured Swid’s 21-year-old daughter for sex while both worked at the magazine.

Even Betsy’s early securing of the Liberal line has a Wilbur connection. He was the financial adviser on Fulton Landing, a Brooklyn development project long represented by Rick Fischbein, managing partner in the law firm that includes Liberal Party boss Ray Harding. Fischbein began boosting Betsy for higher office a couple of years ago, and his wife Mimi was one of the earliest $1000 donors to the campaign, giving on February 6, months before the Liberal designation. The firm added $5000 in June.

The Ross family campaign would be going nowhere were it not for a third candidate in the race, Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes, who consistently registers in the teens on state polls. Kevin McCabe, who is running the Vallone effort, estimates that 80 percent of Hynes voters would be for Vallone, a fellow Catholic with strong city name recognition, were Hynes not in the race.

Hynes announced in May that he would withdraw from the race if he did not get the 25 percent at the state Democratic convention necessary for automatic nomination. Ross got him enough delegates, throwing at least $87,000 at Nassau County Democratic leader Steve Sabbeth to move votes into the Hynes column. The Hynes and Ross campaigns are so connected that one of Hynes’s top backers, Senate Democratic leader Marty Connor, was paid $30,000 by Ross on July 20.

Connor, who employed one of Hynes’s sons, represented Hynes in his 1994 race for attorney general, and directed Hynes’s floor operation at the state convention this year, told the Voice that Nussbaum and Wilbur hired him as the campaign’s election lawyer in early July. Connor says he got the D.A.’s okay before accepting the position with Ross.

A skillful election lawyer with connections at every level of board and judicial review, Connor says he helped bind and check Ross’s 58,000 petition signatures, far more than the legally required 15,000. He says he was hired—even though Ross already had an experienced lawyer supervising the almost-completed petition effort at a third of Connor’s cost—because the campaign was “paranoid” about a challenge that, not surprisingly, never occurred. The campaign obviously was not paranoid about a challenge from Hynes, since it was eager to hire an election lawyer from an ostensible opposing camp, virtually an unprecedented occurrence in state politics.

By Connor’s own count, his Ross paycheck, the largest he’s ever collected as a statewide retainer without litigation, amounted to about $3000 a day. Connor and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, whose club candidates Connor represents at no cost, have been the two principal Democratic obstacles to a Vallone nomination, even convincing a reluctant Hynes to stay in the race when he threatened to withdraw earlier this year.

The Hynes campaign is so half-hearted that it’s raised half of its 1994 million-dollar total, and wasted much of it, leaving only $84,000 in the bank with a month to go. It’s made $7250 in payments to committees controlled by Brooklyn boss Clarence Norman, paid a Norman friend $12,000 for two months of campaign work, dumped $90,000 on a printer tight with Norman and Connor, and given $50,000 to one Hynes son and an aide in the D.A.’s office. Hynes is hardly raising any money from the biggest donors to his earlier campaigns, including cigarette distributor Lenny Schwartz, insurance executive William Wallach, and lawyer Barry Kamins.

He is running to place, not to win—a pacer for Ross in a primary that has only Republicans smiling.

Research: Anne Benjaminson, Michael Kolber, Dan Steinberg, and Nicole White

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