New York’s nastiest political campaign this fall is taking place in its most genteel district, waged by the city’s wealthiest candidate.
Republican Andrew Eristoff—a 39-year-old former Giuliani aide and heir to a steel fortune—is on target to spend more than $3 million in a no-holds-barred bid to win the 26th State Senatorial District representing Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
By Election Day, Eristoff is expected to set a new record for the most expensive state legislative campaign in history. The bulk of those dollars have been spent so far in an old-fashioned, down-and-dirty TV and radio blitz aimed at Liz Krueger, the grassroots activist Democrat who stunned the GOP in February by winning a special election for the seat by a 3-2 margin.
Eristoff’s attack ads have dubbed Krueger, a social services advocate who launched the city’s first food bank for the poor, an ally of criminals and rapists.
“When the time came for Liz Krueger to stand up for rape victims, she stood with their attackers,” states one Eristoff ad, broadcast on TV and radio and distributed in a glossy four-page mailing. “Krueger is once again the criminal’s friend,” says another.
Eristoff’s claims are based on Krueger’s votes on several state senate bills this year. The bills were considered “one-house” legislation, meaning they were not likely to make it into law, given the deadlock between the Republican-dominated senate and the Democrat-controlled assembly. While destined for only short lives, such bills nonetheless offer great grandstanding opportunities for those who propose them, and negative consequences for those who oppose them. The rape attack ad stems from a vote by Krueger against one such bill that was aimed at allowing court-ordered HIV testing of accused rapists.
The bill’s sponsors insisted it would aid victims. Krueger, along with women’s groups and rape assistance advocates, countered that what rape victims really need are on-site risk assessment and testing for HIV, as well as proper prophylactic treatment such as morning-after pills. Krueger and other opponents of the bill pointed out that such rape-kit tools are missing at half of the state’s hospitals, and the Republican-controlled senate has refused to consider legislation that would provide funding for them.
Instead of creating debate on the issue, however, the vote has become fodder for Eristoff’s thrust. “Haven’t Raped Women Been Victimized Enough?” asks one ad.
Krueger initially ignored the attacks, assuming that few would find them believable. But as the ads continued to roll, she rebutted them directly, gathering statements from Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the Empire State Pride Agenda condemning Eristoff’s attack.
“Senator Krueger did the right thing—for crime victims and for women—by voting against this bill,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of Empire State Pride, a gay rights group.
Eristoff declined to discuss his strategy, but the decision to put on brass knuckles and go aggressively negative appears to be the result of a calculated political analysis.
Republicans have long considered the Upper East Side’s gilded blocks their own—albeit somewhat liberal—home turf, and they are desperate to recapture them from Krueger. Roy Goodman, another wealthy Republican heir and the self-proclaimed “Statesman of the State Senate,” represented it for 33 years. But despite his own moderate perspective, Goodman was a firm ally of the state senate’s conservative leader, Joe Bruno. When Krueger challenged Goodman in 2000, she effectively used that alliance against the veteran pol, arguing that a vote for liberal Roy was, in effect, a vote for Bruno and Albany’s business-as-usual.
At the time, Krueger had few of the traditional Democratic allies behind her. Most labor unions accommodated Bruno by staying neutral or working for her opponent. But Krueger’s platform resonated with district voters and she came within 200 votes of defeating the 16-term incumbent. Goodman got the message and retired a few months later.
In the ensuing special election, Republicans ran Assemblyman John Ravitz, another young Giuliani ally, against Krueger. Ravitz deluged the airwaves with a Rudy endorsement ad. Bruno launched a full-court press, spending more than $1 million from his party’s senate campaign committee. Demonstrating exactly how fearful they were, on the eve of the special election the senate passed the Women’s Health and Wellness bill, one that had been kept bottled up for years and which Krueger had championed. Still, Krueger won handily, 24,000 to 16,000.
Krueger’s victory was a rude awakening for Republicans. While the GOP still has a 13-vote majority in the senate, the increasing number of registered Democrats, combined with an aging-out process among Republican incumbents, suggests that the party’s command could slowly slip away.
That was certainly Krueger’s hope when she decided to enter the race.
“I went into this for a specific reason: to change the way the state senate operates and to take power away from Joe Bruno,” she said. “If more people like me do what I’m doing, we win this.”
Among those who persuaded Krueger to run were senators Tom Duane and Eric Schneiderman, progressive Democrats who represent neighboring senate districts. Schneiderman said he is convinced that victories like Krueger’s create an irresistible momentum for change. They also make it tougher for progressive organizations, like unions, to look the other way or hedge their bets and go with Republican incumbents in an effort to win Albany favors.
“We are teetering on the edge of collapse of the Republican majority,” he said. “If they lose a couple more seats, the Democratic crusade to take back the senate becomes a much higher priority, and it becomes more difficult for other Democrats to walk away from those races.”
Step one in Bruno’s effort to block Krueger’s re-election was creating new lines for her district. Bruno’s panel on redistricting removed one of the most concentrated swaths of Democratic voters—an area including Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, and Waterside Plaza—from Krueger’s district. They replaced it with a chunk of midtown and the West Side with about 7000 fewer registered voters.
Step two was finding a candidate. Eristoff was a natural choice to be next at the plate to face Krueger. He came armed with money, connections, and existing ties to voters in the district from his days as a councilman. His family’s wealth stems from one of America’s great fortunes, that of Henry Phipps, who was Andrew Carnegie’s partner in building 19th-century steel mills.
In the council, Eristoff focused most of his energy on quality-of-life issues. He sponsored legislation against sidewalk bike riding, aggressive panhandling, and three-card monte games. In 1999, Giuliani chose him as his new finance commissioner. His toughest moment in that job came when the comptroller’s office pointed out that Brooklyn employees of his office had left more than $26 million in uncashed checks to the city in a dusty box.
Krueger, 44, also comes from a well-to-do family, although one not in Eristoff’s league (her father was an investment banker). But while Eristoff was trying to keep poverty and its effects out of sight, Krueger devoted herself to fighting it. After launching her groundbreaking food bank in the midst of the Reagan-era social services cutbacks, she became a leader of the Community Food Resource Exchange, an advocacy group on hunger and policy issues. Her lobbying efforts regularly brought her to Albany, where she encountered gridlock firsthand.
She was a regular member of delegations seeking to persuade legislators to address issues concerning food and nutrition, affordable housing, and equitable tax policies, she said. “Every year it was the same thing: Do your homework, crunch the numbers, and make your case. And at the end of every [legislative session] it would be the same thing: helpful hearings and good bills passed on the assembly side and zippo on the senate side. No public hearings, no debate on the pros and cons. After a while you ask yourself, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ So I thought I’d try to change things.”
Correction: Despite his claims to the contrary, Abdur Farrakhan, a Republican, is not a candidate of the Green Party in the election for state assembly in Brooklyn, as was reported in “A Perfect Storm,” by Tom Robbins, in the October 16-22 Voice.