In the six years that Frank MacKay has been chairman of the state’s Independence Party—the influential holder of Row C on New York’s ballot—he says he never had a substantive conversation with Lenora Fulani, the party’s most famous and controversial member.
“It’s never been more than ‘Hi’ and ‘Goodbye,’ ” MacKay told the Voice.
On the other hand, MacKay said that he spent many hours in discussion about tactics and party activities with Fred Newman, the guru-style figure hailed by Fulani and others as the inspiration for their various enterprises, including therapy clinics and the All Stars Project, a city-subsidized nonprofit organization with a multimillion-dollar budget.
MacKay said that when he had important party business to discuss—including the initial recommendation that the party’s city chapter endorse Michael Bloomberg for mayor—he was told to talk to Newman, and Newman alone. He said that he was often summoned to meetings at Newman’s Greenwich Village townhouse, attended by a coterie of longtime followers.
“There would be this little circle grouped around Newman, hanging on his every word,” MacKay said. The group included Cathy Stewart, the chairwoman of the New York County Independence Party; attorneys Harry Kresky and Gary Sinawski; political consultant Jackie Salit; All Stars president Gabrielle Kurlander; and Fulani. MacKay said that he attended some 20 such sessions, and that Newman did most of the talking.
“The meetings would go on for two hours, and the only two talking are me and Newman,” MacKay said. “The others only chimed in to agree with Fred.”
Newman, 70, has long been a political fringe player, allied at different times with Lyndon LaRouche, Louis Farrakhan, and Pat Buchanan. But he has largely kept in the background, allowing Fulani (whom he once called his “greatest accomplishment”) to take the lead. A playwright, Newman also claims authorship of what he describes as “a new science of human development” called “social therapy.” But therapists using Newman’s teachings have been accused of recruiting patients to their political efforts.
“He’s like a Svengali,” MacKay said. “He is the one and only decision maker.”
MacKay, a former nightclub owner from Suffolk County, was originally elected state party chairman in 2000 with the support of Newman’s group. But MacKay ended the alliance this month when he and upstate party officials concluded that Fulani’s refusal to disavow past anti-Semitic statements, and her continued self-identification as the party’s leader, were hurting the organization.
Why had he worked so long with Newman’s group? “The party is about building coalitions,” he said. “They seemed cultlike, but not on a Jonestown-type level. You could say we used each other.”
The break came September 18 at a crowded meeting near Albany where state committee members voted overwhelmingly to remove Fulani and five allies, including Stewart, Kresky, and Sinawski, from their executive panel. Fulani later dismissed the vote, saying it wouldn’t affect her status as a leader in the “Black community.” She also noted that her group still holds the reins of the party’s autonomous city chapter, which boasts Bloomberg as its mayoral candidate in November. “God bless the mayor,” Fulani said during the debate, “he voiced his disagreement with me, and then kept right on going.”
Indeed, that same day Bloomberg refused to comment on Fulani’s removal, saying he didn’t want to get involved in another party’s affairs. But he had good reason to avoid offending her. The 59,000 votes he received on the Independence line in 2001 was almost double his narrow margin of victory over Democrat Mark Green. This year, Bloomberg originally ducked comment on Fulani’s anti-Semitic statements, saying he hadn’t heard them. He later called her views “despicable,” but still agreed to take the party’s nomination in June. So far in this election, he has pumped $270,000 into the party’s city committees.
But when Bloomberg’s name originally surfaced as a potential Independence Party candidate in late 2000, MacKay said he was told to discuss it first with Newman.
MacKay said that in December that year he received a call from “a major Republican leader”—whom he declined to name on the record—asking about the party’s intentions for the 2001 mayoral election. “He said, ‘What are your crazies down in New York doing next year in the mayoral race?’ ” said MacKay.
The GOP figure went on to say that he had “a bona fide billionaire” who was switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party, MacKay said. The would-be candidate “is a long shot, but his only chance is with a second line,” MacKay said he was told.
MacKay, who has no role in the Independence Party’s city committees, said he quickly called Stewart, the city chairwoman. But when he started to tell her the news, Stewart cut him off.
“She said she couldn’t talk to me about it, that I had to talk to Fred. She said someone would reach out to me.” A few minutes later, MacKay said he got a call from Newman’s personal assistant, who put Newman on the phone.
“I asked Fred what their plans were for the race. He said, ‘We are going to see if [Reverend Al] Sharpton grows a pair of balls and starts standing up for himself against the Democrats.’ Otherwise, Newman said, ‘we’re going to run Fulani.’ ” MacKay said Newman told him he wanted to take advantage of matching funds available under the city’s public campaign finance law. “He said, ‘We can raise $200,000 and make $1 million,’ ” according to MacKay.
When MacKay raised Bloomberg’s name, Newman responded immediately. “He knew all about him. He said, ‘We’re very interested.’ So I put them in touch. Obviously, they made beautiful music together,” said MacKay.
Bill Cunningham, a Bloomberg campaign adviser, said several state Republicans originally recommended that Bloomberg should seek the Independence Party nod for the 2001 race, among them state senate majority leader Joe Bruno. “I can’t say Bruno was the first, but many times he has talked about them as a good ally to have in politics,” Cunningham said.
Newman was present both times that Bloomberg met with Independence Party leaders to seek their endorsement, he said, adding that Stewart and Salit appeared to be the “political operatives” for the group.
Cunningham defended Bloomberg’s decision to take the party’s endorsement. “There are some 20 to 30 Democrats who have done so, including Schumer and Spitzer,” he said.
But most Democrats backed away from the party after Fulani, in an appearance on NY1 in April, defended past statements she’d made that Jews “had to sell their soul to acquire Israel,” and “function as mass murderers of people of color.”
“What is anti-Semitic about that?” Fulani told host Dominick Carter.
Two days before Fulani’s remarks, Bloomberg spoke at a benefit dinner that Fulani and Newman held at Lincoln Center for the All Stars Project. There, MacKay said Stewart excitedly told him that the event had raised $1 million, and that Fulani had been invited onto the NY1 show.
MacKay said that when he heard about Fulani’s comments and the ensuing media controversy, he sent a critical statement to members. He didn’t make a bigger commotion at the time, he said, because he “didn’t want to interfere with the Bloomberg nomination.”
He called Stewart, however, and insisted on a meeting with Newman. “When I got there, all of them, Salit, Kresky, Sinawski, were laughing. Newman said, ‘Oh, here’s our chairman, you’re just in time. We’ve been strategizing about how to use this wonderful publicity we’re getting.’ ”
MacKay said he responded angrily. “I said, ‘You are the only ones laughing. This is serious. This is a disaster.’ ” MacKay said Newman then asked to meet with him alone. “He told me, ‘We could have done better on this.’ ”
Despite the admission, MacKay said he believed Newman was delighted with the uproar. “He knows how to create controversy. He believes any press is good press, and that Fulani can only get press if it looks like she has power.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Independence Party, Sara Lyons, refused comment on behalf of its leaders. “We’re not interested in being interviewed by you,” said Lyons, who heads the party’s Staten Island chapter. “You’re not doing serious journalism.”