For a party hoping to sweep statewide elections this fall by appealing to voters fed up with business-as-usual politics, Democratic leaders last week were behaving an awful lot like the cynical old-line bosses they claim to have long ago put behind them.
First there was the take-no-chances and abide-no-potential-spoilers approach that party operatives took with the long-shot, outsider candidacy of Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi. Going into the Democratic Party convention in Buffalo, polls showed current attorney general (and now officially nominated) gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer running a massive 60 to 70 percentage points ahead of Suozzi (one Quinnipiac survey put Spitzer a whopping 5-1 over the Nassau challenger).
But despite his lousy poll numbers, there was no question that Suozzi represented something important to Democrats eager to reclaim the executive office after 12 Republican years: Here was an articulate and popular elected official representing the vote-rich suburbs insisting that the party address issues like soaring property taxes and runaway Medicaid spending that register high with his constituents.
Moreover, the half-Italian, half-Irish Suozzi—a Jesuit-educated Catholic— couldn’t help but appeal to white ethnic voters wary of an Ivy League–educated Jewish liberal such as Spitzer likely to carry his Manhattan perspective into the statehouse if elected.
Would a smattering of open floor debate over Suozzi’s worldview versus that of nominee Spitzer have hurt the party of the people? Apparently.
Suozzi was barred from addressing the convention by old-line party rules dictating that only those with at least 25 percent of the delegates can do so. And in a wonderful catch-22–style interpretation, Democratic officials decided not to allow any candidates to address the floor prior to voting by state committee members. Suozzi, who made little effort in his pre-convention campaigning to gather votes from county party leaders, never had a shot at the 25 percent threshold. Instead, the candidate took his show outside to the Buffalo sidewalks where he hammered away at Spitzer, pointing out that the ultimate business-as-usual Democratic leader, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was sitting in the convention’s front row as one of Spitzer’s most prominent supporters.
“He’s getting nominated at a convention where they wouldn’t even let me speak,” Suozzi said of Spitzer at his May 30 rally.
“We were locked out,” said Suozzi campaign manager Kim Devlin.
The erstwhile party of open government adopted a similar bar-the-door approach to the single most important issue haunting its otherwise wildly popular incumbent, Senator Hillary Clinton: the war in Iraq.
Democratic Party officials had good reason not to want the Iraq issue to get much airtime at the convention. While Clinton brought overwhelming voter support into Buffalo—a Zogby poll of 744 statewide voters released while the Democratic confab was under way reported that she enjoyed an overall favorable rating of 60 percent—the same poll found that her position on the war was a potential stumbling block. Some 32 percent of people who said they were likely to vote in the November election said they would vote for any anti-war candidate rather than Clinton. “There is potential for an anti-war candidate to embarrass her,” said John Zogby on his polls’ findings. “Many New Yorkers are very opposed to the war, and they could send a message.”
The anti-war candidate looking to pull off exactly that stunt arrived in Buffalo after bicycling 600 miles across the state in a three-week tour aimed at reaching many of those voters unhappy with Clinton’s position on the Iraqi war. Jonathan Tasini, a 50-year-old journalist and labor leader, launched his campaign on a shoestring (he says he has raised about $100,000 so far) and zero name recognition. But he banked on the notion, backed up by Zogby’s survey and others, that many Democrats want to see Clinton challenged on her foreign- policy positions before she becomes a presumptive presidential candidate in 2008.
As step one in that process, Tasini brought along a petition with 2,500 signatures that the convention consider an anti-war resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. But when Tasini arrived at the convention, party officials refused to grant him credentials that would allow him access to the convention floor. After haggling with party bureaucrats, he finally obtained a guest pass, one that allowed him to work the corridors outside the main hall. “At least that allowed me to talk with the delegates as they were hanging out,” said Tasini.
His petition hit similar bureaucratic roadblocks. Democratic officials told Tasini the proposed resolution had arrived too late to be included in a packet presented to delegates and which would have allowed it to be adopted by a simple majority. As a late arrival, Tasini’s resolution would need two-thirds of the body for approval. Pushing the issue even further into the wings, party bigs ruled that no resolutions would be considered until after the candidate voting was completed—after which the media and many delegates stampede for the exits.
In a back-and-forth negotiation with party representatives and Clinton aides, a watered-down version of the resolution was eventually presented and passed by the convention. It termed the war “illegal”—a phrase Clinton has yet to invoke—and called for an end to hostilities but set no date for withdrawal.
“Jonathan’s campaign is about ending the war and about preserving civil liberties,” said Joanne Seminara, a party district leader and delegate from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who sought to present Tasini’s petition and candidacy to the convention. “Those are both issues that I am disappointed that Hillary has not come out for.”
“What’s remarkable,” said Tasini, who is now petitioning to force a primary against Clinton, “is that if I hadn’t come to the convention there would been no discussion about the war at all.”
But the most revealing episodes of old-style, heavy-handed arm-twisting by party bosses took place amid the only real Democratic horse race this year, the contest for attorney general nomination. Front-runner Andrew Cuomo was credited with a major victory when he logged an overwhelming 67 percent of the delegate vote, leaving the next highest contender, Mark Green, in the dust with 19 percent. Thanks to the party rules, Green too was denied a speaking platform at the convention, even though he was once the party’s senatorial nominee and held its banner in the 2001 mayoral campaign.
Yet Cuomo’s lopsided total was achieved only after some raw politics, the kind of tactics he and his father, Mario, both denounced at conventions past when they were the outsiders looking in.
Consider the case of Dilia Schack, a veteran Brooklyn Democratic leader who signed her proxy for Green weeks before the convention when she left the country for a trip to Israel, unsure whether or not she would attend the convention personally. After her return, Schack decided to go to Buffalo, but upon arrival she was hit with what friends termed “nonstop” pressure from top Democrats to switch to Cuomo, who had already been pledged support by the majority of Brooklyn’s delegation. Feeling ill, Schack decided just to go home.
At that point, the apparent goal wasn’t to make sure Cuomo made it past the minimum 25 percent threshold needed to get on the ballot, but to block Green or anyone else from qualifying for ballot status as well. The strongest pressure on Schack came from Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, the assemblyman who took over from the disgraced Clarence Norman. Lopez, who vowed to run the party with a new inclusiveness and openness, had a top aide chase Schack to the Buffalo airport. As the Daily News‘ Ben Smith reported, Schack was coaxed into signing a new proxy just after she passed through the airport security check on her way to her flight.
Schack refused to discuss the incident. “It’s too upsetting,” she said. But Lopez’s chief of staff, Allison Hirsch, confirmed to the Voice that she had gone to the airport with the new proxy form in hand and gotten Schack to sign it. “Vito’s goal as party leader is to have political credibility. The leaders, along with Dilia, had overwhelmingly endorsed Andrew, and Vito wanted to maintain that consistency.”