Serph’s Up


Last week we woke up to a New York more Democratic than at any time since 1942, when the party last controlled all six statewide offices. Just eight years ago, Republicans occupied half these once hotly contested posts—governor, lieutenant governor, senator, comptroller, and attorney general—but on Election Day, the GOP was even overwhelmed by a Democrat savaged daily by media and official demands for impeachment. Beyond the near record victory margins for Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton, and the relatively modest triumphs of Alan Hevesi and Andrew Cuomo, the Democrats, incredibly, added three seats to their gluttonous 105-seat majority in the 150-seat assembly. In addition, three upstate and suburban GOP congressional strongholds fell to Democrats.

Yet remarkably, despite this groundswell, virtually nothing changed in that grizzled and white-haired old-men’s club called the New York State Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans since 1964. Democrats gained just a single, still-disputed seat, apparently defeating Westchester incumbent Nick Spano, but allowing Republicans to still claim veto power over the Albany agenda through a muscular 34-to-28 senate majority. A tribute to the genius of computerized reapportionment, the GOP senate victory was also a commentary on the calamity of Democratic strategy and resolve, even in a year of historic opportunity. Little of the multimillions spent by the statewide Democratic players trickled down to the troops in the senate trenches, and the compromises that local party leaders have made with their GOP counterparts over the years came back at prime time to haunt the senate effort.

As surprisingly minimal as the shift in the balance of power was, the real shock came from within the boundaries of this very Democratic city, where the dominant party failed to seriously compete for any of the four seats held by incumbent Republicans.

Marty Golden, a mere two-term GOP incumbent from a district in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn previously represented by a Democrat, wound up with no opponent at all and strolled toward his office smoking a fat victory cigar at 5 p.m. on Election Day. Democrats nominated a gay attorney, Matt Titone, for an open seat in heavily Catholic Staten Island, taking a 10,000-vote loss and no advantage of the decision by 50-year GOP incumbent John Marchi not to seek re-election. Nora Marino, who challenged Queens Republican Frank Padavan, was an untested lawyer who couldn’t win 40 percent of the vote in a district that’s almost 70 percent Democratic. Two term-limited Democrats in the City Council, Mike McMahon and Tony Avella, passed on entering either the Staten Island or Queens races, as did assembly incumbents, uninspired by the muted party calls to arms.

But the biggest story in the subterranean senate catastrophe surfaced in another Queens senate district, represented for nearly 18 years by Serph Maltese, who doubles as the chairman of the Queens Republican Party. Maltese barely beat an obscure maverick, Albert Baldeo, who could not even get the Queens Democratic party to designate him a candidate, or even to support him. In half a dozen interviews over the weeks leading up to the election, senate Republicans and Democrats failed to list the two-to-one Democratic seat as even remotely competitive, yet Baldeo came within 783 votes of beating the supposed powerhouse Maltese, garnering almost 49 percent of the vote. Maltese himself was so oblivious to the seriousness of the threat that he spent much of Election Day making cookie runs to campaign volunteers and chatting with a Voice reporter.

Amid munches on an anaconda-sized sub sandwich at his GOP headquarters, beneath a giant print of Christopher Columbus, Maltese contended that Baldeo was attempting to convince voters that he was Italian. “Since the campaign began, he has never shown up at a single community event,” said the 74-year-old incumbent, who also once chaired the county’s Conservative Party. “What’s the reason? I believe that’s because he’s very dark and he didn’t want the average voter to know he’s Guyanese. Even the Italians think he’s Italian. My name doesn’t sound as Italian as his.” Since Baldeo’s posters contained no photo of him, Maltese said his wife wanted him to put “Call Missing Persons” on his own leaflets attacking Baldeo. Maltese offered no explanation for why a phony Italian might almost have almost beaten a real one who’d controlled the district for nearly two decades.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent virtually none of its $2 million war chest on city candidates and barely talked to Baldeo, who proved to be its strongest losing candidate in the state. Baldeo’s astonishing near-success is a measure of how strong the Democratic wave was, and how ineffective both the senate and Queens Democratic operations were in recruiting candidates. Baldeo, an immigration lawyer, put himself on the ballot without any party help. Democratic officials distanced themselves from him because he was arrested last year when he ran for City Council, spending a night in jail after he allegedly threatened his opponent’s wife with a gun. He and his opponent eventually agreed to drop charges against each other, but party officials wanted nothing to do with him, or to support any alternative.

Early in 2006, City Councilman Joe Addabbo publicly toyed with the notion of running, but senate sources say he got no encouragement from the Queens party brass either. Even now, Baldeo says he’s not getting any help from Queens officials in the legal challenge he hopes to mount against the election results, alluding to the possibility that “some truce” involving Maltese and the party exists.

In fact, the free pass for Maltese was a by-product of a non-aggression pact between him and Queens Democratic bosses that dates back decades, to when Tom Manton, the Democratic leader who died earlier this year, was still in Congress. Maltese gave Manton the run of his life in 1984 and then made peace. “He and I were friends,” explains Maltese. “We were both Korean War veterans. Two years after the 1984 race, he said, ‘You going to go this time?’ I said, ‘Tom, if you get hit by a truck tomorrow, I am not running for Congress.’ Four years after that, I ran for senate. He was happy and I was happy.” After Manton became ill, the gang around him was so friendly with Maltese that opposing him remained unimaginable.

Maltese has also routinely given the Republican line on the ballot to Supreme Court judges handpicked by Manton, though Maltese sometimes fails to cross-endorse blacks or women nominated for the bench by Queens Democrats, as he did this year. Manton and two of his law partners have raked in millions in fees from Queens Surrogate Court, and last year, Maltese did not run a Republican candidate against the surrogate that Manton arranged an initial, 14-year, term for in 1991. Manton and Maltese also manuevered last year to put a Manton-tied judge, Lawrence Cullen, on the Pataki-appointed Court of Claims, while Manton elevated Pataki’s counsel to a Queens Supreme Court vacancy.

“Tommy and I cooperated on that,” Maltese told the Times‘ Joyce Purnick in February. “We have a cooperative relationship for the people of Queens. There is nothing improper or unethical about that.” In a more recent interview, Maltese freely discussed two other times he and Manton had reached a judicial agreement. The arrangement did mean, however, that until Baldeo, no Democrat had run against Maltese in 12 years. One senate leader recalls Manton telling him Maltese was “a friend” when he approached the resistant party boss about fielding a candidate against him.

Baldeo’s near-win may end the arrangement, however. Addabbo said in a pre-election interview that he would be watching how Baldeo did, predicting that his numbers might be “very interesting.” Saying that 2006 wasn’t “the right time” for him, Addabbo added: “I suspect things might be different a couple years from now.” A recent federal court decision eliminating the judicial nominating conventions that have allowed party leaders to jointly handpick Supreme Court judges has ended the prime rationale for this relationship. Malcolm Smith, a Queens state senator, has been unofficially selected as the new minority leader, and will replace lieutenant governor designee David Paterson in January, making it in the interests of the county party to take both Republican seats.

Mike Reich, the party’s executive secretary and a law partner of Manton’s, expressed confidence on Election Day that Addabbo and Avella, who’s created a committee for a 2009 mayoral candidacy, would run for senate in 2008, potentially giving Smith two of the three new seats he’d need to control the senate. The new county leader, Manton protégé Joe Crowley, who also took over Manton’s congressional seat, says he’s committed to making Smith majority leader and is salivating for 2008. “I have a relationship with Serph and I respect him,” says Crowley. “We both have jobs to do.” Smith is an active alumnus of Christ the King, a Queens Catholic high school whose board Maltese chairs, and is also friendly with the likable senator. But he is unlikely to be able to figure out a way to win the senate without finishing the job Baldeo has begun.

Arrangements similar to Maltese and Manton’s prevented a race in Brooklyn, where one party leader said that Golden made it a point to help Democratic senators on reapportionment and “member item” grants to their districts. Democrats like Senator Carl Kruger and Assemblyman Peter Abate, whose districts intertwine with Golden’s, are seen as so cozy with him they discourage competition, as does Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, whose GOP ties are legion.

In Staten Island, McMahon, perhaps Richmond county’s most popular Democrat, is biding his time for a run for borough president in 2009. By staying out of the senate race, he may have cemented his ties with the island’s powerful Conservative Party, whose leader, Jim Molinaro, the current borough president, had his own candidate in the race early on. McMahon calls any suggestion of a deal an “unfounded rumor,” but he has run with Conservative Party support in the past, and both he and term-limited Molinaro have to give up their current posts in 2009. He says that running with the party’s backing three years from now “is certainly something any candidate would consider.”

Faced with these obstacles in the city, Eric Schneiderman and Liz Krueger, the two Manhattan state senators who ran this year’s campaign, focused their resources on protecting Syracuse incumbent David Valesky and taking another shot at Spano, who beat repeat challenger Andrea Stewart-Cousins by 18 votes two years ago. Schneiderman invoked Stewart-Cousins’s 2,000-vote win as justification for their strategic choices, though the committee may have overspent in Syracuse, where Valesky coasted to a 19-point triumph. The committee invested next to nothing, for example, in the campaigns of Suffolk County aide Jimmy Dahroug, who got 45 percent of the vote against 80-year-old Caesar Trunzo, or Susan Zimet, an Ulster County legislator pitted against the lackluster John Bonacic, though both were regarded as competitive races.

In fact, Eliot Spitzer was the biggest outside booster of the underfunded Senate Dems, and he will arrive in Albany in January having incurred the wrath of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. He dispatched a campaign aide to work full-time for Zimet, wrote sizable checks to several campaigns, hosted fundraisers for the senate committee, and made repeated appearances on behalf of senate candidates. Spitzer even used his own consultants to cut television commercials featuring him for Stewart-Cousins and Brooke Ellison, a 28-year-old quadriplegic Harvard grad who mounted a stem-cell-based, losing campaign against an entrenched incumbent on Long Island. Spitzer will also have more leverage over Bruno than the outgoing Pataki, fueled both by the size of his mandate and the real prospect that, should he decide to lead the charge for senate Democrats in 2008, the GOP might lose its last bastion of power.

Schneiderman, who lost to Smith in the fight to succeed Paterson as minority leader, insists that “this was a very good year for us.” He refuses to comment on the reluctance of local leaders like Manton and McMahon to join the battle and sees the Democratic strategy as incremental. “Every seat we win,” Schneiderman argues, “it’s that much easier to win the next seat. We deserve an A.” Schneiderman says there are seven or eight Republican seats where Democrats “have an enrollment advantage or close to it,” and he expects that in a high-turnout presidential year, they will finally take the majority. But in an interview before the election, one consultant tied to some senate Democrats called it “a treasonable offense,” contending that “the lack of preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is the biggest waste I can think of in the last 20 years.”

Albert Baldeo proved his point.

Reasearch assistance: Adam Fleming, Keach Hagey, Luke Jerod Kummer, and Damien Weaver