The Political Machine Age


McCain, Obama will debate at a historic political site tonight.

All eyes will focus tonight on the Obama-McCain debate in Hofstra University’s basketball arena, but none of the talking heads will note the Long Island school’s unique spot in political history.

It’s a perfect place for a campaign event: Hofstra is believed to be the only U.S. university to ever name a major campus building for a politician convicted of a felony — after the pol was found guilty in federal court and went to prison.

Too bad that the magnificent 22,500-square-foot Joseph M. Margiotta Hall wasn’t quite big enough for the presidential debate.

Margiotta’s all but forgotten, but until the ’80s he led the most powerful political machine in the country: the Nassau County GOP. He set the standard in political patronage, and the machine was a behind-the-scenes power in national GOP politics for decades.

The Nassau GOP seized control just after World War I and ruled the now-populous suburban NYC county for the rest of the century. As the New York Times noted in November 2001, when the machine was finally losing its grip:

In its heyday, Nassau County produced national leaders, including two national Republican chairmen, Leonard W. Hall, during the Eisenhower administration, and Richard N. Bond, in the first Bush administration. It also produced a director of central intelligence, William Casey. Nassau’s progeny in state politics included a United States senator, Alfonse M. D’Amato . . .

Until federal prosecutors finally nailed him, Joe Margiotta was king of the county. But as Newsday‘s handy bio, “The Fall of Joseph Margiotta,” notes:

Finally, on Dec. 9, 1981, Margiotta’s unchallenged power came to a crashing end when a federal jury convicted him on charges that he had presided over an illegal insurance fee-splitting scheme that enriched his political cronies. A judge later sentenced Margiotta to two years in prison, despite a parade of character witnesses that read like a Who’s Who of the Island’s community leaders.

After Margiotta was sent to prison, Hofstra named its plush new football-lacrosse headquarters after him.

But the honors didn’t stop there. At its May 2001 commencement ceremonies, Hofstra gave Margiotta an honorary degree. It was his first — if you don’t count the first-degree that federal prosecutors previously gave him.