Today was Day Two of the state Republican Party convention and the hot and heavy action on the delegate floor came early and often. These were rock-solid Republicans filling the big ballroom at the Sheraton Towers in midtown, but for all their rhetoric, they could just as easily have been an assembly of feuding radical student factions of yore, circa 1968.
“Let the People Vote!” came the chant from one end of the ballroom where Tea partiers filled the gallery.
“No Primary, No Way!” came the rejoinder.
“Just Say Yes!” screamed one side.
“Just Say No!”
At issue, as these verbal volleyballs flew back and forth, was whether or not the Grand Old Party should let former Democrat-turned-Republican Steve Levy take part in a primary battle against Rick Lazio, the party’s newly minted official nominee.
Lazio, the ex-senate candidate badly bested by Hillary Clinton back in 2000, won the first vote of the day, fair and square, with a whopping 60 percent of the delegates. Levy took 28 percent. The also-rans were a pair of businessmen-turned-temporary pols for our own good: Carl Paladino netted 8 percent; Myers Mermel copped just 4 percent.
In Levy’s case, had he been a long-standing, tried-and-true Republican, he would have automatically been entitled to challenge Lazio in a primary. This is how the rules work. But since he only discovered his inner GOPer this January, he needed the convention’s authorization to enter the race.
And here the debate was fully joined as party counsel Jeff Buley read the roll call, county by county, from Albany to Wyoming (Yates County was mysteriously disqualified.)
“We must empower the Republican grassroots, let the best man win!” crowed an upstate delegate, casting his “Yes” vote to let Levy run.
“Hell no!” bellowed Eric Ulrich, an otherwise innocent looking young city council member from Queens.
“We don’t need this in a primary for governor,” shouted Dan Halloran, also a new councilmember from Queens with even stronger lungs. “We need to fight the Dems. The answer is no!”
Claude Antoine, one of a handful of African-American delegates, swiped the great 1960s credo to make his point: “Let the people decide,” he cried. Tom Hayden couldn’t have said it better. You half expected Jane Fonda to take the mic next.
Fonda was a no-show, but Tim Furey, of Bayside, Queens did his best. “This is what differentiates us from the Democrats,” he thundered. “I vote yes!”
Paladino got to vote as a delegate from Erie County. The mega-millionaire from Buffalo broke from tradition to give his own nominating speech a couple of hours earlier. It was a classic stemwinder from the emailer-extraordinaire and, lest they be lost to history, here were some of his best lines:
“One of my opponents wants to use a whisk broom to clean up Albany; one won’t even use a mop. I’ll cleanup Albany with a baseball bat!”
And: “Andrew Cuomo calls himself a New Democrat. Well a new Democrat is an old Democrat who drove past a Tea Party protest and realized they were pointing at him!”
Since he entered the race a couple of months back, Paladino has insisted that he will spend $10 million of his fortune on his campaign, with a chunk of it to pay for a state-wide petition to get onto the ballot, no matter how many votes he got at the convention. When his turn came on the vote to let his rival, Levy, run as well, he was clear headed in denouncing the fuzzy-headed liberals who believed that rules of fair play applied here. “No Sheldon Silver Democrats in this primary!” Paladino yelled. “I vote no!”
The last say belonged to Wyoming County. “Wyoming votes last and we’ll settle it right here,” their leader announced. “Wyoming votes no!”
A few minutes later, the hapless state party chairman, Edward Cox, came to the microphone to announce that the people had spoken. Cox was Levy’s biggest booster, helping to lay the groundwork for his Democrat-turned-Republican transformation, urging as many of his party captains as he could to go with him. It was a long shot, but as political ideas go, it wasn’t a bad one. Democrats have 3 million more registered voters in the state, as Levy supporter John J. LaValle said from the floor, so Republicans begin every statewide race badly behind the eight ball. In the end, the old-school elephants weren’t interested in adopting an outsider. Like the first ballot of the day, Cox lost this vote as well.
“We have the results,” he announced wearily, “it is 42.6 percent for ‘Yes’ and 57.07 percent for ‘No,'” he said. Most of what he said was lost in wild cheers from the Lazio forces as they jumped up and down, furiously waving their blue and gold signs. The pro-Levy forces collapsed in their chairs, their white and blue signs sliding uselessly to the floor.
And that was that.
The experiment in Republican participatory democracy was over. Outside the ballroom, a phalanx of reporters and cameras pinned Levy to a blue-striped wall. He is a short man, but he usually gives great snarling sound-bites that make up for his stature. Reporters leaned and elbowed their way into the crowd so as not to miss a syllable of his rage. He had to be fuming, having been denied the elemental democratic right to enter a primary by party bosses obviously fearful of his powerful message. Wait, what was that he just said? No regrets?
“I have no regrets,” Levy repeated above the seething media mass. “This is democracy. I appreciate being given the chance to participate. We always knew it was an uphill battle. I had a shot to go out there and I did.”
Wait just a New York minute. This is not how true radicals suffer rigged defeats. They denounce the misleaders. They storm out of the convention with their many emboldened followers. They form their own true party to get the message to the masses.
Levy said he would think about all of that, but not too hard. “Maybe we’ll do a taxpayers’ party or something like that,” he said. “But this is America, for me it is all about policy.”
It was a good thing his troops inside couldn’t hear him, there is no telling how the Tea Baggers who trooped to midtown two days running to cheer his name might have reacted.
Outside on a steaming Seventh Avenue, there was even worse news for those in search of a Republican Spartacus. A top Paladino campaign aide was asked about the primary battle they’d been promising. “Uh, we’ll have an announcement on that,” the aide said. “We have some thinking to do on that question.”
So much for the great New York Republican revolt of 2010. The odds now start at Cuomo 60 – Lazio 40, with the biggest threat against the Democrat coming from the Democrat himself.