Bill Ryan Wins Primary, Then Dies. Whither Bella?


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September 21, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 38

Who’ll be the nominee?
by Phil Tracy

Death is a singularly unsentimental occurrence, especially when it’s mixed with the passing of power. So they waked Bill Ryan Monday night and after paying the briefest of tributes to his memory, the reformers honored him in their highest fashion by starting a fight over his job.

The lady most on everybody’s mind failed to appear Monday night. She was reportedly nursing her ailing mother and scheduled to attend the funeral Wednesday morning. Her only word to the press was a three-sentence statement of condolence to the Ryan family, and her closest associates were, for the moment, remaining mum. Her failure to appear and the brevity of comment from her and her supporters were unusual for the boisterous Bella, but at present it appears her surest path to succession is silence. Sooner or later everyone faces their own private test of strength. For Bella Abzug, the test may well be whether she can keep her mouth shut for the next two weeks no matter what the Ryan people say about her publicly.

The level of vituperation aimed at Bella by the Ryan camp Monday night was indeed high. They all but accused her of being personally responsible for the late Congressman’s death. While their grief was understandable, the logic of their accusations left some impartial observers cold. Abzug and Ryan fought a bitter primary which drained both of them, but exhaustion is simply not a cause of cancer. In the end, Bella was stomped nearly three to one. She may have been wrong in her judgment that Ryan was the easiest incumbent to challenge, but as an incumbent herself, with a respectable record of performance, she was certainly entitled to a shot at survival. The convention that Bella was wrong to challenge Ryan’s liberal credentials was translated during the course of the campaign into a belief that Bella herself was evil. Now that Ryan is dead, his followers are saying that Bella has no right whatsoever to a seat in Congress. At best, such a position can only be characterized as highly partisan. But then the reform movement is laced with highly partisan people, so the hope that power could be transferred without a bloody squabble is probably nothing more than a hope.

While a great many names have been tossed around in the last few days, the fact is there are very few candidates willing to challenge Bella’s right to the seat. Both Al Blumenthal and Jerry Kretchmer, two long-standing and well-known figures in the district with political bees independent of the Ryan camp, have already withdrawn themselves from contention. Both have aspirations in the direction of next year’s mayoral primary and have already made too many commitments to switch targets on such short notice. Ted Weiss, who three times ran for Congress in Bella’s old 19th District, has also indicated he has no stomach for playing foil to Abzug. Franz Leichter, a local Assemblyman, has not specifically denied he is interested but political observers feel he has neither the political clout nor the emotional ties to the Ryan people necessary to fuse a successful “stop Bella” movement. Paul O’Dwyer has indicated to some that he would be willing to serve as a compromise candidate if a deadlock developed but that is a perennial O’Dwyer position in most contests and far form a likely eventuality.

That leaves the Ryan people without an outside figure to rally around. Under the circumstances, Priscilla Ryan is their only hope for keeping Bella out of Congress. No one knows for certain whether Ryan’s widow is even willing to take the nomination at this point, but there is more than enough evidence that she is being pushed in that direction. As Myron Cohen, Ryan’s campaign manager in this spring’s primary, told one reporter bluntly, “I think she ought to run, especially if Bella is the only alternative.” Others within the Ryan camp admitted that discussions have been going as to whether Mrs. Ryan should seek the job ever since it became obvious that the athlete Congressman’s death was imminent.

Whether or not the reform movement is willing to swallow such a candidacy is another matter. A good many people who supported Bill Ryan last spring are not inclined to support his wife. Sarah Kovner, long active in West Side politics and a Ryan supporter in the primary, pointed out, “A good many people who supported Bill felt all along that the primary was an unfortunate choice between two good people. Now that they’ve lost one good congressman it doesn’t make sense to deny the other a seat. Most of those people would want to support Bella now and I would count myself among them.” Another factor working against a Priscilla Ryan candidacy is the question of nepotism. As one politico active in reform circles said, “What is this, Mississippi? How could the reform movement go along with it? What are we going to have, inherited seats?”

But the other side of the coin is Bella Abzug’s delicate condition. One slip of the tongue or a few unseemly remarks on the part of her supporters could put Bella out of the congressional ballpark for good. Under election law, the county committee members within the congressional district must meet and choose a new candidate within two weeks. While the antipathy toward Bella may not be as great as the Ryan people would like to think, the feeling of sorrow over Ryan’s death is not likely to abate quickly. Let a few of Bella’s lieutenants make some indiscreet overtures toward old Ryan loyalists and a backlash could develop which could catapult Mrs. Ryan into a seat she would normally never be considered for. It’s happened before.

Bella’s best strategy is to cautiously coax several prominent Ryan supporters into making some public statement, perhaps over the weekend, indicating they now favor her as the logical choice to succeed Ryan. Even in the early part of the campaign both Ryan and Abzug made a sufficient number of statements about each other’s meritorious record to more than justify such a move. Her overwhelming defeat can be attributed to Ryan’s popularity rather than voter rejection. And to finally cement the bond, a call for unity in the face of a Nixon sweep can be dragged out as the clinching argument.

In order to pull off such a coup, however, Bella will have to make a series of discreetly humble overtures to people who have opposed her in the past, a skill for which the Congresswoman has not been particularly noted in the past. And even if such a call for unity is issued, one can still expect the die-hard Ryan supporters to oppose her when the county committee finally meets. In all likelihood those close to the Ryan family will prevail, in their efforts to get Priscilla Ryan to become a rallying point, in which case a mean and ugly fight is almost certain to occur. If Bella wants back into Congress she will have to take a lot of abuse without lashing back. Only God and Bella Abzug know if she can do it.

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