Conventional wisdom: NYS party politics 

Krestia DeGeorge

Steve Minarik seemed uncharacteristically subdued when he approached the podium in HofstraUniversity's arena. It was early Thursday afternoon, the final day of the state Republican Party's convention in Hempstead, Long Island, and balloting for the gubernatorial endorsement had ended moments before.

In the tone of a man announcing his own death sentence, he told the assembled delegates: "I am informed that John Faso received more than 50 percent of the weighted vote."

There may have been more, but if so, it was drowned out by the cheering from Faso supporters.

Their candidate's unexpected triumph may indeed have spelled a death sentence for Minarik's political career, at least at the state level. When Minarik announced the tally a few moments later, it was 59.5 percent for Faso (who came into the convention as something of an underdog) and a scant 40.5 percent for Weld, the favorite of the party's leadership. (Those figures were later revised to 61.2 percent for Faso and 38.7 for Weld.)

By the time Minarik went to the podium to announce Faso's victory, little doubt remained. Earlier in the day, the air in the arena had fairly crackled with tension. The contest taking place was something of a rarity these days: a political nomination for a major elected office where no one in the room knew for certain what the outcome would be. And it had all the trapping of an old-fashioned political showdown, complete with raucous supporters, cheering and jeering one another.

There's an old custom, practiced by both parties, where county chairs throw in self-promoting remarks about their county ("LewisCounty, home of the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi, votes for John Faso." "Schoharie County, Breadbasket of the American Revolution, casts all its votes for John Faso."). At last week's convention, chairs and candidate supporters alike transformed that into a means of last-minute, backdoor campaigning.

When the BronxCounty chair stepped to the microphone to declare "BronxCounty, home of the world-champion New York Yankees, proudly casts all its votes for Governor Bill Weld," a quick wit seated among the Faso supporters yelled back: "Go Mets!"

And by the time the voting had wound its way through the alphabet to WayneCounty, it was clear that every county surrounding Monroe had voted for Faso, contrary to Minarik's wishes. (The previous day, all five neighboring counties backed KT McFarland for US Senator, whom Minarik had tried to keep off the ballot.)

Wayne County Chair Dan Olson, perhaps eager to point that out to the rest of the party, seized his moment in front of the microphone, and eschewing the opportunity to praise his home county, offered this instead:

"WayneCounty, the next-door neighbor to MonroeCounty, casts all its votes for John Faso."

If it seems like all the needling here is one-sided, that's because it largely was. Talk at the convention was of the grassroots nature of Faso's campaign. Some delegates suggested it benefited from a backlash against the perception that party leadership (including Minarik) had prematurely anointed Weld the party's candidate. And when the leadership resorted to arm-twisting to reinforce that decision, according to some delegates, that had the opposite effect.

"I thought it was sort of interesting how every county around MonroeCounty voted for John Faso," Olson said after the vote. Based on his conversations with other delegates, Olson says he estimates that Weld's 40 percent backing might have been halved were it not for the behind-the-scenes efforts of leaders like Minarik.

While he can't say how those efforts played out elsewhere, he points out that the GOP has roots in Western New York and the abolition movement here, and a part of those roots included notions of fair play in politics. Some in this region still remember that, Olson says, which is why such efforts backfired.

They don't seem to have played well elsewhere, either. Minarik failed to secure his party's backing for Weld and failed to keep McFarland off the ballot. That's led many to suggest his days as head of the state party are numbered. One delegate from a New York City even told City Newspaper that there were rumors circulating that Minarik would step down before the convention's end. (That didn't happen.)

Olson was more circumspect.

"It's gonna be up to him," he said. "He was duly elected." Minarik, who first assumed the position in late 2004, with the backing of Governor George Pataki, told a gaggle of reporters at the convention's conclusion that he'd at least finish out the year. Likewise, John Faso dodged reporters' questions about whether he'd push to replace Minarik. But that can be only little comfort to the state party boss.

"I'm not a believer in this 'battle for the soul' of the party thing," he told reporters after the convention. But believe it or not, the battle is raging around him. Suffolk County Chair Harry Withers, in a speech nominating Faso, said: "Make no mistake about it: we are here fighting for the soul of the party." That battle is between the solid conservatism of Faso's branch of the party, and the remnants of New York's old Rockefeller Republicans, a more moderate species typified by Weld. That war may not be over, but the conservative wing of the party appears to have won this battle handily. (It will come as no small irony to local political observers that Minarik bet --- and may have lost --- his political future on the more liberal of the two candidates.)

There are indications that Faso will press his advantage while it lasts, remaking the party in his conservative image. In accepting the nomination, Faso had this to say: "As your candidate and when I am governor, I will make it a clear priority to rebuild our party." When candidates say that, they're not usually looking to buttress the power of the guy who tried to defeat them.

Minarik already seemed to be opening the back door for himself, saying in response to one query that he has "a family, a young family" and that the state chairmanship is a demanding job. To another reporter who countered the chair's upbeat assessment by asking whether he was happy with the day's outcome, he replied: "Happy about going home, yeah."

If Republicans aren't sure whom to rally around for the governor's race, Democrats, united for once, have the opposite problem.

At their convention at the Buffalo Hyatt last week, they chose Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to be their candidate for governor by a voice vote.

Sure, there's Tom Suozzi out there keeping things interesting, but virtually no Democrat of any prominence has endorsed him (with the exception of former Buffalo Mayor James Griffin). Spitzer's so popular he bests Suozzi or any likely Republican challenger by 60 percent or more in many public opinion polls.

No, the problem for Democrats is whether there's enough room at the table for all the adoring party regulars who, like so many groupies, are singing his praises now so they can curry favor with a Spitzer administration next year. Last week, underneath all the loud self-congratulation at the Dems' convention, came the first faint indication there might not be.

Suozzi, who's regularly ripped Spitzer for accepting the support of insider politicians and faithful party supporters like labor unions and trial lawyers, flung this gauntlet down at his rally a few blocks from the Buffalo convention center:

"First person to endorse him in New YorkState is Shelly Silver. You know who Shelly is? He's the head of the New York State Assembly, half of the same legislature that has been declared the most dysfunctional in the country."

But Spitzer may have dodged that punch before it was thrown. In his speech accepting the nomination, Spitzer hinted that Silver's branch of the legislature (and the power he wields because of it) might be diminished.

After denouncing "irresponsible spending" and "pay-to-play politics," he declared: "No more lifetime appointments to the state legislature. If you want to represent the people of New York, you are going to have to answer to the voters of New York."

That may not sound particularly inflammatory, but consider that in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 3, Republicans control the governor's mansion and the upper house of the legislature. That makes Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arguably the most powerful elected Democrat in the state, and his power hinges on his and his party's control of the Assembly. While redistricting reform wouldn't likely threaten the Democratic majority in that house, it would probably erode it some, and with it, Silver's clout.

But Spitzer's strength in the polls is such that for the moment he doesn't seem to need to promise anything to fellow Dems like Silver. One party activist with ties to the Spitzer campaign, speaking anonymously, suggested that the attorney general may be planning reforms that would rankle long-time Democrats --- though he declined to specify which reforms or which Democrats. And it's unclear whether a governor could unilaterally force redistricting reform onto a recalcitrant legislature.

Spitzer's strength in the polls also means that he's not forced to be very specific in his proposals, and thus far he hasn't been. Suozzi has tried to make the most of this. He's touted his own plans as being more specific and suggested that the attorney general hasn't committed to anything because he intends to mollify his base of support and forgo any meaningful reform. He expressed this in a memorable slam at his Buffalo rally, calling Spitzer "the general of the armies of the status quo."

But Spitzer's supporters offer a different spin on the missing specificity. They say Spitzer is committed to changing the culture of the capitol, but will wait until he's elected (because he can) to announce particular reforms. In the meantime, they say, he's using the campaign to build up overwhelming support that could translate into the tremendous political capital necessary to crack some heads in Albany.

In the meantime, of course, Silver is a still a force to be reckoned with. When Mayor Bob Duffy pushed for an additional million dollars as the state budget was being wrapped up, the Assembly came through. And in the wake of the collapse of the South Avenue Garage, it was the Assembly that helped Rochester secure emergency funds to repair it.

So for local Democrats, perhaps the most important moment didn't occur in the Buffalo Hyatt at all, but a few blocks north at Bacchus Wine Bar.

That's where Duffy hosted a party for Silver. The dinner was basically an elaborate thank you for the extra money Silver secured for the city during this budget cycle.

If you had asked many local Dems last year during the mayoral campaign if they could imagine Duffy in such a situation, they'd likely have said no. Throw in a speech from Assemblymember David Gantt, and the odds would've dropped to somewhere right around nil. But that was exactly the scene Tuesday evening, with nothing but compliments flowing among all three.

Lauding Duffy's persistence in Albany during his brief speech, Silver said that if local advocates like the mayor push hard enough, "the sky is the limit indeed for MonroeCounty."

That's a distinct possibility, says Assemblymember and Monroe Democratic Chair Joe Morelle. Morelle, who initially backed Duffy's primary rival Wade Norwood (who received Silver's endorsement, let's not forget), confessed to being surprised at the speed Duffy's learned the ropes in Albany. After the speeches were over and local party members milled about sampling fancy hors d'oeuvres, Morelle said of Duffy: "He probably has as good a relationship with the speaker as any mayor in New York."

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