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LI Pols Fall Short in Statewide Races

Unhappy Base, Weak Message Dooms Candidates

Last Tuesday, Sept. 14, New York was one of the several states to hold the final round of primary voting in advance of the mid-term elections. The usual round of pundits made the usual round of commentary by missing a dubious story of the evening: None of the several Long Island-based candidates vying for statewide office, either Democrat or Republican, won their races. In fact, most of the second-place finishers were from either Nassau or Suffolk county office seekers.

From Nassau County, Attorney General primary candidate Kathleen Rice came in second in a hard-fought primary battle against the winner, Eric Schneiderman. In a multi-candidate field, Ms. Rice won 31 percent of the vote, only three points behind the winner. But despite being the early front-runner and gathering endorsements, including one from the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, the Garden City native simply could not overcome Schneiderman’s large base of support in New York City.

The race that grabbed headlines was the overwhelming victory in the GOP’s governor’s primary race by Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino over former Suffolk County congressman Rick Lazio. For months, Lazio held a lead in the polls, even though GOP operatives expressed doubts about his campaign, with some trying to recruit Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy as the gubernatorial standard bearer. In the weeks leading up the primary, Lazio held a double digit lead, one that nonetheless, was under 50 percent. By Election Day, the race was tied. Paladino’s victory was not a surprise, but the large margin was a big story.

In his campaign, Paladino touted specific tax and spending cuts. He also highlighted his Tea Party support. The Tea Party is not especially large in New York, but it has become a nationwide phenomenon, with its candidates now regularly dusting off their Republican Party-backed opponents. Prior to Sept. 14, such upsets were confined to such red states as Utah, Alaska and Kentucky. On Sept. 14, the Tea Party made its debut in the northeast. Not just New York, but also Delaware saw Republican Party favorites being swept away by Tea Party insurgents, while a Tea Party candidate fell only one percentage point short in the New Hampshire GOP Senate primary.

A Tea Party endorsement is not necessarily a silver bullet. Tea Party favorite Gary Berntsen, a Smithtown native, lost his Republican Party U.S. Senate bid to Orange County-based consultant Jay Townsend. Both men were vying to face incumbent Senator Charles Schumer in the fall campaign. The race received little media attention, but Berntsen was favored, succumbing, apparently, to the Long Island jinx.

In addition, Valley Stream native Bruce Blakeman, who once served as the first presiding officer of the Nassau County legislature, finished a distant third in the other GOP senatorial primary, this one for the chance to challenge Sen. Kristin Gillebrand. Blakeman finished behind New York City-based economist David Malpass and the winner, former Westchester County congressman Joseph DioGuardi.

Bad Times,

Bad Campaigns

Why the disappointing results? Both Nassau and Suffolk are two of the most prosperous suburban counties in America. Each year, they graduate large percentages of college students, a success rate that invariably produces ambitious young men and women such as Lazio, Ms. Rice, and former Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi. However, such budding politicians may have to confine their ambitions to a local office, rather than a high ranking one in Albany or a senate seat in Washington.

Longtime observers of New York state politics all weighed in on the evening’s failures.

James Altadonna, mayor of the Village of Massapequa Park, said the troubled state of the Long Island economy is the reason why Long Island candidates perform so poorly in statewide elections.

“To win, your base must be happy,” he said. “The Long Island base is not happy. They are discouraged with the environment they are in.”

The last Long Islander to win major statewide races was Alfonse D’Amato, who served as a U.S. Senator from 1981 to 1999. But that, Altadonna contends, was in the era of a different Long Island. “Nassau and Suffolk counties were thriving counties,” Altadonna said. “They were happy with their government.”

William C. Burton, village attorney for East Hills, felt a lack of publicity hurt the Long Island candidates.

“In order to be elected statewide, it appears you need statewide recognition at least a year ahead of [an election],” he said. Burton said Lazio, Ms. Rice and Blakeman were “too local.” “You just can’t be from Nassau County and expect to win. You have to work the whole state and let your achievements be known to everyone in the city and upstate.”

Two regular columnists for Anton Community Newspapers gave differing views.

Mike Barry noted the demographic obstacles facing Long Island candidates.

“One of the biggest hurdles for a Long Island candidate in a statewide Democratic primary election emerges when a prominent elected official from New York City enters the race,” Barry said.  “The city is home to most of the state’s registered Democrats and even a strong showing upstate and in the suburbs by a non-city candidate often cannot overcome the margins generated by a city-based candidate with broad institutional support. This scenario played out as a state senator from Manhattan, Eric Schneiderman, prevailed over Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice and in 2006 when a Manhattan-based state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, easily turned back a challenge from Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.

“The situation is a little different for Republicans,” Barry added.  “Long Island has a significant number of registered Republicans as a percentage of the statewide GOP vote but Erie and Westchester are filled with them, too, and those two counties are home to Buffalo’s Carl Paladino, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, and Ossining’s Joseph DioGuardi, the Republicans’ choice to run against U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.”

Mike Miller, a New Hyde Park-based consultant, believes it is thoroughly possible for Long Island candidates to win statewide primaries. But he added that in the past decade, there have been “common elements” in the losses.

“There needs to be a better rationale for a statewide campaign than, ‘I want this. I want to move up,’” he said. “None of these candidates had a solid, clear constituency in different parts of the state. None of them had a unique viewpoint, platform or public record that could attract an enthusiastic response across key party constituencies.

“All overestimated how well they would be received across the state after being coddled in the friendly bubble of Long Island’s local daily media and tight political circles. Once they were exposed to more intense scrutiny, what they said and what they actually did were tested in ways that seemed to take them by surprise, which shows a lack of professionalism in their campaigns and in their expectations.

“Appealing candidates with something real to say, and who say it clearly and consistently, can move votes and generate resources,” Miller continued. “They can be from Long Island, Buffalo or Manhattan.”