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Grand Old Class War

In one of the stranger races in recent memory, a helmet-haired East Side matron and a former Yonkers mayor are in a mud fight for the soul of the New York GOP.

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Left, Kathleen Troia McFarland; right, John Spencer sfter a recent speech.  

In his pastel tie, Ed Rollins was all smiles and looking strangely father-of-the-bride at KT McFarland’s reception in the Garden City Hotel’s “Société Suite.” It was the night before the State Republican convention kickoff at Long Island’s Hofstra Arena, and all the pyrotechnic WELCOME REPUBLICANS! flower arrangements in the hotel lobby couldn’t compensate for the fact that as an event, this one was going to fall a little short on fireworks.

Rollins’s back was acting up, and he was propped against a wall of Versailles mirror. A 1964 Olympic-boxing-team alternate, Rollins spent eight weeks as Joe Frazier’s sparring partner before his political-consultant glory days. Lately, he has been gleefully pummeling John Spencer, McFarland’s opponent for the GOP senatorial nomination, with the object of sparking a class war among New York Republicans.

Spencer is the pro-life but anti-everything-else mayor of Yonkers, a community-college dropout, Vietnam vet, and 30-years-recovered alcoholic prone to fairly spectacular gaffes about women, gays, and immigrants. (“What the fuck?” is how Spencer reportedly reacted when McFarland, a Park Avenue housewife with long-ago White House and Pentagon experience, entered the race as a last-minute replacement after the party pushed out Jeanine Pirro.)

“I just want to bloody his nose a little,” said Rollins.

Even for a political showman and quote chimp like Rollins, it was quite a performance. His Santa beard barely concealed a smirk as he unpacked his charges a few weeks ago on NY1: Spencer was a bigamist, Rollins claimed, a guy who’d cheated on his wife with his chief of staff while virtually tripling her salary and fathering two “illegitimate children” with her. Spencer had sixteen relatives on the payroll, gave away more Lincoln Navigators than Bob Barker.

And “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Rollins said, allowing that perhaps this was business as usual in a rinky-dink burg like Yonkers, where Rollins actually has a house, in Waspy Bronxville.

Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland and her ilk don’t even consider Yonkers part of Westchester, one Spencer supporter lamented. “They look at it almost like Staten Island.” KT’s husband, Alan McFarland, confirmed this: “I don’t think any of these people that I’ve met have ever heard about John Spencer or thought about him or are likely to.”

McFarland is a pin-striped investment banker with an upturned Opie Taylor nose; further conversation colored in a life in which squash had played a curiously prominent role. Spencer’s candidacy, he said, was “some sort of background noise that happens in politics today.”

Blue bloods and blue-collars have always mingled uneasily in the GOP. Spencer was calling himself “the one and only Reagan Republican in this race,” but Manhattan’s liberal-leaning delegation was impressed by the girls handing out jelly beans on KT’s behalf who looked like they worked at Christie’s. Spencer considers Manhattan’s Republican county chair James Ortenzio “a nitwit,” he told me, “and all of his liberal geeky friends couldn’t get elected in a windstorm.”

Alan’s eldest from a prior marriage arrived at the reception in a bow tie. “In my neighborhood, if a guy showed up wearing a bow tie, we’d kick his ass,” muttered one Spencer supporter, standing off to the side. Spencer’s lovable galoots, by contrast, tend to speak a recklessly accented English, and some flashed creative shirt-and-tie combos.

Spencer talks about the night he was at a party “down in Manhattan,” and he was introduced to a socialite, a GOP moneybags.

“I’m the former mayor of Yonkers,” he told her.

“Oh, Yawnnkkers,” she replied. “That’s where our maids live.”

Spencer’s humble origins are a crucial part of his sell. Up close, the former construction worker has sun-scoured cowboy skin but somehow looks younger than his age, 59. The foster child of a country-club greenkeeper and his wife (who already had eight kids of their own), Spencer confessed that he’s wondered all his life why they didn’t formally adopt him.

“I never found out the rock-solid answer,” he said.

Spencer was on the Thruway, cell-phoning between the kind of engagements one campaign worker describes as “dairy this and cow that.” He was annoyed that some might consider Mrs. McFarland more senatorial on the basis of her education.

“ ‘Oy went to Augss-ford, and Oy went there on scholarship,’ ” he imagined KT saying, in his best British accent. “It’s wonderful you got a good education,” he continued, “but that surely doesn’t make you intelligent.”

Spencer insists he didn’t drop out of college: “I defiantly walked away from college after two years and said, ‘This is nonsense,’ and I joined the military. I went on to get my education the real way—working.” Spencer’s résumé deflation seemed a bit of a put-on. He doesn’t say that after he quit drinking, night-school courses enabled him to score a job as a Bankers Trust vice-president.


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