Question: when is a Democratic primary really less about what Democrats want than what Republicans want?
This year, the vast majority of the 60 Assembly members and 24 senators who represent our city in Albany will seek re-election. Most will face no or nominal opposition; a few will face primaries, most of which reflect mere local turf battles.
But in one Democratic primary, the Republican mayor has chosen to interject himself by making an endorsement. That is an astonishingly rare development, and when something like it happens, it’s worth figuring out why.
The race is the upper Manhattan State Senate primary between incumbent Eric Schneiderman and challenger Guillermo Linares. What’s at stake here? Let’s have Denny Farrell sum it up. Farrell, the state Democratic Party chairman, is officially neutral, but he grasps that this contest is less about which of these ideologically similar Democrats represents this district than about State Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno’s drive to maximize his political power.
“If we allow Schneiderman to lose this race,” Farrell says, “we allow Joe Bruno to control the Democratic Party.”
Republicans now occupy the mayor’s and governor’s mansions, but historically, they have one reliable stronghold – the State Senate, where they have held a majority since Broadway was a wagon path. The current GOP margin is 11 seats, 36 to 25, and though that sounds like a lot – and it is – Republicans can read voter-enrollment figures, which are trending Democratic. Any potential crack in the State Senate wall mortifies them.
Democrats as a group have never seriously challenged GOP control of the Senate. But a handful of Democrats have been annoying partisan troublemakers, chief among them Richard Dollinger of Rochester and Eric Schneiderman, the former as a deputy to minority leader Marty Connor, the latter as chairman of the campaign committee that recruits challengers to Republican incumbents – that is trying, in more emphatic words, to seize control of the great Republican fort.
This was a redistricting year in Albany. So when the new district lines for state senators came out, guess which two incumbents found their old fiefdoms most dramatically altered?
Dollinger’s was recut to include Republican-leaning suburbs of Rochester, making him vulnerable to a GOP challenge. It didn’t stop there: Next, the Republicans went out and persuaded a conservative Democratic assemblyman, Joe Robach, to switch parties and challenge Dollinger. And they reportedly gave Robach 1 million very good reasons, as they say, to do it. Dollinger sized up the situation and promptly announced his retirement. “I would have to raise something approximating half of that,” Dollinger says. “That’s just very hard to do up here.”
One down, one to go.
When it came to Schneiderman, Republicans turned to race in redrawing the lines. Schneiderman’s current district is a mostly white amalgam of the Upper West Side and Riverdale. The new district takes in vast swaths of heavily Latino Washington Heights.
But the Republicans’ goal wasn’t really minority empowerment. According to State Senator David Paterson, an African-American legislator from Harlem who’s backing Schneiderman, a stronger Latino district could easily have been drawn that would have all but guaranteed a Linares win while at the same time preserving most of Schneiderman’s turf and his own. “I, with a crayon and half of one eye, could have drawn the district,” Paterson says.
The ocular metaphor is a reference to the fact that he’s legally blind, but to the game that’s being played here, Paterson’s eyes are wide open. What the GOP drew was not a Latino-empowerment district but a “get Schneiderman” district. And, mirabile dictu, they’ve got Democrats helping them!
Roberto Ramirez and Luis Miranda, two of the leading advisers to Fernando Ferrer’s mayoral campaign, are leading the charge, with assists from Bill Lynch and Charlie Rangel. Ramirez and Miranda spearheaded the strategy that sought to turn Mark Green into a racist during his runoff with Ferrer. Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic chairman at the time, also kept the county headquarters shuttered on general-election day, ensuring that Green had few troops in that borough.
To hear Ramirez and Miranda tell it, Linares got into this race entirely of his own accord, and they’re supporting him only because they’re all such good old friends. No doubt they are; and, I should note, Linares is a lovely guy with a good track record as a city councilman. But many people suspect there’s something more afoot here, and for two compelling reasons. The first is personal between Schneiderman and Ramirez. It has to do with a Bronx Republican state senator named Guy Velella. Ramirez has long had a mysterious entente with Velella that has infuriated some Bronx Democrats, who believe that Velella – a Republican in a Democratic area – could be defeated. In 1996, Ramirez went so far as to give Velella the Democratic ballot line, a highly unusual thing for a Democratic leader to do. In 2000, when Schneiderman recruited a strong candidate to run against Velella, Ramirez opposed her. “Roberto did everything he could to beat me,” says Lorraine Coyle Koppell, who was that candidate and got a respectable 46 percent of the vote. Velella faces a new opponent this year – and oh, yeah, he’s under indictment on bribery charges.
So much for the personal. Now to the political – or, more precisely, the ideological. Since last year’s mayoral race, it has become apparent that, just as Naderites hate Democrats more than they hate Republicans, so have some apostles of empowerment politics decided that white liberals are the real enemy. These Democrats know perfectly well that they’re helping the other party, but as long as it means they’re hurting people like Green and Schneiderman, they’re happy to do so. “Beating him is something they probably can’t do,” Paterson says. “But they can impair him for all time. They’re trying to create the kinds of feelings around Eric that now exist in some quarters around Mark Green.”
Ramirez insists he’s barely even involved in this race. “Mr. Schneiderman does not occupy very much of my time, except for this phone call,” he says. To Ramirez, Schneiderman is the one being divisive: “He is instilling fear into the hearts of people, which I find offensive… . He is the one who is making this racial, and I would counsel him to concentrate on the merits of his campaign.”
How does all this play into Republican plans? First, they bottle up Schneiderman so he can’t spend the summer recruiting candidates to challenge GOPers. “The Republicans have openly acknowledged that keeping me wrapped up in a primary means I won’t be able to do as effective a job heading the Senate campaign committee,” Schneiderman says. Second, they get to look, to people who don’t know any better, like champions of empowerment. Thus, Mike Bloomberg’s endorsement of Linares. If Bloomberg were merely interested in empowerment, well, there’s a Republican candidate for this seat, too, and he is also Latino. The mayor’s backing of Linares gives away the game.
Fortunately, not everyone’s falling for this. Schneiderman has a strong track record on issues of minority concern, from a civil-rights lawsuit against a subway-fare increase he argued years ago to his work on sweatshops to fighting for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws. Carl McCall has endorsed him, as have Dennis Rivera, Comptroller Bill Thompson, Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields, Dominican leaders like Rafael Lantigua of Alianza Dominicana, and the heavily Latino UNITE textile union. “Guillermo’s a good guy,” says UNITE’s Wilfredo Larancuent, “but this is not the moment or the time.”
Will the world end if Eric Schneiderman is not a state senator? No. But his defeat would equal one more nail in the coffin of a party that, if it permits such nonsense to continue, could find itself sitting back and watching as George Bush carries New York in 2004. Joe Bruno may be wielding this hammer, but it’s his Democratic pals who are steadying the nail.