Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Hail The Conquering Hero

Can you sell a conservative good ol' boy from Texas to a bunch of liberal New Yorkers? George W.'s team thinks you can. And guess what? Jerry Seinfeld already wrote them a check.

ShareThis

The state capitol in Albany empties out in August, and those with important political business must travel 37 miles north to the picture-perfect racetrack at Saratoga Springs, where the Thoroughbreds are running and politicians have taken over the clubhouse. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani glad-hands through the crowd one day (as state representative Rick Lazio glumly looks on). And later, Bill Powers, the former Marine who runs the Republican State Committee, holds court in the governor's box. Barrel-chested, with snow-white hair and hard blue eyes, Powers is wearing khaki trousers, a navy blazer, a blue-and-white striped shirt, and a gray silk tie with gold elephants. His wife, Judy, sits beside him as ceiling fans twirl overhead. Whenever Powers sallies forth, party regulars snap to attention. "Hello, Mr. Chairman!" a telegenic assemblyman chirps as he spots Powers coming down the clubhouse stairs. "How are you, Mr. Chairman?" a state senator wants to know. "Are you enjoying the summer?" Powers is famous for intimidating the fractious Republican troops into order. It's a reputation he cherishes.

"We're sometimes accused of running a tight-fisted organization," he says, throwing me a practiced glare, "and, uh, we try."

In the third race, Powers puts money on Country Hideaway, a 3-year-old bay favored to win. "Aaaaannnnnd they're off!" booms the announcer. He eats a salad, glances at the track, and reminisces about a trip he took to Texas last spring. The Hearst publishing empire sent him there to address employees of their newspaper in San Antonio. As soon as the lunch ended, Powers sped north to Austin, where he pulled up before the Four Seasons, a four-star hotel next to the slow-moving Colorado River. The hotel's lobby is done in cowboy chic -- all pony skin and horns -- and was full of legislators and lobbyists hobnobbing and cutting deals the way politicians and lobbyists do in hotel lobbies in state capitals everywhere. Powers went upstairs to meet Texas governor George W. Bush. The only other person in the room was Don Evans, a Texas oilman who now serves as Bush's national finance chair. "It was supposed to be a 40-minute meeting," Powers recalls, "except that it went on for three and a half hours. I haven't been so captivated by a national candidate since I first met Ronald Reagan."

Of course, when the talk turned to the details of campaigning in New York, Powers still felt obliged to resort to his drill-sergeant routine. He glowered at Bush; Bush glared right back at him. For Powers, this was the highlight of the trip. Browbeating a young fella! Discovering that he had the audacity to bully back! If the Bush campaign really started to take off, Powers wanted to make sure that New York was part of the action. "We talked about what he stood for and where he wanted to go," says Powers. "Being a typical New Yorker, I did a lot of talking. I told him what I thought he had to do." Powers isn't saying what the exact details of the battle plan are, but he does admit that he instructed Bush to make campaigning in New York a priority. Reagan spent time in the state and carried it twice; George W.'s father spent his money elsewhere and lost New York both times.

Powers takes me over to meet Thomas Ognibene from Queens, the Republican leader on the New York City Council. Ognibene wears a black silk shirt and gray slacks, his frizzy white hair forming a sweat-soaked halo. I ask what his city-dwelling constituents could possibly have in common with a pro-life, pro-gun, boot-wearing Texan who talks with a twang. "We don't think of him like that," explains Ognibene, as if he's giving instruction to a small child. "We think of him as a winner."

Bill Powers, George Pataki, Al D'Amato, Rudy Giuliani -- and just about every other New York Republican who still has possession of his faculties -- have adopted this brash, charming Texan as their best hope to lead the party to victory around the state. The scenario appeals to Bush, of course, because if he can make it here, he can probably make it to the White House. "He's guaranteed to carry Texas," says Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari. "And his brother can carry Florida. Which means that if we can carry New York for him -- well, he doesn't need a lot more than that to win." Reagan's victories here secured his election in both 1980 and 1984, and no Democrat since Truman has been able to make it to the White House without the state. Assembly minority leader John Faso likes to refer to the 1988 election to make the point that New York is eminently up for grabs: Another 2 percent and Bush père would have beaten Dukakis here. And with a Republican as governor this time (Cuomo was still governor in 1988), Faso believes George W. Bush will have no problem nailing down that margin.

Over the past year, Bush has been quietly wooing a parade of powerful New Yorkers. One by one, they've made the trek to Austin and come back as converts. Bill Paxon was down in December, Rudy Giuliani was there in April, and PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico recently made the trip. Bush zealots are convinced that as the birthplace of moderate "Rockefeller" Republicanism, New York will prove fertile ground for Bush's "compassionate conservatism." They look at his success in attracting black and Hispanic voters and swoon at the prospect of winning a multicultural majority here. The list of Bush's New York donors is surprisingly eclectic, and, yes, it does include Jerry Seinfeld.

In three weeks, Bush will make his first campaign appearance in New York City, at a mega-fund-raiser at the Sheraton Hotel. Local Republicans have seized on the October 5 event as a chance to show their devotion and signal that New York is now in play. "I'm encouraging all of my friends and all of the people who've traditionally supported me to be supportive of this event," says Al D'Amato. "It's important to keep the momentum going." From the way things are shaping up, the fund-raiser will certainly accomplish that. "I think they'll be pleased with what happens in October," says Faso. "This is probably going to be the biggest fund-raiser in the history of the Republican Party in New York. This is going to dwarf anything that was done in '96."

That kind of talk pleases everyone in the locked suite on the second floor of the building in downtown Austin where the Bush campaign has its headquarters. "If you look at the trends," says Maria Cino, Bush's political director, "New York is ripe for the picking. Look at Pataki's election and re-election." Cino is an Italian Catholic from Buffalo, New York, and as one of the only non-Texans in the top ranks of the Bush operation, her presence is a dead giveaway that Bush takes New York very seriously indeed.

She's a small woman with cropped brown hair, hazel eyes, and trendy glasses. On this August afternoon, seated in her Austin office, she is wearing black slacks, a taupe sweater, small gold hoop earrings, and a red-white-and-blue bush pin. Her Republican credentials are impeccable. She ran Bill Paxon's first campaign for Congress and followed him to Washington. She did a stint at the R.N.C., then served as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee under Paxon's leadership. Cino is dogged, cheerful, and absolutely convinced that she can swing her home state. The Bush assault begins next month, with a whirlwind tour capped by the New York City fund-raiser. "We'll start at one end of the state and go all the way to the other," she says. The goal is simple: Unify Republicans, raise truckloads of money, and, most crucial of all, seduce as many Reagan Democrats as possible back into the fold. "Look outside of New York City," she says. "What you find are a lot of conservative ethnic Catholics who are ready to vote for a Republican for president, if we offer them a good alternative."

Roland Betts doesn't have to make a special pilgrimage to Austin to see George W. Bush, because for three decades now, Bush has been coming to New York to see Betts. Nobody in New York knows George W. Bush better than Roland Betts, and nothing explains the Texan's surprising potential as a New York candidate than his friendship with this liberal Manhattan businessman. In New York City, Bush's most important allies are Betts, Staten Island pol Guy Molinari, and conservative investor and chief fund-raiser Robert Wood Johnson IV. The Texas-size differences in style and politics between these three men gives a clear sense of the potentially unwieldy breadth of Bush's support: Three more unlikely amigos would be hard to find.


Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising