Driving the Steamroller

Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom

The cold farmland of Oswego, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence counties—north of Syracuse and alongside Lake Ontario—is the latest front in Eliot Spitzer’s battle to end GOP control of the State Senate. A Republican state senator there resigned last month, and if the Democrats can win a February 26 special election in the GOP-heavy district, Joe Bruno’s Senate majority decreases to just one seat. It’s an uphill battle but, to the governor, an important one. And so Ryan Toohey is in charge of it.

Toohey, a consultant, is Spitzer’s field general. “Ryan is unbeatable when it comes to reading the political pulse of the state,” says the governor. The two met in 1998, when a 22-year-old Toohey drove the attorney-general candidate around the state campaigning. Toohey is from Buffalo, and they talked upstate politics. When Spitzer ran for governor in 2006, Toohey was his campaign manager. He was chided for his youth and made headlines when he was arrested for drunk driving. Post-election, instead of taking a position on the governor’s staff, Toohey became a principal at Global Strategy Group, Spitzer’s go-to political consultancy, now on retainer for the state Democratic Party. And the party is now funding a $2 million campaign for Darrel Aubertine, a dairy farmer and local assemblyman, to win that vacant Senate seat.

“It ain’t easy,” Toohey says as he drives north from Manhattan. “But the reason we’re competitive is because we have a good candidate.” It also helps that it’s an off-season race, when Spitzer & Co. can focus on it. “If it were November and we had ten candidates running, we wouldn’t deploy resources here,” Toohey says. “But it’s not, so we are.” Toohey masterminded last year’s special-election campaign in Nassau County, where Craig Johnson’s victory chipped away at Bruno’s majority. Johnson’s campaign paid Global Strategy a half-million dollars. Aubertine has paid the firm $800,000 (about 95 percent of his total spending) in his run against Will Barclay, an assemblyman and the scion of a local political dynasty. The latest poll shows Aubertine leading by three points, within the margin of error.

“We’re playing in a place we’re not supposed to play,” Toohey says. “That’s kind of awesome.”

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Driving the Steamroller