Ticket Masters?

Ask an average citizen about 1970, and he’ll probably leap into a monologue about Kent State or lunar missions or the Beatles’ splitting up.

Ask a battle-worn New York Democrat about 1970, though, and the harrowing image that will force itself upon him will be the visage of Arthur Goldberg. Who was Arthur – glad you asked. Goldberg was a man of profound intellectual fecundity and ethical fiber who had, thanks to Jack Kennedy, served on the U.S. Supreme Court. A labor lawyer and human-rights advocate who resigned his U.N. ambassadorship on principle (those were the days!) over Vietnam, he accomplished much in life, but he is remembered chiefly in these parts for being the worst Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the modern history of the state of New York, demolished by incumbent Republican Nelson Rockefeller.

“Nineteen seventy,” reflects one old-timer, “was the year Rockefeller learned how cheaply you couldbuy Democratic bosses. ‘Whaddya need, boss? Just sit on your hands.’ I mean cheap! He couldn’t believe how cheap.”

Goldberg’s descendants may be smiling right about now, because 1998 could go down as the year the Democrats made Goldberg look good.

This week, as the party gathers in Rye for its quadrennial nominating convention, giving new meaning to the term Rye Playland, the disarray and confusion that have plagued the party will be put in sharp relief. The convention officially begins the process by which Democrats will nominate candidates for five statewide offices; the party will have done very well indeed if two people are swearing inaugural oaths next January.

Herewith, a quick rundown:

Governor. The conventional wisdom as I write is that only Peter Vallone, the speaker of the City Council, will receive at least 25 percent of the delegates’ votes – the threshold needed to secure an automatic spot on the September primary ballot. In fact, say various sources, Vallone is likely to bound over 50 percent, or even more, since delegates who are backing losing candidates tend to scamper toward the favorite as ants run to cake crumbs. So Vallone is likely to emerge from the convention the party’s anointed candidate (although the losers do have recourse – if you don’t get your 25 percent, you can also make the ballot by circulating petitions and gathering 30,000 signatures).

Vallone is a nice man, cut of wholesome cloth, but he just doesn’t have, you know, it. Besides, such an ascendance by Vallone would leave the party with a big problem called Betsy. Yes, that Betsy. She does have support, but it’s obvious that the vast majority of Democrats – even, on the q.t., some of those backing her – don’t want McCaughey Ross on the ballot. So you’d think keeping her below the magic number would count as a win. Until you realize, of course, that keeping her below 25 would be handing her a useful gift. You can hear her now, can’t you: “This proves that the old boys’ network is alive and well,” “It looks like some old-line Democratic leaders are threatened by a woman,” etc., etc. What Democratic leaders, old-line and new-, are threatened by is the possibility that voters will be duped by a candidate who as recently as three years ago was abubble with conservative rhetoric and who, it’s entirely plausible, would ex- or implode in some ghastly but entertaining manner if she actually had to endure a grueling campaign.

There are only two reasons to support McCaughey Ross. The first is to bow to her comparative fame. I call this the Ledru-Rollin Option, as put into bold action by West Side assemblyman Scott Stringer. Ledru-Rollin was a French politician who is purported to have espied a throng of Third Estaters on the march through the streets of his home arrondissement and shouted: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so I can lead them!” Stringer is not alone in believing McCaughey Ross may carry his district; all the same, this is not his finest hour.

The other reason, of course, is money: the Wilbur Option, if you will, named for McCaughey Ross’s husband, who’d better be careful these next few months lest he find his capacious pockets picked clean by various party factota (they don’t come quite as cheap these days). Nassau County leader Steve Sabbeth recently pursued the Wilbur Option, dropping fellow Long Islander James Larocca and going with Betsy.

Larocca describes the meeting at which Sabbeth broke the news to him thus: “His words to me were ‘This is not personal. I know you’re not gonna like it. I know you’re the best candidate. You know you’re the best candidate. Everybody knows you’re the best candidate. But this is about one thing and one thing only: money.’”

Sabbeth says that he was never committed to Larocca through the convention and that his backing was contingent on Larocca’s proving himself a capable fund-raiser. “His interpretation is a misinterpretation,” he says. “We were trying to do something nice for him, which we shouldn’t have tried to do.”

Larocca, as I’ve said before, is clearly the best candidate the Democrats have. Smart, good résumé, good demographics, good ideas, decent principles, prodigious commitment, a pleasant man to pass time with, and rather a handsome devil to boot. Virtually everyone you talk to does know he’d be the best, and says so privately. If someone in a position of power back in January had been brave enough to say so publicly, the party, while it still would probably lose in November, at least would have done something interesting, alive, worth fighting for.

Joe Hynes, who’s never really been able to achieve speed at a statewide level, stands a chance of getting 25 percent. Richard Kahan is the smartest of the five, but he never caught any fire.

Lieutenant Governor. An impressive young attorney named Charlie King wants to be the No. 2. Democrats are worried. About his address: It is possible that Democrats will nominate a ticket composed entirely of Manhattanites. The party elders plan to take care of this difficulty by sacrificing poor King, meaning that the party still might present a ticket of Manhattanites with a token suburbanite or upstater in the one post no one pays a lick of attention to. Some want Larocca to accept the job.

Comptroller. Incumbent Carl McCall will face no opposition – certainly not from Democrats, and probably not from Republicans either. That junket to Israel with the governor didn’t hurt, evidently.

Senate. Chuck Schumer has the most support among pols, then Gerry Ferraro (ahead in meaningless polls but running a bumbling campaign), then Mark Green. But all three will probably reach 25 percent. Their problem awaits them in the form of the $20 million man from Hempstead.

Attorney General. Dennis Vacco is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent. Among Dems, attorney Eliot Spitzer leads the pack; State Senator Catherine Abate has run clumsily so far but will get 25; former AG Ollie Koppell will gain ballot status but is more popular with politicians than with voters; attorney Evan Davis seems a good sort who announced too late.

There you have it. No future Franklin Roosevelts in the bunch; Arthur Goldbergs, we don’t know yet.

Ticket Masters?