New Yorkers for Kerry

Photo: Robert Grossman

Charles Rangel is comfortable in the role of kingmaker, and on a recent morning, he was playing the part with gusto. It was Monday, February 23, and Rangel was backstage in the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, waiting to make a grand entrance with the man standing by his side—John Kerry.

In the main room, an audience of 200 and a stageful of elected officials and local potentates waited patiently. These were Rangel’s people, the men and women he would proudly deliver for Kerry as the national media looked on.

The crowd erupted as Rangel strode forth with Kerry in tow. The congressman carefully positioned himself in front of the candidate and the officials—fellow members of congress, city councilmen, labor bosses. Clutching a mike, he lowered his voice solemnly as he accused Bush of “stealing an election from us in Florida,” eviscerated Bush’s economic record, and lampooned his “mission accomplished” flight suit.

“When someone parades around saying he’s a war president, it’s time for the Democratic Party to get a warrior,” Rangel said, his voice rising to a crescendo. “Someone who has three Purple Hearts … I’m telling you, when your kids and grandkids ask you, ‘When they were trying to steal our flag away from us, what did you do?,’ remember today. Right here in central Harlem, you have greeted the next president of the United States, a war hero—Senator John Kerry!” Thunderous applause.

There was just one problem. Only a few months earlier, Rangel had twisted the arms of these same officials for another politician-warrior: Wesley Clark. A scant few weeks ago, Rangel had explained his backing for Clark in startlingly similar terms: “I need a general.” He also said, “I don’t want to get out there with a loser”—presumably meaning that all the other candidates, Kerry included, were losers. But then Kerry the loser had become the front-runner, and if the general had to give way to a swift-boat lieutenant, well, no big deal. The bottom line was that Rangel wanted to be seen delivering an army of foot soldiers to the eventual nominee. Clark, Kerry, whoever.

In the days leading up to March 2—when the Massachusetts senator will face off against John Edwards in New York and the nine other Super Tuesday states—Rangel and just about every other member of the city’s Democratic Establishment began scrambling wildly to get behind the front-runner. A wide swath of big fund-raisers, elected officials, labor chiefs, and tinpot county leaders have jumped aboard the Real Deal Express. Besides Rangel, there’s Eliot Spitzer, Alan Hevesi, Gifford Miller, and more than half of the New York congressional delegation. And by the time you read this, labor leader Dennis Rivera may be on board as well.

What’s remarkable about this sudden stampede is that just a couple months back, many of these same people wrote off Kerry as a Dead Pol Walking. The New York Democratic elites—with the exception of neutral politicians like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer—had been split between Howard Dean and Wes Clark. Dean had won over high-profile officials and union heads, while Clark had some operatives and Fifth Avenue donors connected to the Clintons, plus a few legislators corralled by Rangel.

Indeed, aside from a few local Dems, like Mark Green and Carolyn Maloney, and national fund-raisers like Blair Effron and Robert Zimmerman, nobody wanted anything to do with Kerry. Last winter, when Kerry took out a loan on his house to refinance his comatose campaign, it was mainly because he’d been abandoned by big New York donors. “When I called friends for contributions to Kerry in December, the few who gave did it out of sympathy for me,” Zimmerman says.

Contrast that with the scene that unfolded on February 23, at a closed-door meeting between Kerry and some of the city’s most influential fund-raisers. Many had been top financial backers of Clark: Alan and Susan Patricof, Victor and Sarah Kovner, Sally Minard. But now they wanted it made very clear that they were fully behind Kerry. To underscore the point, they promised to raise a quick $1 million.

The reason for this shift—surprise—is that Kerry is almost certainly going to win. He’s taken eighteen of twenty contests and is expected to romp on Tuesday. Although Edwards has proved himself a strong finisher in other states, the polls at press time showed Kerry beating him here by over 40 points. Faced with these numbers, the Edwards camp’s pitch to potential supporters (the rapidly dwindling pool of them) goes like this: Establishment backing has meant zip in this campaign, and voters have consistently made so-called political smart money look, well, stupid. And, they say, voters just like Edwards better than Kerry: Edwards events are packed, while Kerry ones are dotted with empty chairs.

They also make much of their candidate’s appeal to a constituency that appears up for grabs: disillusioned rank-and-file Deaniacs. Edwards has been making an overt pitch for these voters, staging lively events with young people, while his supporters talk up the idea that Dean supporters despise Kerry. Hard-core Deaniacs, the line goes, see Kerry as a political assassin who killed off their beloved leader, and they’ll support Edwards en masse on March 2.

But these arguments are falling flat for at least some onetime Dean supporters. As of press time, Dean’s most prominent congressional backer, Jerrold Nadler, was set to join Kerry. And Ethan Geto, the former head of Dean’s New York operation, all but predicted Edwards’s end.

“Just a couple months back, the New Yorkdemocratic establishment wrote off Kerry as a dead pol walking.”

“The New York primary is Kerry’s to lose,” says Geto. “He has the bulk of the political leadership, and he has national momentum. It will be very tough for Edwards or anyone else to overcome his advantages.”

At bottom, the rush to john Kerry has been an effort by New York City’s political elite to matter again.

Steadily flummoxed by the race’s surprising twists and turns, New York politicos backed the wrong candidates with unerring consistency. They were forced to eat crow and clamber aboard with the front-runner-of-the-moment not once but twice—Dean last fall, and now Kerry. The result has been that the New York Establishment, which likes to think it has great sway over national affairs, has had almost no impact on Campaign 2004.

Of course, the general election will give New York pols and power brokers another chance to make their mark. By raising massive amounts of cash, or sending troops to swing states, they hope to ensure themselves access to a future Kerry administration and prove to colleagues and constituents that yes, they do have the clout to influence a national race.

Kerry, for his part, is reaching out to just about everybody, anticipating the onslaught of up to $200 million in attack ads from Bush. To fend off the incoming barrage, “Kerry will need the New York political Establishment working for him full bore,” says former Nebraska senator and current New School president Bob Kerrey. “It will give New Yorkers a chance to assert their relevance again.”

New Yorkers for Kerry