Several years before the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade gave women a right
to legal abortions, New York State passed a model pro-choice law extending
those protections to New Yorkers. Given the fact that Democrats outnumber
Republicans in the city and the state, and that the national image of the
Democrats is pro-choice and Republicans pro-life, this would seem logical.
However, New York's right-to-choose law did not come from a Democratic
administration. When it passed in 1970, the Republican Party controlled both
the State Assembly and Senate. Republican State Senator Roy Goodman from the
East Side sponsored the bill, and Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller
signed it into law.
New York Republicans - in both the state and city - have long been different
from their national colleagues.
While many Democrats in the South opposed the civil rights movement of the
1960s, Republicans from the northeast gave President Lyndon Johnson the
votes he needed to pass his Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. In
1964, the national party selected conservative Barry Goldwater as its
presidential nominee over New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Today, on many social issues, New York Republicans can be considered
progressive, even liberal. New York's most recent prominent Republican
officials - Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former
Mayor Rudy Giuliani - are all pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun, and more
pro-environment than the national party.
And although local Republicans often claim to be fiscal conservatives, in
reality they have resorted to budget gimmicks, tax increases, excessive
borrowing using state authorities, and just plain old-fashioned lavish
spending. During the 1960s, Governor Rockefeller strayed so far from the
small government ideology that his policies helped give birth to the
Since taking office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has further blurred the
definition of what it means to be a Republican in New York. A Democrat
turned Republican, he governs at odds with both parties - taxing heavily,
fighting unions, expanding government, and promoting large-scale
development. On important social issues, he has the practical approach of a
cranky bean counter leaving the impression with voters that he does not care
about people like them.
As the national party becomes increasingly conservative, the gap between
local and federal officials becomes wider and wider, and threatens the New
York Republican Party.
THE LIABILITY OF THE RIGHT
The difference between New York and national Republicans is at least in part
a result of the old adage "all politics are local."
New York is known as a liberal place with liberal voters. Republican here
make Democrats in other parts of the country look conservative. Only one
Republican presidential candidate since McGovern — Ronald Reagan — has won
In a recent Battleground Poll, 18 percent of voters say they are "very
conservative" and 42 percent answered somewhat "conservative." In New York
State, only about a quarter of voters describe themselves as conservatives.
In New York City, the number of city voters who describe themselves as
"conservative" has dropped an average of 9-points over the last four mayoral
Polling homogenizes politics as politicians follow voters. And so, over
time, it has moved local Republicans to the left. For partly practical
reasons, but also because of deeply held beliefs, New York Republicans are
less conservative than their counterparts in other parts of the country.
Local Republicans can see that being perceived as too conservative has been
costly for some in the past.
Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who from the start was to the right of the
electorate, did not keep up with the population change in the state, and
former Attorney General Dennis Vacco served only one term for the same
reason - too conservative. Both men were more like national Republicans than
most of their colleagues in the state.
In fact, when the national Republican Party moved far to the right during
the Newt Gingrich era of the 1990s local Republicans lost races. This was
especially true in the city where that party failed to make gains in open
seats and lost incumbents.
In 1992, on the East Side of Manhattan, which once had five local
Republicans, Democrat Carolyn Maloney beat out incumbent Bill Green in a
race for Congress. Since then, four East Side Republicans - Roy Goodman,
Andrew Eristoff, John Ravitz and Charles Millard - who once held office,
have not returned. The City Council Republican minority has similarly
BRINGING THE GOP TO NYC
The divide between local Republicans and the national party can make it
difficult for local officials to get federal aid for New York from a
Republican president and a Republican controlled Congress.
However, in early 2003, local Republican leaders - especially Mayor
Bloomberg and Governor Pataki - convinced their national party to locate
this year's national convention here in New York City. The pitch was that it
would be good for New York City's economy, which was devastated after the
terrorist attack of September 11, and that it would help build support for
their ticket and improve the national party's image.
Now some in the party regret the choice.
President Bush, whose best issue was thought to be his resolve in fighting
terrorism, has come under scrutiny by the 9/11 commission hearings. This
summer, the president will also have to make his case that he did the right
thing in going to war with Iraq in a city that hosted the largest anti-war
demonstrations in the nation and that promises to be the scene of more
protests during the convention.
Mayor Bloomberg, attentive to Democratic city voters, has distanced himself
from the convention. He has not planned to host an event for the leadership
and delegates, and he plans to spend more time outside the convention with
the police than inside stumping for the candidates and their issues.
If local Republicans continue to move to the left to get votes, local
candidates could reach a tipping point where they will no longer be in line
with their base reducing turnout among "true believers," costing them
additional losses in an increasing number of elections. Incumbency is
protecting local Republicans against the mismatch between themselves and
their base; and the fact that New York Republicans export very large amounts of campaign money to support more conservative party candidates nationally gives them leeway with their
national party leaders.
But nothing can hide the fact that New York Republicans are increasingly
different ideologically and in the way they govern from their national party
counterparts. The more New York's electorate moves to the left the more
this gap will increase - and at some point this disconnect will be too great
to go unpunished by both national Republicans and local voters.
Joseph Mercurio has worked as a political consultant for more than 25 years.
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