By Bob Liff
With all the suspense and panache of the Soviet Politburo,
Queens Democratic district leaders on Monday took 15 seconds
to endorse Comptroller Alan Hevesi for mayor. It took
another 15 seconds to endorse Manhattan Assemblyman Scott
Stringer for public advocate, and endorse former Board
of Education President William Thompson for comptroller.
It took a couple of minutes to endorse East Elmhurst
Councilwoman Helen Marshall for Queens borough president.
But that was only because so many leaders in the overheated
second-floor headquarters on Austin St. in Forest Hills
wanted to add their comments to the warm embrace extended
by Queens Democratic leader Thomas Manton to the first
African-American candidate ever backed for borough president
in the city's most ethnically diverse borough.
But the seemingly-foreordained voting was merely the
last public step in a months-long tortuous behind-the-scenes
struggle for both Hevesi and Marshall, one that brought
old loyalties, shifting demographic realities and hard-nosed
political horsetrading into play.
And after it was all over, the question remained: Does
anybody care anymore what Democratic county leaders decide
in party primaries these days?
Why does it matter that Bronx Democratic leader Roberto
Ramirez backed Fordham Councilman Adolfo Carrion to succeed
mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer as borough president on
the Grand Concourse.
What can former deputy Brooklyn Borough President Jeannette
Gadson hope to gain by the backing of Assemblyman Clarence
Norman Jr., that borough's Democratic leader, in her bid
to become Brooklyn's first female and first African-American
Do voters care that in Staten Island, a civil war within
the Republican party has seen chairwoman Leticia Remauro
dump fellow GOPer Assemblyman Robert Straniere as the
chosen borough president candidate in favor of Conservative
Party leader James Molinaro, a top aide to outgoing borough
president Guy Molinari. Straniere and Molinaro seem likely
to face off in a Republican primary, with Democratic Councilman
amd borough president hopeful Jerome O'Donovan hoping
they tear each other up enough to let him tiptoe through
the carnage and reclaim Borough Hall for his party.
In Manhattan - well, Manhattan recalls Will Rogers' comment
that he belongs to no organized political party - he's
a Democrat. Whatever else you can say about Assemblyman
Herman (Denny) Farrell, Manhattan's Democratic leader,
he'll never be mistaken for the late Tammany Hall boss
FOLLOW THE LEADER
One thing is clear -- candidates care immensely what
the county leaders do.
Even today, years after DeSapio and the late Brooklyn
boss Meade Esposito went to that clubhouse in the sky,
county leaders have a few aces up their sleeves.
- Endorsement by a county organization can mean help
from loyalists who go into the streets and door to door
to gather signatures on nominating petitions.
- Party leaders also provide lawyers to make sure those
petitions comply with all the technical rules that can
trip up unsuspecting candidates.
- Those same party lawyers also help kick unblessed
challengers off the ballot in cases that are argued
before judges who owe their seats to the very party
organizations whose lawyers are appearing before them.
Picking judges remains the one power that party leaders
retain virtually unchecked control over
- With term limits clearing all three citywide officials
and 35 members of the 51-member City Council out of
office, the party leaders can lend credibility to first-time
candidates who may be veterans of party wars but little
known to the public at large.
- And party leaders, by the weight of their endorsements,
can clear the field of wannabe elected officials who
figure stepping aside in the short run stands them in
good stead for future possibilities.
Manton's endorsement of Helen Marshall, for example,
turned a five-way race into a three way battle. Both Forest
Hills Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and Far Rockaway Assemblywoman
Audrey Pheffer dropped out of the race for Queens Borough
President after Manton announced his decision. Former
Board of Education president Carol Gresser and term-limited
Hollis Councilman Sheldon Leffler remain in the race.
Similarly, Ramirez' nod for Carrion drove Assemblyman
Jose Rivera and Councilman Larry Warden out of the borough
And Manton's endorsement for Hevesi could be a death
knell for the dream by Council Speaker Peter Vallone from
Astoria to move across City Hall's rotunda into the mayor's
Vallone, trailing badly in recent polls, had been counting
on backing from fellow councilmembers to provide a ready-made
district-by-district grass roots organization. But Councilmembers
Morton Povman of Forest Hills and Archie Spigner of St.
Albans, both district leaders, voted with Manton to back
Hevesi, apparently dumping their past loyalty for Vallone
in the process.
With Ferrer backed by the Bronx and Staten Island organizations,
Hevesi by Brooklyn, and Public Advocate Mark Green expected
to win the Manhattan nod, Vallone needed his home county
but didn't get it.
It's no accident that Vallone on Monday tried to counter
Hevesi's backing from former Vallone ally Manton by trotting
a series of union leaders out to the steps of City Hall
to endorse his mayoral candidacy.
AND THE LEADER FOLLOWS
Despite their vaunted powers in days gone by, today's
county party boss often resembles the lost pilgrim who
says he must find his group for he is their leader.
Manton's slate of blessed candidates emerged from a process
in which district leaders in Southeast Queens - largely
African-American and Caribbean-American, and solidly Democratic
- pointed out that they provided enough of the Democratic
vote in the county to merit some consideration. Manton
had been heavily lobbied by Gresser, a longtime friend,
and by Pheffer, the handpicked choice of a successor by
outgoing term-limited Borough President Claire Shulman.
Leader of both factions in the section, Spigner and U.S.
Rep. Greg Meeks of St. Albans, each backed Marshall.
But Spigner backed Vallone and Meeks backed Hevesi. Backing
Marshall for borough president, and Hevesi for mayor,
allowed Manton to give a little something to everybody.
THE CAMPAIGN CALENDAR
In a way, the endorsements by the party leaders merely
signal the end of the beginning of the campaign. While
political reporters and political junkies may have been
following minor developments with talmudic interest, most
normal people tend not to tune in until weeks before the
Thus far the campaign has been an insiders' game, with
four mayoral candidates, a dozen or so borough president
candidates and more than 100 city council candidates elbowing
their way through a rugby scrum to gain minor edges.
Now it begins to shift to an intense retail phase, with
petition gatherers hitting the streets and shopping centers
in search of nominating signatures. That retail phase
is followed by another period of insiders' battles as
first the Board of Elections, and later the courts, will
resolve legal challenges to petitions. Since many city
elections are resolved in court long before voters get
a say, this is the least watched and often most important
phase of the process.
Then the final run-up to the primary begins, likely in
mid-July, with a combination of wholesale politics - in
the form of television advertising and mass mailings -
and retail politics in the form of street rallies and
As the season goes on, the endorsements of the county
leaders become less and less important. It is then that
other endorsements - by unions, prominent pastors and
those local district party leaders who can produce campaign
workers - become more prominent.
District leaders like Spigner and Bushwick Assemblyman
Vito Lopez can provide street troops who have proven adept
at getting loyalists to the polls. Union leaders like
health workers' chief Dennis Rivera offer telephone banks
to favored candidates. Abyssinian Baptist Church's Calvin
Butts in Harlem and Allen AME's Floyd Flake in Queens
become key players in get-out-the-vote efforts for September's
But beyond groups with built-in cadres of foot soldiers,
even the most successful politicians find it hard to translate
their own popularity to others.
TAKE MAYOR GIULIANI
Even at his most popular, the mayor ran up a string of
endorsements for losing candidates that reminded one of
the late Alabama Governor George Wallace's offer to a
favored candidate that he would campaign for or against
him, whichever helped more.
In intra-Republican party struggles, Giuliani backed
the conservatives in Brooklyn and the moderates won. He
backed the moderates in a similar struggle in Queens,
and the conservatives won. He backed Molinari in the Staten
Island's powerhouse's lone losing campaign, a bid to unseat
Democratic District Attorney William Murphy.
Giuliani fared little better in his cross-party efforts,
including help for Patrick O'Malley's losing bid to unseat
Queens Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan last year. And Giuliani's
support for Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo left both
men's careers in a political shambles, at least in the
Despite that record, you can expect candidates of all
political stripes to line up to seek Giuliani's endorsement,
and that of anybody else who might give them a slight
After all, in a close primary election, it cannot hurt.