Is Mike Long on a collision course with the Republican Party?
There is a gun hanging over Mike Long’s head.
It’s old and dusty and says “Duke” on the handle—a John Wayne replica mounted on the wall of Long’s Bay Ridge office, amid a clutter of political posters, certificates and 9/11 memorabilia.
In many ways, Long himself is a replica of the Duke: plainspoken, squinty-eyed, conservative to the core. Wayne played a Marine in several movies; Long played one in real life. But what he lacks in movie-star charisma, Long makes up for in political longevity. The New York State Conservative Party celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with Long serving as chairman for almost half that time.
He has a lot to celebrate, and a lot to mourn. His party is still one of the most influential and effective third parties in New York. And while the legalization of same-sex marriage last year was a stinging defeat for Long, he knows that Republicans across the state will be clamoring for his endorsement, desperate for that extra ballot line that often ensures enough votes for victory. No Republican has won a statewide race without the Conservative line since 1974.
But there are other dangerous objects hanging over Long’s head. Many Republicans, upstate and downstate, are miffed at the crafty Conservative Party chair for selecting what they see as unknown candidates for office.
Choosing Manhattan attorney and electoral newbie Wendy Long (no relation) in the Senate race against Kirsten Gillibrand was the last straw for some of these Republicans. To them, this was Mike Long trying to be “the tail wagging the dog,” as one upstate Republican chairman put it.
And there have been other examples.
Long’s refusal to endorse Rudy Giuliani in any of his races because of his stance on abortion, while also endorsing the pro-choice George Pataki, has led to charges of hypocrisy from ticked-off Republicans. Long also backed John Faso over Bill Weld for governor in 2006. (Eliot Spitzer defeated Faso by one of the widest margin in New York gubernatorial history.) That same year, he backed John Spencer over K.T. McFarland for U.S. Senate, despite what some saw as McFarland’s pristine credentials. And he endorsed ex-Rep. Joseph DioGuardi to face Gillibrand in 2010. (She won by almost 30 points.)
His threats to defeat the four State Senate Republicans who voted to legalize same-sex marriage is also a glaring reminder to many Republicans that Long will stand for his own convictions, Republican victories be damned.
“We can’t tell another party how to run their process in selecting candidates, no more than the Conservative Party can come to us and tell us who to select, or tell us that our process is wrong,” said Vincent Reda, chair of the Rockland County Republican Party. “Do I agree with their process? No.”
“One time, fine. Two times, something’s up,” said one upstate GOP county chair. “Three times, there’s something there that I think is counterproductive to the relationship between the Republican Party and the Conservative Party.”
Other Republicans were less cordial.
“How long do you want to go around pissing on people’s shoes before someone turns around and says, ‘Hey, f— you!’?” said one GOP elder, whose allies have been burned by Long in the past.
In January, when Mike met Wendy, it was political love at first sight.
“Immediately,” Mike Long says when asked how soon after their meeting he knew he would endorse her for Senate. “The first meeting I had with her.”
Too bad for Marc Cenedella, an Internet businessman who at the time was considering his own run against Gillibrand, or Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, who had been a declared candidate for over a year.
In a private meeting later that month, Cenedella told Long he would be willing to spend $15 million of his own money to challenge Gillibrand, a crucial selling point given Gillibrand’s own fundraising prowess and the pinched pockets of state Republicans. But Long made it clear to Cenedella that his name would not appear on Row C, said Cenedella spokesman Bill O’Reilly.
It was Long’s refusal, and not the controversy surrounding a blog under Cenedella’s name with racy posts about sex and drugs, that convinced him to drop out of the race, O’Reilly said.
“Marc was ready to put $15 million in the race, but once it became clear he wasn’t getting the Conservative line, the risk/benefit analysis wasn’t worth it,” O’Reilly said. “Business interests also played a factor, but as a political newcomer it only made sense to jump if both lines were achievable. No one told us we couldn’t compete for the Conservative line, but it was obvious the horse had left the barn with someone else riding it. Such is politics.”
Long is adamant that everything was done aboveboard.
“No, we didn’t tell him to get out of the race or that he wouldn’t get the endorsement,” Long said of Cenedella. “Marc did a good job but, in all honesty, Wendy Long blew the doors open. I didn’t go into the room and say, ‘Hey guys, this is the one.’ She just captured their imagination. I think word got to Marc.”
Maragos never even got a meeting with Long. He met with the executive committee in January, but no one-on-one. He sat in the back of the room during the Conservative Party’s March 19 convention in Manhattan, watching politely as Wendy Long, clad in a mint green jacket and skirt, accepted the party’s endorsement.
One source close to Maragos said that Mike Long called several upstate Republican chairmen who were leaning toward Maragos and convinced them to back Wendy Long in exchange for Conservative endorsements for local candidates. Maragos declined to comment, saying he was focused on “running a campaign on the issues.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Turner’s late entry into the race, after a federal judge penciled his district out of existence, threw Mike Long’s support for the untested Wendy Long into stark focus. Mike Long and Turner were old friends and neighbors. Long originally talked Turner into running in the special election for Anthony Weiner’s suddenly vacant congressional seat. Their children and grandchildren play together.
But Turner got into the race too late, Long said. And even though he’s seen by some Republicans as the only real chance to defeat Gillibrand and capture a statewide office this year, Long is doubling down on Wendy.
“I feel very bad about that,” Long said. “I don’t feel very comfortable about that. But I do think that Wendy has a stronger set of conservative principles and values and philosophical beliefs than Bob has.”
A lot depends of the outcome of the three-way Republican primary in June. If Wendy Long wins, much of the Republican grumbling will likely die down. But if Turner wins, pressure will mount for Mike Long to use the procedural maneuver of nominating Wendy Long for a Supreme Court judgeship in order to get her off the Conservative ballot line.
Some members of the Conservative Party are already pondering that scenario.
“If in fact Wendy Long did not win the Republican primary, I believe that she is honest enough and sincere enough and dedicated enough that she would get off the line,” said Ralph Lorigo, chair of the Erie County Conservative Party.
Wendy Long says she’s in it to win, but wouldn’t rule out vacating the ballot line if she lost the GOP primary—which, she emphasized, she has no intention of doing.
“If Ronald Reagan were reincarnated from the dead tomorrow, and popped up as a candidate for the United State Senate in New York,” she quipped, “I guess I’d consider stepping aside for Ronald.”
U.S. Rep. Peter King remembers the very first Conservative Party rally.
“Madison Square Garden, 1962,” King recalled. “It was the night Kennedy spoke on the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
In that time of apocalyptic fear, the Conservative Party was born. And they had a steep hill to climb if they were going to be seen as relevant players in New York politics.
“It was looked upon like the Socialist Workers Party,” King said. “You know when you’d go into vote and you’d see all those weird parties at the bottom [of the ballot]? That’s the way the Conservative Party was looked at then.”
Fifty years later the Conservatives have moved up from the bottom of the ballot to near the top, Row C, right under the Democrats and Republicans.
George Pataki, whose endorsement by the Conservatives put him over the top in his race against Gov. Mario Cuomo, says the party remains relevant even as the state gets more Democratic.
“It’s quite simple: There are a significant number of people who are essentially conservatives who find it very hard to pull the Republican lever,” Pataki said.
With two heavyweight Republicans like King and Pataki, as well as a host of other GOP luminaries who both love and fear Mike Long, it seems far-fetched that anything could happen to undermine Long’s toehold in New York politics.
But that hasn’t stopped some Republicans from openly contemplating revenge. After all, a third party’s survival depends on collecting at least 50,000 votes during a gubernatorial election. And without a cross-endorsed Republican on both lines, that status could become imperiled.
“Two years from now we may decide not to take your line,” said one Republican county chairman. “It would be more than an empty threat.”
Another Republican big shot predicted that Long could end up going the way of Ray Harding, the longtime Liberal Party leader who oversaw the demise of his party after Andrew Cuomo, the party’s nominee in 2002, suddenly dropped out of the gubernatorial race.
Long is aware of the challenges he faces. He remembers the vitriol thrown at him when he withheld the party’s endorsement from Rudy Giuliani in his race against Mayor David Dinkins in 1993. Some Republicans theorized that Giuliani wouldn’t genuflect to Long, costing him the nomination. But Long said it was Giuliani’s support for abortion rights that led to his decision.
“I can remember people walking along the street, opening the door of my place of business, yelling foul names at me,” Long said. “It got that bad.”
“And I understood their point of view,” he continued. “But we also had a set of principles.”
If the Conservatives had endorsed Giuliani, who also had the backing of the Liberal Party at the time, Long is convinced that, come the next governor’s race, his party would have lost its credibility, and as a result its ballot line.
“We’re not perfect,” he said. “We don’t always select the right candidates. And sometimes we don’t even do the right thing. But that’s what politics are about. It’s judgment calls.”
Is he concerned about the security of his ballot line going forward?
“Sure, I think about that,” he said. “But if we weren’t here, who would hold the Republicans’ feet to the fire? Who would keep them honest?”
To read more about the Conservative Party, visit www.cityandstateny.com.
Tags: Andrew J. Hawkins, Bay Ridge, Bill Weld, Bob Turner, Conservative Party, George Maragos, George Pataki, GOP, John Faso, John Wayne, K.T. McFarland, Kirsten Gillibrand, Liberal Party, Marc Cenedella, Mike Long, Peter King, Ralph Lorigo, Ray Harding, Republican Party, Rudy Guiliani, vincent reda, Wendy Long
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