Boss politics on Long Island 

Is a major panjandrum in New York Republican politics trying to boot an election in order to maintain his own personal power? That’s the picture I get from the shenanigans in New York’s 4th congressional district.

This suburban Long Island seat has been held by Democrat Carolyn McCarthy since 1996, when she beat an eccentric Republican who had won it in 1994. McCarthy’s main issue was gun control; her husband was one of several people gunned down by a killer on a Long Island Railroad train who waited to massacre his fellow passengers until the train passed the New York City limit and went into Nassau County—so that then-Mayor David Dinkins would not be blamed, he said. McCarthy evidently firmly believes that stronger gun control laws would prevent such horrifying killings, and she must have been disappointed as, during her 14 years in Congress, gun control became a less and less popular issue and House Democratic leaders dropped it from their list of priorities.

 She has nevertheless won reelection by impressive margins. One reason is that her district has become more Democratic. The area within its boundaries in the 1996, 1998 and 2000 elections voted 57%-36% for Bill Clinton in 1996 and 59%-38% for Al Gore in 2000. The area within its boundaries starting in 2002 voted 55%-44% for John Kerry in 2004 and 58%-41% for Barack Obama in 2008.

Running against her for most of the past year has been Republican Frank Scaturro, a lawyer with roots (and political experience) in the district who worked as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Scaturro has not been high on Republican target lists, which is understandable given the district’s past presidential voting behavior. But he has run an active campaign and as of June 30 reported cash on hand of $381,000. That’s about half of what McCarthy reported, and it’s not enough for a significantly New York City television buy. But these days there are lots of other ways to communicate with voters, and we’ve been seeing underfunded candidates with grass roots support beat much better funded opponents in numerous primaries this year.

 To Scaturro’s surprise, another Republican entered the race in mid-June, Francis X. Becker Jr., who was promptly endorsed by longtime Nassau County Republican Chairman Joseph Mondello. Becker is the grandson of a former district Congressman, Frank J. Becker, who was elected from 1952 to 1962 and did not run for reelection in 1964, when a Democrat won the seat in the LBJ landslide. Mondello has run a patronage machine in Nassau County government which gave the county some of the nation’s highest tax  rates—so high that Democrat Thomas Suozzi beat his candidates for county executive in 2001 and 2005 on a lower-spending platform.

Suozzi was beaten narrowly by Republican Edward Mangano in 2009—an upset that few expected, and that, as I wrote, signaled the weakness of the Obama Democrats’ big government policies. There’s an irony here, since opposition to big government has not been a cardinal principle of the Nassau County Republican machine.

Now Scaturro has sued Becker and county Conservative party officials for keeping him off the Conservative party ballot; the latest clip I have from Newsday (subscription required) says the judge hasn’t ruled. New York, unlike most states, allows candidates to run on more than one party line, but to get on the primary ballot of a party a candidate is not registered in he or she must get what’s called a Wilson-Pakula authorization. (The intricacies of New York election law never fail to amaze me.) Scaturro claims that the Conservative party voted him a Wilson-Pakula authorization in late June by a 10-9 vote; county Conservative Chairman Daniel Donovan says it was rescinded.

Richard Russo, an executive committee member, says that those voting against Scaturro were county or other public employees AND that he “was told by mebers of the committee” that they were afraid of losing their jobs if they gave ballot access to a candidate opposed by Mondello. Mondello’s spokesman said, “Chairman Mondello does not get involved in the inner workings of minor parties. Period.”

You can believe that if you want to. To me it looks like Mondello decided some time in late spring that Carolyn McCarthy might get beaten and that he didn’t want the winner to be someone like Scaturro who didn’t owe him anything. Whether Becker would be a weaker candidate than Scaturro is unclear, but his late entry suggests he wasn’t strongly motivated to run. Would big government Chairman Mondello rather lose the election than have an anti-big government Republican win? Kinda looks like that.

Recent polling shows Republicans running well against incumbent House Democrats in the East. It would be unfortunate for them if they miss a chance to pick up New York-4.

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