Monday, September 26, 2011

Spirit of '76

How Do We Get
Better Leaders?

Today is the fifth day of fall in the year 2011. The political calendar has however raced ahead. We are in the midst of the 2012 Presidential campaign, and the 2013 Mayoral race is already under way.

This acceleration of political competition is due in part to campaign finance laws, which require reporting of contributions far in advance of the election. Candidates are judged by the media and the public by the amount of money they have raised. It is therefore in the interest to collect as much as they can as soon as they can.

A political action committee supporting women candidates calls itself "Emily's List", the acronym standing for 'early money is like yeast', which means that it helps the cake rise, hopefully so people will donate when campaigns begin and encourage others to do the same. Gender-based organizations may encounter problems when two candidates with the same reproductive system seek the same office, but Emily's List makes the selection process less burdensome by limiting its support to pro-choice Democrats.

Under current law, there are political action committees for both major parties and for independents. Their ability to raise funds and donate to candidates may ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court of the Unite States. At present, there is some uncertainty as to the effect of the Citizens United decision of December 2010, which overturned nearly a century of precedents by ruling that corporate spending on elections could not be limited, based on the court's expansive reading of the First Amendment. Precedents seem less important where there is a political agenda. See Bush v. Gore (2000).

Individuals have the right to contribute as much as they wish to candidates under the Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). Today we will discuss other events in that memorable year in our history, the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.


BTW, the Buckley in the Valeo case is not the author William F. Buckley, who ran for Mayor in 1965, but his brother James, who was a United States Senator from New York at the time of the High Court's decision. James had been elected on the Conservative Party line in 1970, when the liberal vote was divided between Democrat Richard Ottinger, a Congressman, and Republican-Liberal Charles Goodell, who had been appointed to the Senate in 1968 by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller to fill the vacancy caused by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Senator Goodell had five sons, one of whom is Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League.

After one six-year term, Senator Buckley was defeated for re-election by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic-Liberal candidate. After leaving the Senate, Buckley was appointed by President Reagan as Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs (where he succeeded Matthew Nimetz) and Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (where he was succeeded by John G. Roberts, Jr.).

Moynihan had narrowly won the Democratic primary in a race which featured three candidates from the party's left wing: Congresswoman Bella Abzug, former City Council President Paul O'Dwyer and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Abe Hirschfeld, a garage magnate later imprisoned for the criminal solicitation of a hit man to kill his former business partner, ran fifth. After his release from prison, he ran again for the Senate.

Under the New York State Election Law, political parties are required to nominate candidates before Primary Day. The minor parties, therefore, must make their choices before the major parties. The Liberal Party could not foresee who would win the Democratic primary for the Senate. The identity and philosophy of the Democratic nominee would be a major factor in determining whom the Liberals would choose. It was therefore necessary to select a candidate who could withdraw after the primary. The law provided only three paths to withdrawal: death of the candidate, moving out of the State of New York, or nomination for a judicial office. It was therefore desirable to nominate a lawyer, who would be able to depart from the race honorably and safely if circumstances warranted a substitution.

At that time, I was City Councilmember at Large from Manhattan, and the only elected Liberal in the state. I was asked to be the Senate candidate and, of course, accepted. When Pat Moynihan won the Senate primary, the Liberal Party found a candidate it could proudly support, and I was nominated by the party for the New York State Supreme Court, an office that had always been filled by major party nominees. What would have happened if Bella Abzug had defeated Moynihan is a question that will never be answered. Alex Rose, leader of the Liberal Party, died in December 1976. However, even if Ms. Abzug had received the Liberal nomination, she might have lost to Senator Buckley. Moynihan defeated Buckley by about 585,000 votes. He was considered a moderate liberal and appealed to a broader range of voters than Ms. Abzug. Of course, no one can be certain with regard to hypothetical contests.

The determining event in that primary was the New York Times' last-minute support for Moynihan, a decision made by publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger (not the present publisher, but his father) to over-rule the editorial board, which had supported Ms. Abzug. That was an extremely important choice, because Senator Moynihan, who had been U.S. Representative to the United Nations and had advised four Presidents (two Democrats and two Republicans) was re-elected three times and enjoyed an extraordinary reputation. Moynihan retired in 2000 and was succeeded by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served until she resigned in 2009 to become Secretary of State.

Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear. The other New York Senate seat was occupied successively by Jacob K. Javits, four terms, 1957-81; Alfonse D'Amato, three terms, 1981-99; and Charles E. Schumer, 1999 to the present. The seat Moynihan held was held, as we have noted by, James Buckley, Charles Goodell and Robert F. Kennedy, who defeated Kenneth Keating, a Rochester Republican congressman. FYI, years ago, New York was considered a Republican state.

The governor in 1976 was the late Hugh Carey (Rockefeller had become Vice President under Ford). The state comptroller was Arthur Levitt, a Democrat who served from 1955 to 1978 (six four-year terms), longer than anyone else in the history of the office. The attorney general was Louis J. Lefkowitz, a Republican, who also had the longest tenure in that position, 1957 to 1979 (five and one half terms). Lefkowitz succeeded Jacob Javits, also born on the Lower East Side, who resigned as AG when he was elected to the Senate in 1956.

Do public officials today measure up to the standards of those of a generation or two ago? I think probably not. It is altogether possible that the bosses did a better job of choosing candidates for high office than the consultants and sloganeers who now manage political campaigns for hire. After all, Alfred E. Smith and the first Robert F. Wagner were plucked by Tammany Hall from the mediocracy of the state legislature. And are any boss-chosen governors comparable to Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson?

We close with a memorable couplet by the satirical poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who wrote in "An Essay on Man" in 1734:

"For Forms of Government let fools contest;
Whate'er is best administer'd is best.

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