Propelled by an Obama landslide in New York—the president’s best showing in any state except Vermont and Hawaii—the Democrats trounced their opposition all the way down the ballot.
Kirsten Gillibrand, once considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. Senate, amassed a startling 72 percent of the vote, the highest percent total of any statewide candidate in New York history. At the same time, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, a Tea Party darling, was drummed out of office, Rep. Nan Hayworth was defeated in a stunner, and Rep. Tom Reed, who was expected to cruise to re-election, only narrowly staved off a strong challenge from his previously unknown opponent.
In the state Legislature, the story was just as dreary. Despite the Vito Lopez scandal that had wounded Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Democrats rolled to victory in the lower chamber, regaining the “veto-proof” supermajority they had lost in 2010. And in the Senate, long the lone bright spot statewide for the GOP, the Republicans lost their pure majority, watching much ballyhooed candidates like Sean Hanna and Bob Cohen go down in flames, and even, after a razor-thin recount, George Amedore, for whom the party had gerrymandered the newly created 63rd Senate seat specifically for him to win.
In the devastating aftermath, a host of political observers declared the state Republican Party dead—or at least on life support.
As Baruch College professor Doug Muzzio put it to the Daily News, “It is not extinct, but it is comatose.”
Beyond the results of Election Day, there was—and continues to be—ample reason to draw this conclusion. With the party suffering from a registration deficit statewide that has grown to a gaping 2.5-to-1 in favor of the Democrats, the last time the Republican nominee for president prevailed in New York was 1984, when Ronald Reagan swept every state in the union save for Walter Mondale’s home turf of Minnesota.
The last Republican state comptroller was Ned Regan, who resigned from office in 1993; the last Republican attorney general Dennis Vacco, who lost to Eliot Spitzer in 1998; and the last Republican to hold statewide office was Gov. George Pataki, who declined to run for a fourth term over seven years ago, in 2006.
Almost universally in the post-Pataki era, Republican candidates have fared poorly—if not embarrassingly—in statewide contests. For the most part the candidates the party has fielded have been no-names or sideshows, and even in the rare instance that it has been able to attract a marquee recruit, like businessman Harry Wilson, who sought the comptroller’s office in 2010, the Republicans have still fallen short by tens of thousands of votes.
In many ways, things have never looked worse for the state Republican Party—once a breeding ground for giants like Teddy Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits.
“We have hit rock bottom,” laments New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, one of the Republican Party’s promising state Senate candidates who went down to defeat in 2012. “The only place we can go is up.”
Some political insiders think even this appraisal is overly optimistic. When one longtime operative learned that City & State was writing a piece about the future of the Republican Party in New York State, he quipped, “That’s going to be a short piece.”
The devastating defeat of 2012 set off intense soul-searching among Republicans not just in New York but nationwide.
Last month Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus made public an unusually candid 97-page report on the lessons the party needed to learn from their loss. Though the report was given the cheery title “Growth and Opportunity Project,” it instantly became known by the stark one-word description Priebus had decided upon to dramatize its importance: “autopsy.”
The findings of the autopsy were many, and they were dire. “Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; our primary and debate process needed improvement,” Priebus said at the press conference unveiling the report. “There’s no one solution. There’s a long list of them.”
Though a few of the problems identified in the report were unique to the national party, most of them were equally applicable to New York’s GOP, among them the need to get up to speed on using social media, to organize better, to update its obsolete voter file, to adapt the state-of-the-art targeting techniques the Obama campaign used so effectively and, perhaps above all, to embrace Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and all other minority groups, which with every cycle become a more vital percentage of the electorate and yet consistently have been largely ignored—or worse, rejected—by the Republican Party.
Not all of the state party’s challenges, however, were articulated in the autopsy, as some of its greatest difficulties are distinct to New York as a bastion of Democratic dominance.
“Republicans in this state have long struggled with what it means to be here in New York, which is a very blue state, and still be effective in advancing Republican policies,” says Saleem Cheeks, a management supervisor of public affairs at Eric Mower & Associates and a former deputy press secretary under Pataki. “Ultimately it’s a party with an identity crisis at the moment.”
Lynn Krogh, 32, a top GOP consultant and former chair of the New York State Young Republicans, agrees. “New York’s Republican Party is not the Republican Party of Kansas, it’s not the Republican Party of Tennessee and it’s not the Republican Party of even Colorado. Our Republican Party is a huge diverse group of people, from the Tea Party to the more moderate, and when you’re talking to people as the leader of the state party, you’re not all-encompassing. That’s the problem. … You don’t have a cohesive party.”
In part, the disunity of the state GOP may be a by-product of the Republicans’ fundamental ethos. “Because our philosophy, a lot of times, is based on individualism, and maybe the Democratic Party is more of a collectivism kind of outlook, we each treat our own individual areas as our own territory, if you would,” Congressman Reed postulates. “I think what we need to do is branch out, and we have to become a team.”
Ed Cox, a prominent attorney and son-in-law of President Nixon, has had the daunting task of trying to tie together these disparate threads since he was elected chairman of the state party in 2009. He asserts that the independence of the county leaders makes for a stronger party because it liberates the local chairs to develop the right approach for their respective areas.
“There are a lot of different views in the Republican Party here, but we basically agree on the core principles,” Cox maintains, defining their shared conviction as one that “stands for freedom and equal opportunity and accountability and limited government and fiscal responsibility and pro-growth policies.”
While almost all of the Republicans across the state interviewed for this article voiced some similar formulation when detailing their political beliefs, several expressed frustration that their ability to convey this message to the people of New York is undermined at times by the national party, which has tended to be markedly more conservative than the state GOP and has insisted on ideological purity on a number of social issues that tend to alienate voters who would otherwise be receptive to their values.
Jessica Proud, 30, the vice president of a leading Republican political consulting film, NLO Strategies, says that the larger problems with perceptions of the party are coming from the national level.
Cheeks concurs, acknowledging the damage inflicted by incendiary remarks such as former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment. “In the absence of having an identity to be a Republican in New York, the default setting for most people in New York is going to be to look to the national party … and that’s not necessarily a good thing sometimes, because it does not reflect the New York Republican position in all cases.”
“The national party has to tone down the rhetoric,” says Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, 46, who is widely regarded as one of the state party’s rising stars, and whose name was recently floated by Cox as a promising potential candidate for statewide office. Cox also named Harry Wilson, Rep. Chris Gibson, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards as potential statewide candidates.
Molinaro, who is only 37 but has served continuously in elected office since becoming America’s then-youngest mayor—of the town of Tivoli—at the age of 19, bemoans the unwillingness of some of his fellow Republicans to embrace a diversity of opinion. “We have to say to those people in our party that don’t want to talk to those who disagree with us that in a democracy, in public discourse, civility and respect is not a weakness,” he says. “In fact, it is a strength.”
To make things worse, the national party has in recent decades generally abstained from allocating resources to growing the GOP in New York, judging the investment in such a blue state to be without an adequate return—even though every high-profile Republican Party candidate breezes though New York City to fundraise and treats the wealthy donors of Manhattan like an ATM.
“At the end of the day, one of the things that I saw really hurt us [in 2012] was that the presidential candidates came in, went down to New York, raised the money, and then they left,” observes Michael Backus, 29, the Oswego County clerk and the party’s youngest county chair. “It would have been nice to see them upstate, even if it was only a day, even if it was only a couple [of] hours. I think that would have really helped our congressional candidates across the state, and our Senate candidates as well, all the way down the ticket…. You got to come in here to raise money—we understand that—but you also have some responsibility to us as a state party to help us grow our brand.”
Reed, who in February of this year was named the Northeast chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledges the validity of Backus’ grievance. But he points to the significant resources Speaker John Boehner expended in 2012 across the state as proof positive that Boehner understands that New York is a crucial “front line” in the battle to preserve the GOP majority in the House.
Efforts are now underway to identify Republican “decision makers and leaders across the entire northeast, starting in New York” to help rebuild the state party’s national connection, Reed says—though, admittedly, they are still at a fledgling stage.
Reed says that he greatly appreciates the importance of the national party engaging New Yorkers, particularly the state’s young people.
“That’s why we spent so much time with kids in high school and college,” he notes. “When they come down, I make it a priority to meet with the classes and things like that, because you just never know when that lightbulb’s going to go off and someone says, ‘Hey, I met Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney and I remember a speech he gave and I totally believe what he’s saying,’ and that student winds up the President of the United States, 25, 30 years later.”
Reed has no illusions about the enormity of the challenges the state party faces, and yet he still sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic about not just its future but its present. “As we stand in New York, we’re significantly outnumbered, so there’s an issue right there just on the mathematics, but I will say there’s great opportunity ahead of us. There are definitely different sections of the state where the Republican Party is strong, where it’s vibrant.”
In cities like New York where the GOP’s registration disadvantage is a gloomy 6-to-1, or in Buffalo where the ratio is an even worse 7-to-1, the idea of a potent Republican Party might seem fanciful or delusional. But there are large swaths of the state right now where the GOP is not just on the rise; it is ascendant.
Despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in 26 out of New York’s 62 counties (as of Nov. 1, 2011), currently 13 of the state’s 17 county executives are Republicans—as are 44 of the state’s 57 sheriffs and 46 of its 57 county clerks. 45 of its 57 county legislatures or boards of supervisors—the governmental structure varies—are GOP-controlled.
In Nassau County, where registered Democrats exceed Republicans by over 20,000 voters, Ed Mangano was able to knock off the popular Democratic County executive Tom Suozzi in 2009. That same year in Westchester, where there are some 120,000 more Democrats than Republicans, Astorino was nonetheless able to unseat the incumbent county executive Andy Spano by 16 points. And in 2011, Molinaro was able to become Dutchess County executive by beating his general election opponent 62 percent to 38 percent, despite there being 6,000 more Democrats in the county than Republicans.
Even in as bruising an election year as 2012 for the GOP, Cox points out that when the Obama tidal wave receded, the party only had lost a single seat in Congress, leaving them with six seats in the House overall—not so bad considering that in 2010 it only had three.
The state GOP was able to hold the Dems to a one-seat pick-up in the House thanks to Chris Collins’ defeat of Kathy Hochul, a well-liked first-term incumbent congresswoman who, to be fair, was hobbled by a district redrawn to her disadvantage but who had nonetheless tried to level the playing field by outspending Collins by close to $3 million.
Collins’ victory was part of a strong showing in 2012 by the GOP in Erie County, the one glaring bright spot for the Republicans on an otherwise dreary electoral map.
In addition to Collins, state Sen. Mark Grisanti, the county party’s nominee, fended off stiff challenges in both the primary and the general to win re-election, and Stefan Mychajliw became the first Republican to win countywide in a presidential year since 1972 by prevailing in the comptroller race.
“On paper we have no business winning anything,” says Nick Langworthy, 32, who played an integral role in orchestrating the trio of victories as chair of the Erie County Republican Party since May 2010. “There’s 300,000 Democrats, 150,000 Republicans—but we have the sheriff, we have the comptroller now, the clerk, we have 45 percent of the legislature and we have town supervisors elected in 21 of the 26 towns. So we have a lot of Republican government for what our percentage of the total population is.”
Langworthy, who is one of the most respected chairs in the state—and formerly the youngest, before Backus eclipsed him—attributes his success in large part to placing “a heavy emphasis on finding the right candidate for the right time.”
“In other areas … they just kind of [go], ‘Well, he’s next in line, so it’s his turn,’ ” says Langworthy. “That’s the old way of thinking that has got to go out the window. We need to go find new people from different walks of life, not just people who have been career politicians to keep running for these different positions and expect different results.”
In this case, the right “outside of the box” recruit was Mychajliw, 39, a former investigative journalist well-known for his distinguished on-air career at the local NBC affiliate, but a first-time candidate.
“I had to spend a lot of time answering [questions from insiders and donors along the lines of] ‘What’s this newsman know about the county budget?’ and my explanation was, ‘He knows the county budget and the budgeting process inside and out, because he spent all those years covering County Hall, and he knows where the bodies are buried.’ ”
“I can’t tell you how many people told me I was nuts to run for a countywide race in an Obama presidential year,” recounts Mychajliw, a moderate Catholic who grew up one of seven children in the inner city of Buffalo. “People within our own party said, ‘You can’t win. You can’t do it.’ ”
Mychajliw, who heaps praise on Langworthy for being “supersupportive of my candidacy in every way,” insists that an often overlooked key to victory is simply having “the will to go for it.” He believes that in order to grow, the state GOP should “take the model of success here in Erie County and apply it statewide.”
This year Langworthy will try to build upon his accomplishments by defending Mychajliw’s seat, re-electing Sheriff Tim Howard, and securing the first-ever Republican majority in the history of the Erie County Legislature, a goal Langworthy is one seat away from achieving.
Rob Astorino, no stranger to improbable victory himself, is of the same mind as Mychajliw, believing fortune rewards the bold—a spirit the state party must embody if it is to rebound.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” says Astorino. “There really wasn’t a Republican Party in Westchester until we won. But once you do, you can build upon a party and prove that you can win locally. You can build resources up, and get the grassroots going and get out the vote. … So it’s hard when you keep losing, but once you start winning and when good candidates step forward knowing that they’re going to have some resources behind them, then you can build upon those successes.”
Currently there is only one Republican African-American elected officials in New York State: Jim Robinson, a councilman-at-large serving on the Gloversville Common Council. The last black Republican to hold major office, James Garner, the four-term mayor of Hempstead, Long Island, was defeated in 2005.
Similarly, there are no Asian-American GOP electeds in the state—New York City Councilman Peter Koo defected across the aisle to join the Council’s overwhelming Democratic majority in January of last year.
The number of Latino elected officials across the state who are Republicans can be counted on one hand—even if you are missing some fingers.
The outreach to minorities by the state party over the last decade or so has been anemic at best.
It was not always that way. As part of his 2002 re-election campaign, George Pataki launched Amigos de Pataki, a highly successful effort that made significant inroads into the Hispanic community, garnering the governor 38 percent of the Latino vote—up 23 percent from 1998—and playing an important role in securing his third term.
“Those outreach efforts [were] … very helpful both to the governor and the party, but it wasn’t sustained,” says Assemblyman Pete Lopez of Schoharie County, who when he won office in 2006 became the first Hispanic Republican ever elected to the Legislature from upstate, and the first Latino GOP member of the Assembly since 1937.
Since then, in Lopez’s description, minority engagement by the party has been an “afterthought,” and pursuing the votes of these groups has largely been written off by state Republicans as futile.
“I still remember being told not to campaign in certain areas because whatever ethnic group is not going to vote for me anyway, so why waste time?” recalls Astorino, who sometimes surprises voters with his ability to speak fluent Spanish, a skill he learned in part through his studies at the Enforex School in Barcelona. “I reject that. Whether they vote for me or not, I’m still going to be their county executive, and they deserve to hear what I plan on doing.”
Another rising star in the party, state Sen. Lee Zeldin, 33, a lawyer and Army veteran who served in Iraq and represents part of Suffolk County on Long Island, also says he refuses to ignore any of the communities in his district, which is one of the most diverse in the state demographically.
“Over one quarter of my population is Hispanic,” Zeldin notes. “I represent a lot of low-income areas, and we have a large black population as well. I don’t get elected without talking to everybody and representing all of the diverse interests as best as I can. The lesson for the Republican Party is to talk to absolutely everyone. There’s no one we shouldn’t talk to, because our message crosses party lines. There are people out there voting for Democratic candidates because Republicans haven’t spoken to them, and if the Republican Party did a better job of letting more people know what we stand for, more Republicans would get elected to office.”
Both Chairman Cox and the national party have gotten the message—and it’s about time, some minority members of the party note with frustration.
In 2011 the Republican State Leadership Committee launched a $3 million initiative called the Future Majority Project, with the goal of finding and financing at least 100 new Latino candidates to seek seats in state legislatures across the United States. The program helped fund the candidacy of Peterson Vazquez, a disabled Army veteran and small businessman who ran unsuccessfully last year in Rochester to unseat Democratic Assemblyman Harry Bronson.
Following the recommendations of Priebus’ autopsy report, Cox, in concert with the national party, has held several high profile events intended to bring minority voters into the Republican fold. In February Cox brought out former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who served as ambassador to China under President Obama and who speaks fluent Mandarin, for a fundraiser in Manhattan attended by over 500 Chinese-Americans.
Cox also joined forces with the senior pastor and CEO of the influential Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Rev. A.R. Bernard—who presides over a congregation of more than 37,000 members, to organize a small gathering of influential African-American Republicans—to begin what Rev. Bernard called “the conversation of change.”
As Cox acknowledges, change will not come easily. In 2012 President Obama got 75 percent of the Asian-American vote, though only 68 percent of Chinese-Americans supported him. Obama also got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, beating Mitt Romney by 44 points among Latinos, and doing 8 points better with Hispanic voters than he had in 2008—a deeply troubling trend for Republicans, who had hoped to do far better with Latinos. After all, President George W. Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
Obama, the first black President of the United States, actually saw his total among African-American voters decrease from 2008 to 2012, though the difference was only in the degree of the blowout, a colossal 93 percent versus a near-annihilation of 95 percent.
In all likelihood the disparity was only a statistical blip, not any demonstrative reflection of a cooling of African-American voters toward the Democratic Party. The very existence of black Republicans is still anomalous, and the idea of being one remains stigmatized among many members of the African-American community—even as the Republicans have stepped up their efforts to remind voters that the GOP’s roots harken back to Abraham Lincoln.
Rev. Bernard, whose congregation is 85 percent Democrat, 10 percent Republican and 5 percent unaffiliated or independent, has been a registered Republican since shortly after he converted to Christianity in 1975. “I just did not buy into the notion that when you’re black, you become a Democrat,” explains Bernard, who has been floated by Cox as a potential Republican candidate for mayor of New York and who still has not ruled out jumping into the race. “With this whole mayoral candidacy … some say I came out of the closet, but I was never in.”
Bernard, who notes that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were Republicans, says that it is his faith that led him to join the GOP. For Bernard, it is perfectly natural that minorities would gravitate to the party’s message.
“African-Americans, Latino-Americans tend to be socially conservative,” Bernard points out. “What is represented by their political representatives tends to be a gap away from what they really feel, believe, and the values that they hold to.”
Staten Island Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, 32, who is half Cuban-American and who became the second Hispanic GOP member in the state Legislature—along with Pete Lopez—when she was elected in 2010, concurs with Bernard that the values of many Latinos align with those of her party. “Hispanic voters tend to agree with conservative principles. Many of them are pro-life; many of them are fiscally conservative; many of them believe in traditional marriage; so I think that there are many similarities that we share.”
Malliotakis, who describes herself as part of a “new wave of young Republican members” of the Assembly, including Ed Ra, Joe Borelli and Chris Friend, has been a guest speaker at several events to engage minorities and thinks that the party has “been doing a great job in terms of outreach.” A fan of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Malliotakis believes that a run by Rubio for president could help galvanize Latinos’ interest in the party and provide a role model for Hispanics to embrace.
Another reason minorities might turn to the Republican Party is a revolt against what Cheeks calls the “culture of dependence.” Cheeks, 33, was raised in Syracuse in a middle class African-American Democratic household in which both his parents were union workers. “I’m the oddball in the family,” he notes.
Growing up, Cheeks became convinced that the social services promoted by the Democratic Party did more harm than good, denying struggling individuals a pathway out of poverty. “[The GOP] was speaking the language,” he says. “The other party was sending out the message that you were owed something.”
Despite having served in a high level of government under Pataki, Cheeks still encounters stereotypical reactions to his personal politics based upon the color of his skin. “I remember in 2008 people would say to me, ‘Oh, you’re excited about Obama, huh?’ And I’d go, ‘Why would you say that?’ You would see their jaws hit the floor. … You’re definitely fighting against preconceived notions.”
Though Rev. Bernard hopes to alter the way blacks and Latinos understand and interact with the GOP, he knows full well why so many minorities are reluctant to give the party a chance. “When you do things that give the impression that you really don’t care about a particular group of people, they’re going to react,” says Bernard, referring specifically to the national party’s stance on immigration reform, a position Priebus’ autopsy singles out as severely detrimental to the GOP’s ability to bring Latinos into the fold. “That’s the perception … [and] perception can be more powerful than reality.”
Pete Lopez, whose father was a subsistence farmer from Puerto Rico and his mother a woman of humble means from upstate New York’s “mono-culture,” contends that it’s not enough just to vie for the votes of minorities—the party must take active steps to invite them into its inner circle.
“It’s about giving individuals a chance to be a part of the decision-making process and not making it a closed—I’ll use the term ‘good old boys club,’ ” said Lopez, who compares himself to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer because he stands alongside his fellow Republican legislators but is not allowed “to play in any of their games.”
He believes that the party leadership should adopt the example of his mentor, the late Republican state Sen. Charlie Cook, who brought a young Lopez onto his staff because he sensed his promise, giving him the opportunity to succeed.
Now in his fourth term, Lopez is considering accepting the invitation he has just received to join the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus—a group with whom he has worked in the past on legislation, but one that he has never sought to be a part of because “practically speaking, it was just a matter of relative time.” Lopez would be its only Republican member. His district, which is no more than 3 percent Latino, is immense, encompassing seven counties and an area larger than Rhode Island, and was devastated by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Only now, having survived both disasters and redistricting, does Lopez feel stable and secure enough in his seat to commit time to any activities not directly related to his district.
After largely ignoring minorities for so long, of course, any efforts by the Republicans to reach out to them will be perceived by many as pandering—a cynical calculation born out of the realization that with the shifting demographics of the state and of the nation that soon it will be impossible for the GOP to win election without their support.
So how does the party pull off the outreach that it must undertake without a backlash against such an attempt?
“It can’t be just making an appearance, and putting an ad in the paper, and chest-beating,” Lopez says. “That doesn’t wash, because people understand and will be quick to detect sincere engagement versus opportunism.”
“The underlying thing that offends the most with the pandering, by either party,” says Cheeks, “is that it assumes that the minority community you’re talking to is so race-conscious 24/7 that that would appeal to them. We don’t sit around thinking about our race all day.”
Astorino says the key is not trying to concoct a message artificially tailored to any one group. “Maybe my speaking Spanish puts people at ease, but you know what? I go to African-American communities, and I go to the churches where there’s a commonality, and I don’t change my tune.”
Rev. Bernard says the odds of success in the party’s efforts are long, but it must try nonetheless. “It will be perceived in different ways, but it should not stop the effort,” says the reverend, who admits it will be years if not decades before it is clear whether the seeds they are now planting have taken hold. “Change is not an event; it’s a process.”
Lynn Krough is more blunt as to why the GOP must expand its tent. “Our party has to grow or we’re going die,” she says. “It’s that simple.”
The 100 Percenters
Perhaps the most damaging moment in Mitt Romney’s entire campaign for president was his now-infamous “47 percent” comment. For many voters—Democrats, Republicans and independents alike—it seemed to unmask Romney as what many Americans had suspected all along: a patrician who was feigning compassion for the poor and working class on the campaign trail, while all along planning only to serve the rich if elected.
“Those comments were devastating and dumb. Period. And I think that’s the problem plaguing our party, that people have the misconception that we are the party for wealthy white men. That’s not the case,” says Mychajliw, who grew up in a “dirt poor” family that depended upon public assistance. “It hurts us when people can’t connect with our national candidates and that, whether fair or unfair, can trickle down to Republican candidates at the local and state level.”
Romney’s remark, of course, was not the first time the GOP had walked right into the criticism that they are out of touch with the everyman.
“Why are we always defending the millionaire?” asks Krogh with frustration. “We’re like, ‘You can’t raise taxes on millionaires, that’s not right. They generate all of this business, and they put their money into the economy… Why the hell are we defending them? We should just be saying, ‘You can’t do this to anybody.’ ”
Mychajliw emphasizes that it is just as important for the Republican Party to embrace socio-economic diversity as it is to welcome ethnic and racial diversity if the GOP is to survive and thrive.
“I look at yours truly. I grew up … in the poorest section of the city of Buffalo … on welfare, food stamps,” says Mychajliw, who drives a beat-up ’99 Oldsmobile with 147,000 miles on it, and who made his humble upbringing and frugality a cornerstone of his campaign. “I wasn’t the traditional Republican candidate that people would think of and that’s why … it is so important that we take a hard look at who our party selects to become public servants. It’s very important for our candidates to come from all types of backgrounds.”
Mychajliw explains that it was experiences like standing on line for government cheese that convinced him to become a Republican. Though his parents never once voted Republican in their lives, Mychajliw was won over by “the GOP’s message that a hand up, not a hand-out was best.”
Because Pete Lopez is in the Assembly minority, the allowance he receives from the leadership to sustain his two constituent offices and travel his district is small. “I do 1,000 miles a week. My wife and I have to raise funds—we raise twenty to thirty thousand dollars a year to subsidize the position. All of our mileage, car insurance, cell phones. [In] two of the offices I fund computer equipment, internet access, phone lines out of pocket.”
Lopez insists that the GOP has to do more to encourage and make it viable for working class people like himself to serve in public office. “If you read the backgrounds and bios of many of the members, they’re sons or daughter or grandchildren or nephews or nieces of former Assembly members or senators or judges, or of people of significant financial means. Very few of them are working class people who happen to be able to get here, very few. And there are even fewer who have been able to maintain themselves, and so the issue here in Albany is either you’re someone from a political dynasty or someone of wealth or someone who is owned—owned by an interest group, you’re owned and then subsidized—and so the question is—and this extends to both parties—can an everyday person … who doesn’t come from those quarters … continue to represent the community in this democracy? That’s an open question. I can tell you that’s a discussion that my wife and I have on a daily basis: How can we do this? How can we keep raising funds to subsidize the job and be representative in this democracy, because the odds are stacked against you? … That has to change.”
Why the GOP Matters
There is no question that Chairman Cox and the Republican county leaders face immense challenges on a statewide level and in urban centers like New York City and Buffalo in their battle to revitalize the party.
These problems are only exacerbated by the recent charges against New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, GOP Bronx Chair Jay Savino, Queens County Republican Vice Chair Vince Tabone, as well as the all-too-frequent revelations of corruption that have plagued the party in the past—though, to be fair, criminality has become systemic in both parties.
The next high-profile test of the party’s viability will be the statewide election of 2014, a trial that will be made all the more difficult because in order to succeed Cox and Co. will have to mount a credible challenge to the mighty Andrew Cuomo, which would be no small feat.
Can Cox, like Langworthy has done in Erie County, cultivate a candidate who can defy the odds and become New York’s answer to Chris Christie?
“We’re only separated by one river! If Chris Christie could do it in New Jersey, of course there’s room for a figure like that in New York,” says Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist John Avlon, who served as chief speechwriter under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Regardless of what happens, even Democrats should root for the state GOP not to go the way of the Whigs.
As progressive reformer Bill Samuels, a Democrat, explains, “Any time there is a one-party system eventually you have corruption.”
“The state Republican Party is well positioned to be a model for a new type of Republican Party nationwide,” continues Samuels. “It’s fairly moderate, it has a lot of good people in it and it’s in our interest, as Democrats, to have two strong parties that politely disagree, that enjoy exchanging ideas. I think that’s possible in New York.”
Councilman Ulrich sees even greater urgency in the preservation and future vitality of the state Republican Party. “It’s absolutely essential that New York maintain a two-party system of government,” he says. “If the Republican Party falters and becomes irrelevant, it will be a recipe for disaster. … You need checks and balances in government. The only way you have good government is when you have people with different ideas, different backgrounds, coming together, finding a compromise and passing the laws and making policies that are in the best interest of all New Yorkers, not just some New Yorkers.”
-Correction: This article has been revised to reflect that Gloversville Councilman-at-large Jim Robinson is the only black Republican currently in office in the state. The article previously stated incorrectly that there were no currently elected black Republicans in New York.