Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
Republican heavyweights dressed in cocktail-chic for the annual Brooklyn GOP Lincoln dinner earlier this month. Held at Garguilo’s, a century-old Italian restaurant in Coney Island, the event felt like a wedding with a patriotic twist - three choices of entrée, an open bar, and a performance of Italian arias by policeman Daniel Rodriguez.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the special guest, gave a spirited stump speech taking shots at party rivals like New York’s junior Senator.
“She has blonde hair. She works with Schumer. She votes the way he tells her to vote,” Giuliani joked. “Oh whatever her name is.”
Her name is Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s up for reelection this November – her first bid for a full Senate term after replacing another well-known blonde New York Democrat - Hillary Clinton. And she's got recent history on her side.
Republicans haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat in New York since 1999, when Alfonse D’Amato lost to Charles Schumer. But instead of rallying around one candidate, this year there is a three-way race for an unseasonably early primary on June 26.
Gillibrand has a history of being underestimated. The former upstate Congresswoman was appointed to replace now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – over the buzz around the likes of Caroline Kennedy. In a 2010 special election, she easily defeated Republican Joe DioGuardi, after her both her potential primary opponents – Harold Ford Jr. and Congressman Steve Israel – backed out.
Gillibrand sides with President Obama on almost all the issues, which basically puts her at odds with all Republicans. But the primary isn’t really about issues – it’s about who will be the better candidate to beat her.
“Sure, it’s a blue state, registration-wise,” Giuliani told WNYC. “But when you take a look at actual voting, Republicans who are good candidates can win.”
George Maragos took a moment to refuel while campaigning at a Greek Festival in Brooklyn Heights. Sitting with his wife of 37 years, Angela, he ate from of a plate of greek salad. But this was just an intermission before getting back to working the crowd. Maragos started campaigning two years ago, self-funding the effort.
He walks over to a married couple seated at a folding table and makes another introduction.
“I’m George Maragos, running for the New York Senate. Please come out on June the 26, we have a primary. I have 35 years of business experience and I’m the current Nassau County Controller ,” he explains, talking up his experience in corporate banking and finance and his own financial information services company. “I’ve created a lot of jobs, always made money, balance the budgets."
The man launches into his own armchair political analysis.
“Schumer, I think he’s invulnerable,” he tells Maragos, “but I think Gillibrand can be beat,” Maragos agrees telling the couple that Gillibrand hasn’t done anything for New York. “She’s done one thing,” the woman chimes in, “she lost 40 pounds. That’s a feat!”
Comments about weight come up again at the Queens Conservative Party dinner in Howard Beach, where Manhattan lawyer Wendy Long gave the keynote speech.
“I’ve lost a bit of weight, too” Long tells a room filled with banquet tables at Roma View, “I call it the campaign diet.”
Long clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She also worked for an organization that advocates for conservative federal and Supreme Court justices. She was nominated by the state conservative party in March, at the height of the national debate over funding for birth control and religious institutions. She argues that this campaign is really about the economy and the burden government regulations.
“Kirsten Gillibrand has very little to say about those [issues] which is why she is always talking about this alleged war on women and contraception and things like that,” Long tells WNYC. “I think it’s a strong indicator that she doesn’t have much of a record to run on.”
Long has never held elective office herself.
One of the three candidates has won federal office. Back at the Brooklyn GOP dinner, Rudy Giuliani was praising Congressman Bob Turner, who delivered a shock to the political system when he beat out Democrat Eric Weprin to take the seat that had been held by Anthony Wiener.
“It was an unbelievable shot in the, I know I can say it in Brooklyn but I’m not sure I can say it in a microphone,” Giuliani tells the crowd. “It was a shot right in the, boom, man, man, wow.”
Giuliani throws an air punch pretending to hit President Obama below the belt.
“For six days, Obama was talking with a higher voice” Giuliani says, before making high-pitched yelps to the crowd’s delight.
Turner says he can deliver another knock-out punch in the fall.
“I have a case against Gillibrand, which I will press on energy policy, on job creation, on regulation and deregulation, on Obamacare, on the deficit, we’ve got a lot to work with here.”
The Republican candidates held their only scheduled debate on Sunday June 17. It aired statewide on NY1 and YNN.