In the Age of the Tea Party, Who Are the New York Conservatives?
Friday, October 15, 2010
This is the first in a new five-part series called "The New York Vote," a partnership between WNYC and Capital New York. We will be painting a portrait of the New York electorate in 2010, as explained by a diverse cast of political players.
To begin, we interviewed Michael Long, the 70-year-old chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. Long spent much of this year campaigning for Rick Lazio, his choice for the next governor of New York. Lazio's devastating defeat in the Republican primary put the future of the Conservative Party in question, and raised doubts about the power of the state's Republican establishment. Yet for all that, Long is confident about the future of the conservative movement, and is ready to harness the power of Carl Paladino's 'angry voter' bandwagon.
If anyone should be able to say what it means to be a conservative voter in New York today, it’s Michael Long, the 70-year-old chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State.
“Small-c conservatives today primarily are concerned with, I think, the economy,” he said in an interview at the nondescript brick building in Bay Ridge that serves as Conservative Party headquarters. “Everybody has somebody in their family that is out of work or has lost their job. Everybody is facing the problem of trying to pay their mortgage or send their kids to school.”
If that definition sounds a little broad—who in New York hasn’t been touched by the economic downturn?—it just goes to show how difficult it has become to nail down this state’s “small-c” conservative electorate.
Long, like everyone else, can only gesture broadly at who (hurting economically, angry at Albany) and where (probably upstate, but also on Long Island) they are.
The burgeoning coalition of dissatisfied voters making up the movement known as the Tea Party is not Long’s party. The official Conservative Party has a clearly stated platform on fiscal and social issues, whereas the Tea Party movementarians—like their highest-profile New York champion, Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino—are as difficult to define as they are angry.
Long opposed Paladino until after Primary Day, when Rick Lazio, who was riding the Conservative ticket, lost the Republican nomination to Paladino.
No matter. Long says he’s hopeful that this movement can create the most powerful wave of principled conservatism since 1964.
“Seeing all that is happening, if one could compare it to the silent majority—the rise up of citizens who weren't involved before and said they're not going to take it anymore—they're going to fight back,” said Long. “And that's a good thing, a real positive thing.”
Long, a former Marine who is still an imposing physical presence, sees this as an “it” moment for conservatism in New York. If conservative candidates make major gains in congressional races and in the state legislature—and, who knows, maybe even in the governor’s race—Long hopes the spillover effect will replenish his party’s aging ranks in an already-blue state that has been trending Democratic for years. In the long term, Long said the natural diversification of New York and the country means outreach will have to continue after the election—and that Latinos and, eventually, Asians would begin seeing conservatism as a natural family-focused, religion-friendly place to land politically.
“Certainly there's a whole new group of people out there and in the long haul my hope is that those people stay active,” Long said.
That would be a very different Conservative Party from the one that exists now.
As a percentage of voters, the Conservative Party’s strongest support is located in Chemung County (6.8 percent) in the lower Finger Lakes Region, followed by three counties surrounding the state capital—Albany (4.6 percent), Rensselaer (4.6 percent), and Schenectady (3.3 percent)—and Putnam (3.4 percent) in the Hudson Valley. By volume, Suffolk County on Long Island has the greatest number of Conservative Party members with 20,240, followed by Paladino’s home county Erie, Suffolk’s sister county Nassau, and Westchester. Within New York City, Staten Island has the highest percentage of Conservative Party enrollees at 1.6 percent, while Queens has the most with nearly 6000.
The party’s membership is overwhelmingly white.
Paladino’s talk of an Arizona-style immigration law in New York might energize many of these dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives, but it will presumably sit less well with the voters Long describes as the future of conservatism. Likewise, Paladino’s recent comments on homosexuality and his draconian views on welfare recipients might excite the voters who handed him the Republican Party nomination, but it will likely have the opposite effect on undecided moderates.
On the wall of the Conservative Party’s modest office are a series of framed monuments to some of modern conservatism’s greatest figures. There’s Alfonse D’Amato and James Buckley, as well as a campaign poster for the chairman himself. The most significant pictures buttress the set at either end: on one side is a picture of Ronald Reagan, leaning against what is presumably one of the marble pillars on the patio of the White House. The other is a signed portrait of Barry Goldwater.
It’s the framework through which Long looks at the current political turmoil in New York State. Candidates are measured against Reagan and Goldwater; the temperature of the political climate is degrees hotter or colder than that of 1964. While the Republican Party in New York over the years accepted moderation in the service of electability, Long’s Conservative Party—which he has headed since 1988—has retained the luxury of ideological purity.
“Back in 1962, if there was a beginning of a Tea Party, it was the foundation and the formation of the New York State Conservative Party," Long said, sitting beneath the row of conservative heroes. “The silent majority—that was the Conservative Party.”
It’s easy for Long to see a reflection of early modern conservatism in the turmoil that gave rise to Carl Paladino. Economic frustration, the sense of social loss, that “mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore attitude”—these are the descriptors of the conservative electorate he sees driving this election cycle.
“I don't think the Tea Party's anything new,” he said. “I think it's just crystallized this past year and people are fed up with the politics-as-usual."
Long sees a number of factors behind Paladino’s appeal. He pointed to a recent report that showed New York led the nation in outsourced jobs, and the state had also lost more service-industry and manufacturing jobs than any other. The shortfall in jobs was being made up, Long said, by an unaffordable public-sector leviathan.
“I think we've hit a point—a critical mass if you accept that—that the people who are angry and frustrated and fearful about tomorrow are wondering, is there enough of us left to make the changes here in New York,” he said.
Long’s outsourcing factoid was based on a report by the conservative-leaning Empire Center for New York State Policy. The report discussed the loss of jobs to other states, not outsourced jobs overseas. And while the numbers show the state has grown agonizingly slowly from 1993 to 2007, most of the jobs were lost in New York City, not upstate and in Western New York. Manufacturing has been in steady decline in America since the middle of the 20th century, but both manufacturing and the broadly labeled “service industry” have faired far better in this downturn than the public employee sector, which, according to the state’s Department of Labor, is down almost 66 percent from last year and now accounts for only 17 percent of all non-farm jobs in the state.
Numbers aside, the idea that all is not well—and the sense that the government has played a major role in bringing about this state of affairs--helps explain the success of Paladino, a longtime Democratic businessman-turned-Tea Party darling. Paladino’s geographic base—Western New York—has been particularly hard-hit by the downturn.
“He comes from an area he's lived in and saw industry leave, manufacturing leave--he saw half the population get up and leave,” Long said. “Imagine losing half your population.”
The fact that Long and the Conservative Party were late to the Paladino party also speaks to the difficulty of harnessing, let alone leading, the movement. The Conservative Party, often the kingmaker for Republican candidates in New York, was forced to bend to the will of a movement it helped birth.
Still, Long hopes the political environment will produce a second coming for conservatism in New York, if not America.
“I guess Paladino, in his unpolished way, struck a chord as one of them: ‘He speaks for me. He's not a politician. He hasn't been elected before. He's a builder. He doesn't want to be a career elected official,” Long said. “The metaphor of, ‘I'm going to Albany with a baseball bat and I'm going to turn the place upside down and I'm going to get rid of the trash,’ all those little metaphors which are not going over well with the liberal media and are not going over well with the, I guess you could say the elite establishment, I think it just struck a chord with the average citizen who found out just yesterday that their neighbor lost their job.”
The question for Long and his would-be successors will be how to reconcile the fearful, angry brand of conservatism that is apparently motivating Paladino’s supporters with the sunny, broadly attractive Reagan-style conservatism he reveres. Things, he can only hope, aren’t that bad.