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4th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 4, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

The effort by state Senate Republicans to hold onto the seat occupied by Guy Velella for nearly two decades has hit a brick wall.The GOP thought it had found in Democratic Assemblyman Steve Kaufman a modern day La Guardia ready to forge a victorious “fusion” effort. But come Primary Day, politicos and consultants up and down the Hudson were wiping egg off of their faces.

The Republican cause is complicated by the early release of Velella from Rikers Island,where he was serving the sentence resulting from his conviction on influence-peddling charges.Velella was sentenced to a year and was expected to serve eight or nine months. His departure from jail after little more than three months has caused a scandal. 
It should, however, surprise no one. Velella is the ultimate fixer. He submitted letters supporting his petition for early release from politicians of both parties and even from Cardinal Egan. Thirty years of favors to just about everyone in his district and beyond have paid off — for Velella. But for the GOP, it’s another story.

How things could have gone so awfully wrong for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno? It now appears that the GOP could lose as many as three state Senate seats in November. This will still leave the Republicans in control, but such a loss could threaten Mr. Bruno’s leadership. Many political observers see the hand of Governor Pataki behind Mr. Bruno’s troubles.

On the surface, the Kaufman gambit seemed like a brilliant idea. In a district with a 2-to-1 Democratic advantage with no obvious Republican candidate,the idea of running a moderate Democrat to carry the GOP standard seemed brilliant. Mr. Kaufman was ideal.

Not only did Mr. Kaufman lose the Democratic line, but he also lost the Republican primary. The architect of Mr. Kaufman’s failure to win the GOP line may well have been the governor,angry with Mr. Bruno’s overrides of budget vetoes. Word went out to Republican activists in Westchester to support Mr. Kaufman’s Republican opponent, John Fleming. Mr. Kaufman lost by 400 votes.

Mr. Kaufman did win the Conservative Party primary and already had secured the Independence Party line. Initially I believed that Mr. Kaufman would be replaced on those two ballot lines by Mr.Fleming.But Mr.Kaufman refused to budge. He is regrouping and vows, “I’m in it to win it.”

Mr. Fleming is an ex-cop who worked in Mayor Giuliani’s security detail. He has taken a hardright stance on a number of issues, which makes him hard to sell among Democrats.

Mr. Kaufman’s first bad break was being caught in the crossfire between Mr. Bruno and state Conservative Party chief Michael Long. Rather than having the Republican and Conservative Party lines handed to him, Mr. Kaufman had to face Mr. Fleming in two primaries, backed by the powerful Mr. Long, apparently with Mr. Pataki’s silent acquiescence.

Mr. Kaufman was ultimately undone by allowing his Democratic primary opponent, Jeffrey Klein, to define the campaign as being over who was the “real Democrat.” Mr. Kaufman was advised not to use the endorsement of the popular former mayor, Edward Koch. The fear was that Mr. Koch’s Bush endorsement would damage Mr. Kaufman among Democrats.The consultants put in place by Mr. Bruno and directed by Norman Adler, a veteran operative, feared that appealing to Democrats in September would make it hard to retain Republican support in November.

False attacks by Mr. Klein and his allies were not responded to by the Kaufman campaign. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz believes thousands of Democratic votes in Riverdale and Westchester were lost from Mr. Kaufman’s failure to respond to two mailings by the National Abortion Rights Action League.They portrayed Mr. Kaufman as an opponent of choice, when his position was similar to that of Senator Moynihan, against partial birth abortion and in favor of parental notification, but otherwise pro-choice.

The effort by Mr. Kaufman to continue his campaign on the Conservative and Independence Party lines is a long shot, but more plausible than a win by Mr.Fleming — unless he is willing to soften his hard-right views. At this point, Mr. Klein has to be looked on as a shoo-in.

If Mr. Klein should win, what next for the Republicans? In 1991, Israel Ruiz, a former Bronx state Senator, fresh out of jail and removal from the state Senate, came back and won a seat on the City Council. That same year, another popular Bronx politician, Mario Biaggi, a former congressman, also won a surprise early release from prison on the grounds of ill health. By the following year,he had recovered enough to mount a vigorous, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to win his seat back. Velella redux? Stranger things have happened.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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