Suffolk Closeup: Tail wagging the dog

Sean Walter

Is it time for the major parties in Suffolk County to again initiate a cross-endorsement ban on election deals with minor parties? I say yes.

In 1972, then Suffolk Republican Chairman Edwin M. “Buzz” Schwenk and Suffolk Democratic Chairman Dominic Baranello launched a ban on such deals. They said that minor parties were having an undue influence on who was nominated to run for office by the major parties.

The Conservative Party, founded in New York State in 1962 and very powerful then and now in Suffolk, was demanding more and more of its members be chosen to run as cross-endorsed major party candidates in return for Conservative cross-endorsement.

It was a case, the long-time party leaders Schwenk and Baranello said jointly, of the “tail wagging the dog.”

By entering into a cross-endorsement ban, they were not in any way talking about precluding the Conservative Party or any minor party from running its own candidates. But Messrs. Schwenk and Baranello maintained that cross-endorsement deal making between the major and minor parties needed to end, charging that it was warping the political process.

Unfortunately, the ban broke down after a few years. Two key factors: there was the desire of the then most powerful Republican in Suffolk, State Assemblyman Perry B. Duryea Jr., to run for governor of New York; and the Watergate scandal, resulting in Republican President Richard Nixon resigning in 1974 and the criminal convictions of many of his lieutenants, which dramatically crippled the GOP in Suffolk and elsewhere in the nation.

Mr. Duryea, of Montauk, the Assembly speaker between 1969 and 1974 when the GOP lost its majority, attributed the defeat to Watergate. When he ran for governor in 1978 against Democrat incumbent Hugh Carey, Mr. Dur-yea felt he needed that extra vote margin which Conservative Party backing could provide.

In return for giving him the endorsement, the Conservative Party insisted that the Suffolk GOP run a Conservative, William Carney, for Congress in the 1st C.D., which includes Shelter Island,. Mr. Carney was criticized for not having the credentials for a Congressional run. Nevertheless, he ran and won the seat, while Mr. Duryea lost the gubernatorial race.

As a congressman, Mr. Carney, of Hauppauge, became highly unpopular, particularly over his staunch support for building nuclear power plants in Suffolk. Many were planned and the Shoreham plant was completed, although stopped from going into commercial operation by broad public and governmental opposition. Mr. Carney didn’t run for re-election in 1986, leaving Congress to become a lobbyist for the nuclear industry.

Meanwhile, the Suffolk cross-endorsement ban was gone.

The “tail wagging the dog” issue that Messrs. Schwenk and Baranello pointed to — and its impacts — have been demonstrated with great intensity in recent years under the Suffolk Conservative Party leadership of Edward Walsh. Mr. Walsh, with some irony, considering his recent federal conviction for being paid to work at the Suffolk County jail when he was actually golfing, gambling or engaged in political activities, led his party in exercising great influence over who has run for judgeships in Suffolk. As the Walsh trial was to begin, News-day last month published an expose on “his influence on judicial nominations in the county.”

The extra 4 or 5 percent of votes expected to be received by a major party candidate cross-endorsed by the Conservative Party has made a big difference in many races.

A situation with some similarity to corruption enquiries involving the Conservative Party in Suffolk concerns a party on the other end of the political spectrum — the Liberal Party — in New York City and the state. Former state Liberal Party leader Raymond Harding pleaded guilty in 2009 to taking nearly $1 million in a corruption scandal involving then State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat who Mr. Harding had his party endorse. Earlier, Harding’s two sons were given top positions in the city administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after Mr. Harding engineered Liberal Party endorsement of the far-from-liberal Republican.

Minor parties can be a good thing in providing a vehicle for those wrongly cut out by major parties. In Riverhead Town last year, for example, incumbent Town Supervisor Sean Walter lost his bid to run for re-election on the GOP ticket in a primary. His opposition to having the Suffolk Police Department expand into Riverhead caused county police unions to pour money into the campaign against him. So he ran on the Conservative Party ticket and won.

But overall, being a “tail wagging the dog” is less than politically healthy.

Top photo: Sean Walter makes a toast to his supporters on election night in 2015. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times Review Media Group publication.