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Why New York City Republicans Matter

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A trial balloon rose wafted across New York recently: Malcolm Smith as the Republican nominee for mayor?

That would be Malcolm Smith, the Democratic state senator from Queens. "I have had conversations exploring the possibility with a number of people around the city," Smith told a New York Post reporter, who seemed somewhat enthusiastic about the idea. ("He has appeal well beyond the Democratic Party's liberal precincts."

Even for New York City, this seemed like a strange idea, since Smith had been majority leader during the Democratic state senators' brief and disastrous moment of power in Albany. He has absolutely no profile except that of a regular, not particularly talented, pol.

Not going to happen. The Republican leaders in the various boroughs popped up to denounce the idea, and the balloon floated away (or was shot to pieces if you prefer a more violent extension of this tired political metaphor.)

But it brought up an interesting question. Who are the Republicans going to nominate? The one thing you can be sure of is that it won't be a New York City Republican politician. For one thing, there hardly are any. For another, none of the tiny herd that does exist has the capacity to win a city-wide election.

The GOP establishment hasn't even attempted to nominate one of its own for mayor since... Take a guess.

Time's up. In 1977, Roy Goodman, a Republican state senator from Manhattan, ran in a wild, four-way election featuring Ed Koch as the Democratic nominee and Mario Cuomo on the Liberal line. It was an exciting contest. Nearly 1.4 million votes were cast. Goodman got about 58,000.

The next year, the Republicans cross-endorsed Koch. When he ran for a soon-to-be-disastrous third term, the GOP nominated Diane McGrath, a member of the Crime Victims Board who had never before been a candidate for public office. She got about 10 percent of the vote.

After Koch left office, things got much better. The Republicans hooked up with Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor who had little real connection to any political party. But it was a good fit. Despite his attempts to brand himself as an outer-borough guy, Giuliani (who had grown up in Long Island) was a Manhattanite. At that time, the Manhattan version of Republicanism involved being socially liberal and favoring government spending only on responsible programs such as anything that might benefit New York City.

Then, of course, as the party changed Giuliani transformed himself right along with it. He kept on going right until he became more Republican than Karl Rove. (When last seen he was in Florida, claiming that Barack Obama had ruined the Nevada economy by saying businesses shouldn't use stimulus money for junkets to Las Vegas.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has never really been a Republican. We all know that. Bloomberg made it very clear when he first ran in 2001 that his main problem with the Democrats was their unwillingness to give him the nomination.

Still, you have to give the GOP some credit. When Bloomberg leaves office, it will have been 20 years since a regular Democrat (David Dinkins) was mayor.

So what does the future hold? Who will the Republicans nominate? It's important. Even though the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, voters have been dubious about giving their party total control of City Hall. (Democrats will always control the City Council, which currently has exactly four Republicans among its 51 members.) Ever since the great financial crisis of the 1970s, the public has shown a preference for mayors who come from outside the regular party structure.

All the major candidates on the Democratic side this time around are current or recent city office-holders who are pretty much in their party's mainstream. There are some impressive resumes in the mix. But that doesn't make a Democratic victory a cinch.

The Republican Party of New York City may be an empty shell, but it's a shell that serves an important function -- giving people a choice. We're all better off if they pick somebody who will at least give the Democratic nominee a serious challenge.

GOP consultant Susan Del Percio said there's no need to rush. Bloomberg, after all, won't actually vacate City Hall until the end of 2013 (assuming the cranky billionaire doesn't embark on some mad scheme to again change the law that prohibits him from seeking another term.)

"It would be good strategy to hold off," she told HuffPost. "You don't want to expose your candidate to attacks by the Democrats any sooner than is necessary."

So, who, other than the rapidly deflating Senator Smith, is out there? You'd think the job of mayoral nominee-hunting would be easy, given the fact that the Republicans only have to find someone who:

  • Is a New York City resident
  • Wants to be mayor
  • Isn't holding elective office.
  • Isn't a real Republican
  • Has bushels and bushels of cash

"No Republican grows up dreaming of being the mayor of New York City," said GOP consultant Bill O'Reilly. "The Republicans need to find a candidate independent of the system who has the money to run, or who can raise the money to run." [O'Reilly is not you-know-who.]

This is the point at which we get to the fun list and ask whether it isn't time for a celebrity. There are plenty of them around, and they're well-known, obviously. What about Matthew Broderick? Or Sarah Jessica Parker? They appear to be pleasant people. Maybe both of them -- for once that well-worn "two for the price of one" might really mean something. Tina Fey? Spike Lee?

When Republican leaders talk about the next mayoral nominee, they tend to focus on two slightly less glamorous options -- Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and John Catsimatidis, the billionaire businessman, real estate developer and supermarket magnate.

Kelly would be of the Rudy Giuliani model -- crime-fighter turned mayor. He has the requisite non-Republican background -- he's a registered independent who first served as commissioner under Democrat Dinkins. On the downside, he's 70, has shown no interest in the idea, and has very little of the warm approachability you expect in a political candidate. Compared to Kelly, the Giuliani of the 1990s was a cuddly bunny.

Catsimatidis, who Forbes estimates is worth about $2 billion, is obviously in the Bloomberg mold. Political parties just adore candidates who can pay for their own campaigns, and maybe throw a few million the other candidates' way, too. Catsimatidis, a major fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, hits all the other important marks. He was a long-time Democrat who changed his registration to Republican when the political bug bit. He's never held office, but is very clearly interested in the job this time. And he could pay for everything himself.

On the downside, Catsimatidis is less than electrifying. He hasn't demonstrated any more charisma than Mayor Mike. And after 12 years of Bloomberg, the voters might be looking for a different model. Needless to say, Catsimatidis is not nearly as interesting an option as a Republican Spike Lee.