The fall of the Nassau Republican machine and the rise of Homeland Security chair Peter King

Pete King. ()
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To the casual observer of national politics, Peter King, whose Homeland Security committee will soon launch what amounts to a Congressional inquest into the loyalty of Muslim-Americans, probably seems like a perfect caricature of a Tea Party-era Republican.

But this doesn't quite explain the complexities and contradictions that define the man who has represented an increasingly Democratic district on Long Island in Congress for the last two decades—a Republican who has a fondness for unions, political machines and Charlie Rangel, despises reformers, and once warned that Newt Gingrich and his allies were turning the G.O.P. into a party of "hillbillies at revival meetings."

The same Peter King who now runs the Homeland Security Committee for the mad-as-hell Republican House majority has in the past advocated tax increases, defended political patronage and formed chummy relationships with Democrats who are considered villains by most other conservatives. He called for Gingrich’s ouster as House Speaker before any other Republican would. He broke with virtually every Republican in Congress to vote against each article of impeachment against Bill Clinton and supported Clinton’s military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. He defied his own state party’s leadership in 2000 to back John McCain over George W. Bush—a decision that ultimately cost King a chance to run for the U.S. Senate. He even spent two decades cultivating Long Island’s growing Muslim community, only to turn on it in the wake of 9/11.

Along the way, he managed simultaneously to acquire the reputation and political appeal of a conscience-voting rebel, and the perks and job security of an organization man.

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It only begins to make sense when you understand the political world Peter King comes from, and what the Nassau County Republican Party was in its prime. And the best place to start that story is 31 years ago, when the machine that produced Peter King engineered one of the most shocking political upsets in modern American politics.

THE NEW YORK POLITICAL WORLD BARELY BLINKED when a 42-year-old presiding town supervisor from Hempstead, Alfonse D'Amato, began making noise about running statewide in 1980. The man D’Amato was threatening to challenge was Jacob Javits, a cherished icon of liberal Republicanism and the last remaining link to the Rockefeller-Dewey era. Since his first election in 1956, Javits had been at the forefront of the civil rights fight, played a leading role in the expansion of the social safety net, and had even helped to lay the groundwork for the Camp David Accords. D’Amato had … organized a summer concert series. Surely, D'Amato's threat was some kind of lame publicity gimmick, probably to position himself for an office that would actually be attainable, like Nassau County executive.

Among those who had this reaction was D’Amato’s political godfather, Joseph Margiotta. Officially, Margiotta was the chairman of the Nassau’s Republican Party, a deceptive title in that that it suggests he was just another of the 62 regional G.O.P. leaders in the state. In reality, the organization Margiotta oversaw—an organization he had largely built himself—was a massive political machine, bigger, stronger and richer than any county organization in the state or across the country.

By 1980, the Nassau G.O.P. was taking in over $2 million a year, and its biggest annual event, a May banquet in Hauppage, was considered the most lucrative political fund-raising dinner in America, routinely attracting national Republican leaders (like Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in ’80.) Nassau was rich and fast-growing, with a deep Republican tradition, and Margiotta was its king. He’d entered politics in the mid-1960s, fighting an effort to build low-income housing at Mitchell Field in Uniondale, then winning a spot in the state Assembly in 1966. A year later, he took over the Nassau G.O.P., and that’s when the remarkable stuff began.

In the post-war years, the county’s population had exploded, more than tripling between 1940 and 1970, to nearly 1.5 million. Way back, Nassau had been settled by Protestant farmers, but the new arrivals tended to be Italian, Irish and Jewish—“white ethnics” who had fled Queens and Brooklyn for more property, bigger houses, and better schools. They’d been raised as Democrats, but in the upheaval of the 1960s had come to resent the liberalism that increasingly defined the party, seeing it as little more than redistribution and social engineering at their own expense. The Nassau they came to was already a G.O.P. bastion, and even though many of the natives favored a different (and now extinct) brand of egalitarian Republicanism, the transplanted city-folk assimilated easily with the local G.O.P.

With Republicans perpetually in control of the county’s top elected posts—and with Hempstead, the largest town in Nassau (and, with over 700,000 residents, the largest town in America) equally wired for G.O.P. dominance—Margiotta was free to turn the remnants of the Republican organization originally built by J. Russell Sprague, Nassau’s first county executive, during and after World War II into a fearsome, well-oiled and thoroughly modern machine. Of the county’s 20,000 or so jobs, five percent were non-civil service. When there was an opening, Margiotta would be alerted. If the position paid less than $15,000, his assistant would interview applicants. If the job paid more than $15,000 the chairman would handle it himself. Applicants were instructed to show their voter ID cards and told that, if they were hired, they’d be expected to volunteer some time helping their local Republican leader. Donations from county and municipal employees were tracked at party headquarters; one percent of your annual income was the expected contribution. If an employee didn’t chip in enough, Margiotta warned, “don’t ask me to do something for his son or brother.”

By the 1980s, 75 percent of the nearly 2,000 Nassau County Republican Committee members were on state, county or town payrolls. Every summer, the county would hire 1,300 seasonal workers—lifeguards and clean-up crews for beaches, mostly. It wasn’t written down anywhere, but everyone knew the rule: No Democrats, or children of Democrats, need apply. Someone took a survey: Of the 400 county-owned cabanas at Malibu Beach, only four were leased to Democrats. "The only thing you can liken it to is an army," Lew Yevoli, a Democratic assemblyman from Long Island, said at the time. ''There is never a break in the ranks. I don't think Tammany Hall in its heyday had anything like what (Margiotta) has."

Upkeep for Margiotta’s machine was an enormous expense, and inefficiency was a given. The Nassau Bridge Authority, which collected tolls for the Atlantic Bay Bridge, was a notorious patronage den; 95 percent of the money it collected went to overhead. Margiotta and his loyalists in Nassau’s Albany delegation would routinely ask the legislature to authorize increases in the county’s sales tax rate; soon it was on par with New York City’s. Property taxes soared, making Nassau one of the most expensive places in America to live. Democrats railed against the waste and profligate spending, but voters kept choosing the machine.

His tight grip on political life in what was becoming one of the state’s largest counties made Margiotta a power player in Albany. By the mid ‘70s, he had left his Assembly seat to be a fulltime county chairman. The party paid for an executive assistant, a car, and a chauffeur, while the state Senate’s G.O.P. leadership—mindful of Margiotta’s statewide importance—carved out a sinecure for him as a “consultant.”

So it was a significant problem for Presiding Supervisor D’Amato when Chairman Margiotta scoffed at his idea of running for the Senate. But D’Amato persisted. Javits, he was adamant, could be beaten. Margiotta didn’t much care, actually—a U.S. senator had no patronage value to him, so the idea of backing Javits for another election didn’t bother him—but D’Amato, who’d risen through the machine’s ranks, had been a team player, and he had plenty of friends and allies in the Nassau G.O.P.

Margiotta commissioned the pricey political consultant he kept on his payroll (how many county parties did that?) to take a poll, and a few days later Arthur Finkelstein came back with an answer: D’Amato was right. There was a path to victory.