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With Margiotta under indictment, Republicans faced the prospect of contesting the 1981 elections with their leader in prison, or at least tied up in court. There was no telling what effect this would have on fund-raising and party discipline, to say nothing of public opinion. This is where King came in. The councilman had developed a close relationship with Dillon, a man with whom he shared two passions: opposition to abortion and support for the Irish nationalist movement in Northern Ireland. A few weeks after Margiotta’s indictment, in fact, King and Dillon accompanied Senator-elect D’Amato on a trip to Belfast. Hunger strikes by Irish-republican prisoners had begun to make news in the United States, and Americans—even many Irish-Americans —were only just waking up to the reality of the Troubles. It was still not a subject that American politicians were interested in addressing, and in their shared willingness to speak out, King and Dillon formed a bond.
(That D’Amato agreed to visit Belfast, something that few of his soon-to-be Senate colleagues would have even considered, spoke to prevalence of Irish- Catholics in his Nassau base.) At one point on the trip, Dillon interrupted when someone casually mentioned to D’Amato that there were two sides to the issue. “Yes,” replied the district attorney, “there are two sides—a right one and a wrong one.''
Back in Nassau, the Democratic D.A. represented his party’s best chance of breaking through in 1981. In Dillon, a media favorite widely praised for bringing professionalism to the prosecutor’s office, they saw the perfect candidate to run for county executive. State Democrats, seeing in Dillon’s unusual suburban appeal a potential future statewide candidate, also took an interest. With Margiotta in limbo, this was his time to move up, and to to carry the rest of the party’s ticket on his shoulders. But King had a different idea: Why not offer to let Dillon run on the Republican Party line—in addition to the Democratic and Right-to-Life lines he had previously enjoyed—for another term as D.A? Dillon liked the idea; he was coming to see himself as a career prosecutor. But the Republicans were a tougher sell. Some were still feeling greedy, and wanted to run their own candidate for D.A. Others wondered if they should really be helping a Democrat who might someday run for governor. But Margiotta knew a good deal when he saw one. Denis Dillon would run on the Republican line in 1981.
And that about did it for the Democrats’ dreams of a breakthrough. There had been talk that the 63-year-old Purcell might, if confronted with a Dillon challenge, stand down. But with Dillon out, Democrats once again settled for a sacrificial lamb, this time John Matthews, the vice chairman of the county party. For the other countywide post, comptroller, Democrats had been prepared to field Richard Kessel, who’d spent the last few years raising a ruckus over the G.O.P.’s profligate spending and patronage practices. But after Dillon cut his deal, Kessel admitted, running as a Democrat was a doomed mission.
"They'll vote for Purcell on the Republican line, Dillon on the G.O.P. line and then clickety-clack right down the Republican line," he explained.
In what had once looked like a perilous year for the machine, the Democrats had been neutralized, and King’s relationship with Dillon was a big reason why. What’s more, Margiotta’s trial ended in the spring of ’81 with a hung jury; it wasn’t exactly exoneration, but it was a good start. The feds promised to seek a second trial, but it wouldn’t start until after the November election. The boss had won a reprieve; now it was safe to play some musical chairs: With M. Hallsted Christ moving up to the State Supreme Court, Margiotta decreed that the Nassau Republican Party’s new candidate for comptroller would be Councilman Peter King. Election night at party headquarters in Westbury was once again a cause for celebration. Purcell trounced Matthews by 27 points, the same margin by which King defeated his token Democratic foe, Harold Berger. Tom Gulotta, plucked by Margiotta from the Assembly to replace D’Amato as Hempstead Presiding Supervisor, won by an even bigger margin in a race with significant patronage implications. Indictment? What indictment?
The illusion, though, could only last so long. Margiotta’s second trial began in mid-November and wrapped up three weeks later, on December 9. This time, the verdict was guilty, on one count of fraud and five counts of extortion. "I'm shocked at the verdict,” he declared. “I feel that I've been convicted because I've been a successful political leader. I feel that I carried out my responsibilities honestly. I didn't break any law."
Nassau’s boss was staring at real jail time and, as a convicted felon, the loss of his right to vote, meaning that, under New York state law, which requires that party leaders be registered party members, Margiotta would have to give up his chairmanship immediately. In a testament to the clout he’d built up, Margiotta won a ruling from a state election law panel allowing him to stay on as party boss through the appeals process, which he vowed to pursue aggressively, all the way to the Supreme Court if need be.
When he’d been indicted the year before, Nassau Republicans had stood united behind Margiotta—partly out of loyalty, but also because it was the safe move. From a legal standpoint, the charges were potentially beatable—deals like the one he’d struck with Richard Williams & Son were not unheard of, and it was far from clear that prosecutors would be able to prove that an explicit arrangement even existed—and Margiotta would have top-notch lawyers representing him. It was entirely possible that he’d win in court and go right back to being chairman, as if nothing had ever happened. And who would want to be the Republican politician or committeeman who’d called for him to step aside then?
But now that Margiotta had been convicted, the calculus changed a little. He was soon disbarred and forced to give up his consultant’s gig with the State Senate. He also lost his first appeal bid in early 1982, and shortly thereafter, the Conservative Party—which had happily backed Margiotta’s candidates for years—threatened to withhold cross-endorsements of Republican candidates until he stepped down. Meanwhile, the ’82 playing field was looking ominous for the G.O.P., with a brutal recession dragging down President Reagan’s approval ratings, potentially jeopardizing fellow Republicans at all levels on the ballot. Now that it seemed likely he’d end up in jail, turning on Margiotta was no longer quite so unthinkable. In fact, for a few Republicans, it was a matter of some urgency, since Margiotta appeared to be in the process of handpicking a successor to step in and run the party if he had to go away for a year or two, then turn the reins back over to him when he was back. Margiotta’s preferred successor, it seemed, was a Hempstead councilman named Joe Mondello, who wasn’t known for much besides his loyalty and deference to the boss.
For King, who hoped to serve someday as county executive, this was hardly ideal. Sure, Margiotta had been good to him, but the chairman had already made it clear that he considered Purcell’s heir to be Gulotta. A tradition had developed in which the presiding supervisor of Hempstead was considered next-in-line for the executive’s post. So when Margiotta tapped Gulotta, then a 36-year-old assemblyman, to replace D’Amato, he’d been sending an unmistakable message. It was against this backdrop that King, D’Amato, Purcell and Hempstead Supervisor James Bennett struck an informal agreement in the summer of ’82 to support Ralph Marino as the interim chairman in the event of a vacancy. Marino, a moderate, long-tenured state senator who had been the county party’s vice chairman since 1975, was a compromise choice.
To Margiotta, this was nothing short of treason. He convened an executive committee meeting at which he reiterated his intent to remain as chairman, then asked members to vote on a resolution stripping Marino of his party leadership posts. "If you vote yes on this,'' Margiotta declared, "you're voting for me. If you vote no, you're voting against me." Sixty-nine of the 70 committee members voted with him. The only one to vote “no” was King."
"I've been around long enough to know I was taking a risk," King explained. “But you have to live with yourself."
Margiotta’s muscle-flexing worked, at least in the short-term. A spooked Purcell turned on Marino and announced that, if he went to jail, Margiotta should be guaranteed control of the party upon his release. Marino managed to win a court ruling invalidating the executive committee’s vote to strip him of his titles, but Margiotta simply scheduled another vote: This time, the committee informed the vice chairman that it had no confidence in him. Once again, the lone dissenter was Peter King. It surely didn’t escape the comptroller that the politics of this stand were excellent. Long Islanders were saturated with coverage of the Margiotta saga, and King had found a way to distinguish himself in a very helpful way, as one of the few Republicans with the courage and common sense to stand up to the boss. And the risk was low: No matter how many resolutions he pushed through the G.O.P. executive committee, Margiotta was still almost certainly destined for jail.
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