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It was a dismal November for Republicans nationally and across New York, but it was particularly ugly in Nassau, where the machine failed in one key test after another. There was Abby Boklan, a former Republican who’d left the party after a falling out with Margiotta, scoring an upset victory for a county court judgeship on the Democratic and Conservative lines; and Carol Berman, supposedly one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the state Senate, holding off a challenge from Dean Skelos, an assemblyman and one of Margiotta’s closest allies; and Barbara Patton, knocking off Republican Briding Newell for a new Assembly seat based in Uniondale, Margiotta’s hometown. Democrats had made the convicted G.O.P. boss an issue, and it seemed to work. In victory, Berman touted a campaign flier that detailed the close ties between Margiotta and Skelos, her opponent. “That did him in,” she bragged. John LeBoutillier, an oddball right-wing congressman (and very possibly the Republican that Tip O’Neill liked the least of all) whose district straddled Nassau and Suffolk Counties, was also defeated, while the G.O.P.’s gubernatorial candidate, Lewis Lehrman, won Nassau by 19,000 votes—a plurality much smaller than what he’d been banking on. (Statewide, Lehrman lost to Mario Cuomo by 180,000 votes.)
The outcome did nothing to dislodge Margiotta. At an executive committee meeting after the election, Skelos and LeBoutillier were called on to attest publicly that Margiotta’s woes had played no role in their defeats; they complied. When Armand D’Amato, Al’s brother and an assemblyman from Island Park, began pursuing the vacant position of Assembly minority leader, Margiotta instructed five loyalists from the Nassau delegation to back Clarence Rappleyea, an upstate Republican. ''They never even gave me the opportunity to sit down with them,” D’ Amato griped. Margiotta’s rationale was simple: Al D’Amato, with his stature as a senator, was a threat, and when he’d privately endorsed Marino as a potential successor over the summer, he’d shown disloyalty. In fact, Margiotta and D’Amato had been growing apart since the ’80 campaign. After D’Amato’s election to the Senate, they’d battled over who should replace him as presiding supervisor. (D’Amato wanted his own close ally James Bennett, a Hempstead councilman.) In the wake of the ’82 election debacle, it was imperative for Margiotta to make a show of scotching Armand D’Amato’s leadership bid, lest there be any doubt among rank-and-file Nassau Republicans about their boss’ clout.
With the appeals process near its end, Margiotta moved in 1983 to implement his succession plan. In the event of a vacancy, he proposed, the vice chairman— Ralph Marino—would be removed from the line of succession. Instead, the executive committee would convene within ten days to appoint a new chairman, who would then be ratified by the full 2,000-member county committee. In practical terms, this would mean that Margiotta would be empowered to rubber-stamp Mondello’s ascension to the chairmanship. Marino, promised that he could retain his vice chairman’s title and control of his local Oyster Bay G.O.P. organization, agreed; it was the best deal he could get, he figured. King, by then one of Margiotta’s loudest G.O.P. critics, said he’d go along with it too, since Marino, his preferred choice to replace Margiotta, had backed down.
In early May, the Supreme Court refused to hear Margiotta's case. A desperate effort to convince President Reagan to issue a pardon failed, with the White House telling reporters it was embarrassed by the request. Margiotta’s legal fight was over. The most powerful man in Nassau County began a 14-month sentence at Allenwood, Pa. on June 15. His machine was now in the hands of Joe Mondello.
THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BAD NEWS FOR KING. He’d gone out on a limb to back Marino, hoping to end up with a new county chairman, one who might promote—or at least not block—his long-term aspirations. Instead, he was stuck with the political equivalent of Margiotta’s son. As Mondello took over, the assumption in Nassau was that he’d be a weak party chief, trying to carry out Margiotta’s wishes until the former chairman’s prison release, at which point Margiotta might then try to reassert day to day control through some new party title (the chairmanship would be off-limits, thanks to his convicted-felon status).
What few people realized, however, was how bitterly Mondello resented this impression. He wanted no part of a puppet regime. From a practical standpoint, it would never work; there were too many decisions to make every day to wait for input and approval from a man locked up hundreds of miles away. But there was a more basic issue of self-respect. Mondello had toiled in obscurity for years, his ambition subordinated to Margiotta’s whims. He’d played along, mostly because he had no choice, taking what Margiotta gave him and acquiring a reputation as yes man with a low political IQ. Here was Mondello’s chance to show that he knew a thing or two about running a party. Margiotta had sized him up as a seat-warmer, but Mondello wanted to be the boss.
Among those taking a dim view of Mondello was Gulotta, the Hempstead presiding supervisor who regarded himself as Margiotta’s true heir. Gulotta had his eyes on the county executive’s office, which was likely to open up in 1985 (many expected Purcell, who would then be 67, to retire)—a post from which he could then launch a statewide campaign. With Margiotta out of the picture, Gulotta decided it was time to run his own show. He began making his own hires for town jobs, failing to gain, or even seek, approval from Mondello, and organized his own lavish fund-raiser ($1,000 a head) in early 1984, a move that would have been a mortal sin under Margiotta. It amounted to a direct challenge to Mondello’s leadership, and to the primacy of the county G.O.P. organization. If Mondello was going to be a real chairman, he had to crack down fast and hard.
This brought Mondello’s interests into line with King’s. Gulotta, by virtue of his powerful perch, was well-positioned to succeed Purcell whenever the county executive retired. So King, who wanted the same job, needed to take him down a notch or two, and teaming up with Mondello represented his best shot. Others joined them. Al D’ Amato, irked by Gulotta’s undisguised ambition, drew closer to Mondello. So did Purcell, who put aside his differences with D’Amato because of his own resentment of Gulotta, who was treating him as if he’d already retired. So it was that Mondello angrily confronted Gulotta in person, reading him the riot act over his disloyalty in a scene that—by design—attracted media attention. King followed up with an unsparing audit of Hempstead’s finances, charging that under Gulotta there had been “a severe breakdown of internal control.” And Purcell announced that “God willing, and in good health, I plan to seek another term as country executive in 1985.” Joe Margiotta’s replacement wasn’t quite the pushover Gulotta had taken him for.
In the summer of 1984, Margiotta was released from prison. He was 56 years old and ready to run the machine again, maybe as a “consultant” or “executive director,” or whatever title he and Mondello could agree on. But Mondello didn’t want him back, and he’d built up enough power in the 14 months Margiotta had been away to tell him just that. There would be no role for Joe Margiotta in the Nassau Republican Party. It was Joe Mondello’s machine now. And if the message was still unclear to anyone, it wasn’t after the first major fund-raising dinner that Mondello organized, where one of the featured speakers was … Ralph Marino. The boss was dead. Long live the boss!
Gulotta toyed with the idea of partnering with Margiotta to create a shadow machine of sorts, but the old boss’ first post-prison political effort—a campaign to unseat Patton, the Democratic assemblywoman who had beaten his organization in 1982—ended in a landslide defeat in 1984. Without his patronage army behind him, Margiotta wasn’t much of a force. Mondello’s organization, though, was performing just fine. Local elections in 1983 had been a triumph for the G.O.P., and, aided by Reagan’s landslide, ’84 had produced some gains—most notably, the ouster of Carol Berman by Dean Skelos in a rematch of their 1982 campaign. Gulotta got the message and returned to the organization fold—but only after his budding rival, Comptroller King, had emerged as one of the new boss’ favorites.
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