The fall of the Nassau Republican machine and the rise of Homeland Security chair Peter King
THIS NEW PECKING ORDER WOULD LOOM LARGE as King and Gulotta maneuvered for advancement. Each was reelected with ease in 1985—Gulotta with 77 percent of the vote against Frank Quiroga, King with 62 percent against Raymond Grunewald—at which point both found their names being mentioned in connection with the Republican Party’s 1986 statewide ticket. This was partly testament to Nassau’s new status as the top vote-producing county, but also an indication of how bleak the G.O.P.’s prospects were. Governor Mario Cuomo, originally elected in a squeaker in 1982, appeared invincible, the product of a sizzling economy and the popularity he’d won through his electrifying address at the 1984 Democratic convention. One by one, Anthony Colavita, the new state G.O.P. chairman, was turned down by prospective gubernatorial candidates: Lehram, Pete Dawkins, Ron Lauder, Roy Goodman, Henry Kissinger, even the promising young U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani.
"I've had so many say 'no' to me, it doesn't hurt anymore,” Colavita remarked.
There was just as little interest in the G.O.P.’s two open down-ballot slots, for lieutenant governor and attorney general—the slots for which King and Gulotta were prospects. With Cuomo a shoo-in, the L.G.’s race seemed pointless, as did the A.G.’s race, where Democrat Robert Abrams, who had won by 1.5 million votes (the largest-ever margin for attorney general) in his 1982 reelection campaign, was set to run again. For would-be G.O.P. candidates, the pitch was this: Run now and lose, but get credit for doing the party a favor, expand your name recognition and political network, and emerge well-positioned for advancement in a future election. Gulotta scoffed at this and refused to be considered for either race. I don’t do moral victories, he told friends. King, though, grasped the potential: It was another chance to level the playing field with Gulotta as the next county executive’s race, set for 1989, approached.
By March ’86, King was ready to declare his candidacy for attorney general. Armed with two letters from Mondello attesting to his party loyalty and popular appeal (and also a pledge from the chairman to raise $250,000 for the campaign), he took off on an upstate tour, meeting with the party officials whose support he would need at the June state convention.
He wasn’t completely unknown, thanks to his activism on Northern Ireland, which he’d ratcheted up after becoming comptroller—so much that he served as grand marshal for the St. Patrick’s Day parade on 5th Avenue in 1985. The I.R.A.’s use of militant tactics made King vulnerable to charges that he was aiding terrorists, but the political benefits of his advocacy seemed easily to outweigh whatever risks there may have been.
As a statewide candidate, King touted his opposition to abortion, support for the death penalty and potential appeal to blue-collar white ethnics —the Reagan Democrats who had delivered the state to the G.O.P. column in both 1980 and 1984. His old run-in with Margiotta, when he’d been the lone dissenter in the vote to oust Ralph Marino, became a favorite talking point; he was the unbossable guy from Nassau.
He embraced the case of Gary McGivern, who was in prison for killing a deputy sheriff in Ulster County, and for whom Cuomo wanted clemency. It was an easy opening for King to tout his law- and-order, salute-the-flag-and-support-the-cops credentials. It was also a way to make sure that Michael Kavanaugh, Ulster’s D.A. and himself a potential A.G. candidate, wouldn’t be able to ride the issue to the G.O.P. nomination. Some Republicans grumbled about running two candidates from Nassau on their ticket—D’Amato, facing weak Democratic opposition, was also up in ’ 86—but this was mostly idle talk. The state G.O.P. convention anointed King as its candidate for A.G. without opposition. He was part of what was dubbed the Shamrock ticket, which also included Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke for governor, incumbent Edward Regan for comptroller and—in a last-minute switch after questions were raised about the business ties of the husband of Jeanine Pirro, the 34-year-old assistant Westchester D.A. who was originally slated to run with O’Rourke—Kavanaugh for lieutenant governor.
Only for one fleeting instant was there any chance that King might luck his way into office. It came in the spring, when Cuomo—whose original lieutenant governor, Alfred DelBello, had resigned the previous year, famously citing boredom with the job—was casting about for a new running-mate. The DelBello partnership had been an accidental byproduct of the ’82 primary, when DelBello had run as a team with Ed Koch, only to watch Koch lose his gubernatorial primary to Cuomo. This time, Cuomo would get to pick his own No. 2. There was plenty of interest, given that victory in November would be automatic, and that Cuomo, whose national stock was soaring, might conceivably leave midway through his next term for the White House. Cuomo grew interested in Abrams, who had gubernatorial aspirations, but the deal fell apart when Cuomo refused to tell Abrams whether he planned to run for president in 1988. So Abrams stayed in the A.G.’s race and crushed King, 65 to 35 percent.
King took it in stride. The bar had been extremely low; at least he’d outperformed the hapless Frances Sclafani, the Suffolk County district attorney who’d suffered that historic drubbing against Abrams in ’82, and he’d fared no worse than O’Rourke in the gubernatorial race. He’d made some new political and financial contacts, flashed a feisty style in his lone debate from Abrams, and increased his visibility, both in Nassau and across the state. No one regarded the outcome as anything extraordinary, and King returned to his day job, warning about Nassau’s skyrocketing budget and scrutinizing Gulotta’s fiscal management. The next race for county executive was only a few years away, and this time—finally—Purcell wouldn’t be running.
A few weeks later, King discovered that he wouldn’t be, either. Purcell, not far from his 70th birthday, announced his resignation in December. Cablevision was launching a 24-hour news station for Long Island, to be called News 12, and Purcell had been offered a gig as a commentator. It was “an opportunity that comes once a lifetime,” he explained. But it went deeper than that. There was also a deal: Mondello wanted Gulotta’s job as presiding supervisor for himself. Here was a chance to grab it. Putting their differences aside he backed Gulotta as Purcell’s replacement, then recommended himself as Gulotta’s successor. This was incestuous machine politics at its worst, reformers cried. “My first love has always been public service,” Mondello said. "Why should I overlook myself and give up a lifelong ambition just because I'm a party leader?"
Both moves were soon ratified and just like that, Tom Gulotta had the power center, and launching pad, that King had spent the ‘80s trying to secure for himself.
IT WAS HARD TO SEE AT THAT MOMENT, BUT DESPITE HIS POWER grab, Mondello hadn’t completely sold out King and the rest of his allies from the early days of his chairmanship. After the 1988 elections, with Warren Anderson stepping down as the State Senate’s majority leader, Mondello used his clout to install Marino has his successor. Just six years earlier, Margiotta had declared him a traitor and sought to run him out of politics for good; now Marino was the top elected Republican in the state, and the first Nassau Republican ever to serve as majority leader. Mondello acknowledged King’s loyalty by bringing him to the White House in ’88, months after Reagan’s staff—worried about his IRA ties—had refused to let King near the president when he’d come to Long Island. Now, Mondello, summoned as part of Reagan’s push to drum up congressional support for a Contra aid vote, told them they had no choice, and they listened.
But it wasn’t until 1992, three years after King won his third term as comptroller, that Mondello was finally ready and able to hand him a promotion, or at least the opportunity for one. Members of Congress were retiring in numbers not seen since World War II. There were several reasons, including redistricting and a check-bouncing scandal that had snared dozens of members. 1992 would also be the last time that retiring members would be permitted to convert their campaign accounts for private use. On Long Island, this translated into unprecedented upheaval.