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The same thing played out over and over for the next six months, with Gulotta asking—and eventually begging—Mondello to offer his organization’s support. Without it, Mondello would have no chance at the state G.O.P. convention. Every time, Mondello said no. While this was unfolding, D’Amato, who had defied the odds to defeat Robert Abrams in his ’92 reelection bid, began promoting a candidate of his own: a first-term state senator and former Peekskill mayor named George Pataki. D’Amato liked him for his demographic appeal—a small-town ethnic with a farming background who had been elected to the legislature on an anti- tax pledge (a pledge he had kept). D’ Amato, who himself had entertained thoughts of running for governor someday, also liked the idea of having a governor’s ear. He and his former aide William Powers, who had been elected state G.O.P. chairman in 1991, began peddling Pataki aggressively—while Gulotta, apoplectic that he might lose out on his big moment to some no-name from Peekskill, tried desperately to convince Mondello to reconsider.
Gulotta found an ally in Marino, the State Senate majority leader. Marino resented that Pataki had come to the Senate in ’92 with the support of an anti-tax group that had targeted several Republican incumbents, including Marino. Plus, as a senator, Pataki had bucked Marino on a key vote. But Mondello wouldn’t budge. His grip on Nassau was precarious enough, and he wasn’t about to jeopardize it further for the sake of Gulotta’s ego.
While Pataki won an overwhelming endorsement at the state Republican convention, Gulotta fumed, and plotted. The way he saw it, Mondello, in spurning his home county candidate for Pataki, was taking a significant gamble. Thus, a Pataki loss in November would represent the final, fatal blow to Mondello’s chairmanship. He’d already led the county G.O.P. to its lowest level in decades, opponents would be able to crow, and now he’d cost one of their own a chance to be governor while helping to reelect Mario Cuomo.
The fall of 1994 became Mondello’s make-or-break moment as chairman. First up was another congressional primary in September, a rematch of the Levy-Frisa contest of ’92. Once again, Margiotta and his crew were backing Frisa, who portrayed the incumbent as an ideologically impure sellout. The message matched the moment; with Clinton in the White House and Democrats running Congress, the G.O.P. base was particularly receptive to red-meat appeals. Frisa defeated Levy in the primary. Mondello’s grip on the chairmanship slipped further. (Curiously, despite racking up a first-term voting record identical to Levy’s, King avoided a serious primary challenge in ’94, blasting his token opposition with more than 70 percent of the vote. A possible explanation: King, much more than Levy, had over the years made a personal impression on voters, whether through his IRA advocacy, abortion opposition, or fights with Margiotta. Levy, by contrast, was anonymous.)
Weeks before the November election, Gulotta convened a meeting of dissident G.O.P. county executive committee members in his home. Marino was on his side now, along with Margiotta, Fred Parola (King’s successor as comptroller) and at least two dozen others. And their ranks would swell, they knew, as soon as Cuomo was reelected, as the late October polls suggested he would be. When the Democratic governor came to Nassau for a campaign stop disguised as an official event, Gulotta and Marino made a show of meeting up with him —even though Pataki was making a campaign appearance of his own nearby. They weren’t quite as up-front about it as Giuliani, a D’Amato nemesis who publicly endorsed Cuomo in the race’s home stretch, but there was little doubt about whom they were pulling for on Election Day.
Which is why the happiest man in New York on November 8, 1994—happier than George Pataki, happier than Al D’Amato—may well have been Joe Mondello. Cuomo, despite pulling ahead in the last weeks of the campaign, fell short. For the first time since Nelson Rockefeller in 1970, New Yorkers had elected a Republican governor. Had the outcome gone the other way, Mondello would have been finished as county chairman. Instead, it was payback time. Marino, installed as majority leader at Mondello’s behest six years earlier, was sacked, replaced by Joe Bruno. His power all gone, Marino soon resigned his seat. After 26 years in the Senate, his political career was finished. Parola begged forgiveness and reaffirmed his loyalty to the chairman. Disloyal executive committee members were purged. Gulotta’s statewide ambitions were over. And Margiotta’s days as a Nassau powerbroker were done for good.
Mondello, meanwhile, was appointed to the new governor’s transition team. As long as Pataki was governor, he would enjoy protected status. And King prepared to take the congressional oath of office for the second time. The rivalry with Gulotta was over, and the winner was obvious.
IF KING WERE THE KNEE-JERK CONSERVATIVE that many political commentators who are just getting to know him now take him for, then surely his career would have ended during his second term in Congress. When, for the first time in 40 years, Republicans took charge of the House in 1995, Northern suburbanites in places like Nassau began to rethink their instinctive sympathy for the G.O.P. The Southern-flavored, religious-tinged Republicanism practiced by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, suddenly the two most prominent Republicans in Washington, was not a good fit for Long Island. As the economy improved and Clinton’s poll numbers came back to life, the national G.O.P. emerged as an albatross for Republicans in Nassau. Of particular concern to voters was the G.O.P.’s staunch opposition to gun control, a sensitive local subject in the wake of Colin Ferguson’s bloody December 1993 rampage on the Long Island Rail Road.
There was plenty of ideological common ground between King and the new Republican House Speaker, and King voted with his party regularly. But not always. He didn’t share his Republican colleagues’ blind devotion to free markets; how many times as comptroller had King defended the county’s high taxes as essential to providing quality services? His was more a conservatism of the gut: reverence for the flag, the church, the military, and the cops, and deep suspicion of anyone who would criticize anything about any of them. He was as opposed to abortion, flag-burning and affirmative action as any Republican. But a government program that would help the church-going family down the street—well, that was a different story. One of the reasons he saw political machines as inherently good was their responsiveness to average citizens. "If a Republican committeeman calls with a complaint about potholes, for example, government listens,” he once explained.
So when Republicans called a vote on a bill to end the ban on assault weapons, King voted no. He’d generally been against gun control, but in the wake of the LIRR tragedy, he knew what his constituents expected. And when Gingrich and Armey ratcheted up their rhetoric against unions, a favorite conservative punching bag, King fought back. Union support had been at the heart of the Nassau G.O.P.’s success, and King prided himself on his kinship with working-class voters. He accused the Republican leadership of running the House with a “regional bias.” And when a bill to restrict the money allocated to former presidents and congressional leaders for office expenses reached the floor, King made a show of opposing it, mocking conservative purists for being pound-foolish. “These are men of history,” he said of those whose funds would be cut off. “They have an obligation to stay in touch with history and with their constituents." It was a typical King move: a contrarian take on a topic that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, and the the kind of gesture that might catch the average voter’s attention for a moment, and cause him or her to nod in agreement.
At the same time, King was still a conservative, after his own fashion. When his questioning of a witness at a House committee hearing in 1993 provoked outrage from Maxine Waters, who asked that King be ruled out of order, King fired back, “You are always out of order.” (To which Waters replied: “Shut up.”) The exchange made national news, with King happily playing the victim. "The gentlelady from California went to a new low," he said on the House floor. "She's not going to tell me to shut up. She's not going to tell the American people to shut up." King also waged a one-man crusade against Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam, claiming they were profiting from federal housing contracts. This was the Peter King that the cops and firefighters in the 3rd District knew and liked.
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