The fall of the Nassau Republican machine and the rise of Homeland Security chair Peter King
The winds shifted back to the Democrats on Long Island in 1996, with Clinton trouncing Bob Dole by nearly 20 points—the best showing for a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Frisa, the conservative who’d ousted Levy in the ’94 G.O.P. primary, lost his 4th District seat to Carolyn McCarthy, a former Republican whose husband had been killed in the LIRR massacre. She symbolized exactly the kind of voter Republicans risked alienating for good as long as Gingrich, or a Gingrich-type leader, was their national face. King, though, wasn’t seriously threatened. Riding Clinton’s coattails, a Democratic gadfly named Dal LaMagna (who years later would run a fringe presidential candidacy, attracting eight votes in the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary) attracted 40 percent. King had achieved separation from the national Republican brand.
He kept at it. Republicans barely held their House majority in the ’96 midterms, and King blamed Gingrich for the losses. Days after the election, King called for the Speaker to step aside. A lengthy ethics investigation into Gingrich’s use of a non-profit organization for political purposes was wrapping up, but King stressed that his demand was unrelated. Gingrich was an electoral liability who embodies a "Southern, anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings,” King argued. As a replacement, he proposed Henry Hyde, the mild-mannered Illinoisan best known for his opposition to abortion. The move immediately called to mind King’s fight for Ralph Marino back in 1982—just as lonely, just as futile, and just as good for publicity (better, actually: this time he made CNN and all of the national newspapers). Ironically, when a vote to sanction Gingrich finally came before the House in January 1997, King was one of the few members to vote “no.” He didn’t care for Newt, but he positively hated all the good-government groups that were lining up to lecture the Speaker on his ethics.
“I just think it's a dangerous precedent to set,” he said, “that a person could be hit with that kind of penalty for unintentional violations."
A few months later, King branded the speaker “roadkill on the highway of American politics.” Polls showed Americans, by a wide margin, weren’t fond of Gingrich. But King was just about the only Republican in Washington willing to speak up with this opinion. He was getting noticed, and in a way that made him more popular back home, in a district that continued to become less Republican by the day.
King's cooperative relationship with Clinton also played well in Nassau. The president, in a break from his predecessors, came to office in 1993 intent on playing an active role in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland. Encouraged by advisers like Bruce Morrison, who’d reminded Clinton that there were 44 million Irish- Americans but no “British-American vote,” he’d campaigned before Irish groups and promised to appoint an envoy and to issue a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA’s political wing.
This was music to King’s years. No Republican president had ever shown interest in tackling the cause dearest to him, but here was Clinton acknowledging the grief, anguish and aspirations of Northern Ireland’s Catholics. King was a freshman congressman when Clinton came to office, but within the organized Irish-American community he was a man of stature. Clinton instantly recognized the importance King could play in helping him pursue peace, and cultivated him. Progress came quickly, if painfully: a visa for Adams in 1994, an IRA ceasefire, a second Adams visit for St. Patrick’s Day in 1995 (this time with a presidential handshake), a historic Clinton trip to West Belfast later in ’95, a violent setback in 1996, and the signing of the Good Friday Accords in 1998. Whenever Clinton celebrated a milestone in the process (or made a trip to Ireland), King was right there with him.
In his early days in politics, King’s fellow Nassau Republicans would grumble about his obsession with Northern Ireland, worrying that it might cost him—and them—votes. Back in the early ‘80s, when Irish groups on Long Island were furious over a concert by the British Military Bands at the Nassau Coliseum, Margiotta had even pushed a resolution through his executive committee declaring that the county G.O.P. wouldn’t take sides. But now, King’s obsession became his political salvation. The Nassau machine was dying and Long Island was in revolt against Gingrich-ism. But voters were willing to make an exception for King: Look at all important work he was doing!
When Gingrich and his fellow Republicans impeached Clinton in 1998, King stood up for the president, pleading with his colleagues to settle for a censure and offering Clinton private advice on which Republicans he might reach out to and how he might win them over. But the right had considered Clinton an imposter president from the beginning; now that they had an opening, they’d settle for nothing less than removal from office. Virtually alone among Republicans, King voted against every article of impeachment. (He’d reprise this role more than a decade later, defending Charlie Rangel, with whom he’d struck up a friendly, mutually respectful relationship, and refusing to join his colleagues in censuring him.)
In truth, King’s voting record made him a fairly standard conservative Republican. But voters only notice the big stuff. When they saw King on television, it was because he was defending Clinton or lashing out at Gingrich and the national G.O.P. or talking about Northern Ireland. He was his own man, a likable, unpretentious one at that. Long Island was tilting away from the G.O.P., but King was safe.
Other Republicans could have learned a thing or two from this. Like Nassau’s biggest fish in Washington, Senator Alfonse D’Amato.
While King was fighting Newt and befriending Bill, D’Amato was furiously looking into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s business dealings from the 1970s and early 1980s. Whitewater had been a favorite topic on the right since the ’ '92 campaign, with Clinton-phobic conservatives convinced that Bill and Hillary had committed some kind of criminal wrongdoing through their role in a failed real estate development company in Arkansas. To most Americans, the “scandal” was utterly incomprehensible, but Republicans in Congress took their 1994 midterm triumph as a license to pursue the matter. D’Amato took over as chairman of a special Whitewater committee in the Senate. He may have genuinely expected to uncover a smoking gun that would bring the president down, but his crusading succeeded only in lowering his poll numbers back in New York.
From the moment he’d entered the Senate race in ’80, D’Amato’s own ethics had been an issue, thanks to his machine past. It didn’t help that, midway through his first term, he was called to testify in a federal trial that proved, once and for all, that Margiotta’s machine had compelled county and municipal employees to tithe one percent of their annual earnings to the party. On the stand, D’Amato admitted that, years earlier, he’d “taken care of the one percent” for an Island Park neighbor. Much more damaging to D’Amato, however, was an 18- month Senate ethics committee investigation during his second term, which focused on accusations that D’Amato had used his power to benefit friends, donors and family members. The probe, which resulted in D’Amato receiving a strongly worded letter from the panel (for allowing his brother Armand, the former assemblyman, to use his official Senate stationery to solicit contracts for one of his clients), nearly cost him reelection in ’92. Many New Yorkers wondered: Who was this guy to spend his time, and our money, challenging the Clintons’ honesty and ethics over a non-scandal?
D’Amato could also be crude. During the O.J. Simpson trial, he went on Don Imus’ syndicated morning radio show and, assuming a stereotypical Japanese-American accent, offered his own impersonation of Judge Lance Ito (whose own voice didn’t contain a hint of a Japanese accent). And at the height of his 1998 reelection fight, he blasted his Democratic challenger Chuck Schumer, in a closed-door editorial meeting with a Jewish newspaper, as a “putzhead,” and ridiculed Jerry Nadler, the portly Manhattan congressman, as “Jerry Wadler.” It had been a fun run, but after 18 years, Al D’Amato had worn out his welcome, and voters showed him the door. The biggest success story in the history of the Nassau County Republican machine was over.
So was the machine. In 1999, Republicans lost control of the Nassau County legislature. Reports emerged that the county had accumulated $3 billion in debt over the previous decade, mostly from borrowing. Gulotta, reelected one final time in 1997, watched his approval rating crash to an astonishing 15 percent. He declined to seek reelection in 2001, not that he had much of a choice: Every remaining G.O.P. legislator had demanded that he leave.
Gulotta’s departure didn’t stop the bleeding: In 2001, Nassau County elected a Democrat, Tom Suozzi, as its county executive for the first time ever. Republicans could still win in Nassau, and in some pockets they were still dominant, but it was a new era, and the machine lay in ruins.
Peter King, though, was still standing. On his own.