The fall of the Nassau Republican machine and the rise of Homeland Security chair Peter King
To the casual observer of national politics, Peter King, whose Homeland Security committee will soon launch what amounts to a Congressional inquest into the loyalty of Muslim-Americans, probably seems like a perfect caricature of a Tea Party-era Republican.
But this doesn't quite explain the complexities and contradictions that define the man who has represented an increasingly Democratic district on Long Island in Congress for the last two decades—a Republican who has a fondness for unions, political machines and Charlie Rangel, despises reformers, and once warned that Newt Gingrich and his allies were turning the G.O.P. into a party of "hillbillies at revival meetings."
The same Peter King who now runs the Homeland Security Committee for the mad-as-hell Republican House majority has in the past advocated tax increases, defended political patronage and formed chummy relationships with Democrats who are considered villains by most other conservatives. He called for Gingrich’s ouster as House Speaker before any other Republican would. He broke with virtually every Republican in Congress to vote against each article of impeachment against Bill Clinton and supported Clinton’s military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. He defied his own state party’s leadership in 2000 to back John McCain over George W. Bush—a decision that ultimately cost King a chance to run for the U.S. Senate. He even spent two decades cultivating Long Island’s growing Muslim community, only to turn on it in the wake of 9/11.
Along the way, he managed simultaneously to acquire the reputation and political appeal of a conscience-voting rebel, and the perks and job security of an organization man.
It only begins to make sense when you understand the political world Peter King comes from, and what the Nassau County Republican Party was in its prime. And the best place to start that story is 31 years ago, when the machine that produced Peter King engineered one of the most shocking political upsets in modern American politics.
THE NEW YORK POLITICAL WORLD BARELY BLINKED when a 42-year-old presiding town supervisor from Hempstead, Alfonse D'Amato, began making noise about running statewide in 1980. The man D’Amato was threatening to challenge was Jacob Javits, a cherished icon of liberal Republicanism and the last remaining link to the Rockefeller-Dewey era. Since his first election in 1956, Javits had been at the forefront of the civil rights fight, played a leading role in the expansion of the social safety net, and had even helped to lay the groundwork for the Camp David Accords. D’Amato had … organized a summer concert series. Surely, D'Amato's threat was some kind of lame publicity gimmick, probably to position himself for an office that would actually be attainable, like Nassau County executive.
Among those who had this reaction was D’Amato’s political godfather, Joseph Margiotta. Officially, Margiotta was the chairman of the Nassau’s Republican Party, a deceptive title in that that it suggests he was just another of the 62 regional G.O.P. leaders in the state. In reality, the organization Margiotta oversaw—an organization he had largely built himself—was a massive political machine, bigger, stronger and richer than any county organization in the state or across the country.
By 1980, the Nassau G.O.P. was taking in over $2 million a year, and its biggest annual event, a May banquet in Hauppage, was considered the most lucrative political fund-raising dinner in America, routinely attracting national Republican leaders (like Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in ’80.) Nassau was rich and fast-growing, with a deep Republican tradition, and Margiotta was its king. He’d entered politics in the mid-1960s, fighting an effort to build low-income housing at Mitchell Field in Uniondale, then winning a spot in the state Assembly in 1966. A year later, he took over the Nassau G.O.P., and that’s when the remarkable stuff began.
In the post-war years, the county’s population had exploded, more than tripling between 1940 and 1970, to nearly 1.5 million. Way back, Nassau had been settled by Protestant farmers, but the new arrivals tended to be Italian, Irish and Jewish—“white ethnics” who had fled Queens and Brooklyn for more property, bigger houses, and better schools. They’d been raised as Democrats, but in the upheaval of the 1960s had come to resent the liberalism that increasingly defined the party, seeing it as little more than redistribution and social engineering at their own expense. The Nassau they came to was already a G.O.P. bastion, and even though many of the natives favored a different (and now extinct) brand of egalitarian Republicanism, the transplanted city-folk assimilated easily with the local G.O.P.
With Republicans perpetually in control of the county’s top elected posts—and with Hempstead, the largest town in Nassau (and, with over 700,000 residents, the largest town in America) equally wired for G.O.P. dominance—Margiotta was free to turn the remnants of the Republican organization originally built by J. Russell Sprague, Nassau’s first county executive, during and after World War II into a fearsome, well-oiled and thoroughly modern machine. Of the county’s 20,000 or so jobs, five percent were non-civil service. When there was an opening, Margiotta would be alerted. If the position paid less than $15,000, his assistant would interview applicants. If the job paid more than $15,000 the chairman would handle it himself. Applicants were instructed to show their voter ID cards and told that, if they were hired, they’d be expected to volunteer some time helping their local Republican leader. Donations from county and municipal employees were tracked at party headquarters; one percent of your annual income was the expected contribution. If an employee didn’t chip in enough, Margiotta warned, “don’t ask me to do something for his son or brother.”
By the 1980s, 75 percent of the nearly 2,000 Nassau County Republican Committee members were on state, county or town payrolls. Every summer, the county would hire 1,300 seasonal workers—lifeguards and clean-up crews for beaches, mostly. It wasn’t written down anywhere, but everyone knew the rule: No Democrats, or children of Democrats, need apply. Someone took a survey: Of the 400 county-owned cabanas at Malibu Beach, only four were leased to Democrats. "The only thing you can liken it to is an army," Lew Yevoli, a Democratic assemblyman from Long Island, said at the time. ''There is never a break in the ranks. I don't think Tammany Hall in its heyday had anything like what (Margiotta) has."
Upkeep for Margiotta’s machine was an enormous expense, and inefficiency was a given. The Nassau Bridge Authority, which collected tolls for the Atlantic Bay Bridge, was a notorious patronage den; 95 percent of the money it collected went to overhead. Margiotta and his loyalists in Nassau’s Albany delegation would routinely ask the legislature to authorize increases in the county’s sales tax rate; soon it was on par with New York City’s. Property taxes soared, making Nassau one of the most expensive places in America to live. Democrats railed against the waste and profligate spending, but voters kept choosing the machine.
His tight grip on political life in what was becoming one of the state’s largest counties made Margiotta a power player in Albany. By the mid ‘70s, he had left his Assembly seat to be a fulltime county chairman. The party paid for an executive assistant, a car, and a chauffeur, while the state Senate’s G.O.P. leadership—mindful of Margiotta’s statewide importance—carved out a sinecure for him as a “consultant.”
So it was a significant problem for Presiding Supervisor D’Amato when Chairman Margiotta scoffed at his idea of running for the Senate. But D’Amato persisted. Javits, he was adamant, could be beaten. Margiotta didn’t much care, actually—a U.S. senator had no patronage value to him, so the idea of backing Javits for another election didn’t bother him—but D’Amato, who’d risen through the machine’s ranks, had been a team player, and he had plenty of friends and allies in the Nassau G.O.P.
Margiotta commissioned the pricey political consultant he kept on his payroll (how many county parties did that?) to take a poll, and a few days later Arthur Finkelstein came back with an answer: D’Amato was right. There was a path to victory.
This had little to do with D’Amato himself, who had no name recognition outside Long Island, and everything to do with Javits. The senator was a relic, an authentic liberal who had voted with the Carter administration 82 percent of the time in a party increasingly defined by Goldwater-Reagan conservatism. Two years earlier, in 1978, a long-tenured liberal Republican senator from New Jersey, Clifford Case, had been bounced by a no-name in a Republican primary, while Ed Brooke, a liberal Republican from Massachusetts, had barely survived a similar intraparty challenge (only to lose in the fall). Conservatives were in revolt, and their insurrection was resonating in suburbs like Nassau. There was also the matter of Javits’ health. Just a year or two earlier, he had been an active, tennis-playing septuagenarian. But his speech had suddenly begun to slow, and his step wasn’t nearly as quick or confident as it had been. Something was clearly not right; as he approached his 76th birthday, Javits finally looked his age, and then some.
In a one-on-one primary, being the only guy on the ballot not named Javits might just be enough for D’Amato to win. But how to get that clear shot at Javits? For the average town official, this is where the dream would have ended. First, there were other candidates eyeing the race. The heavyweight was Jack Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback-turned-congressman whose blueprint for steep income tax cuts was all the rage among members of what was then called the New Right. Kemp, in fact, had come close to entering the ’80 presidential race, backing out only when it became clear that Reagan had locked up the conservative vote. Instead, Kemp said he’d look into running for Javits’ seat.
And if Kemp didn’t go, there was Bruce Caputo, an ambitious, fiercely conservative two-term congressman from Westchester. Why would conservatives rally around some town official from Long Island over either of them? It wasn't even clear whether they'd support a primary at all. The state G.O.P. had never authorized one in its history, and only once had a candidate spurned at the state convention managed to petition his way onto the primary ballot (Peter Peyser, in his ill-fated 1976 challenge to Senator James Buckley). It’s not like the party’s pragmatic county chairmen, who still generally liked Javits, would be eager to add D’Amato name to their ballot.
This is where Nassau’s boss came in. Once Finkelstein reported back, Margiotta put his reluctance aside and embraced the chance to flash his machine’s muscle on a grand scale. In December ’79, his 69-member executive committee unanimously approved a resolution “authorizing” a D’Amato exploratory effort—a clear signal to Republicans across the state that they ought to take the Hempstead supervisor seriously. George Clark, Brooklyn’s G.O.P. chairman, and Anthony Prudenti of Suffolk, Margiotta allies both, spoke up to say Javits should be challenged. No one in the state Republican Party was going to tell the Nassau boss to stop: The state G.O.P. was $800,000 in debt, and Margiotta, whose organization was sitting on $4 million, had just agreed to eat half of it.
Margiotta then called in favors from Serf Maltese and Kieran O’Doherty, leaders of the fledgling Conservative Party, which had been profiting from the conservative revolution in the suburbs by fielding candidates far to the right of the state G.O.P. In 1970, Buckley, running against a liberal Democrat (Richard Ottinger) and a liberal Republican (Charles Goodell) had been elected to the Senate on the Conservative line, and in Javits’ last two reelection campaigns, Conservative candidates had notched nearly 20 percent of the vote. Maltese and O’Doherty announced that their party would endorse a Republican challenger well before the G.O.P. primary, and made it clear to Margiotta that D’Amato would be their candidate, as long as Kemp didn’t run.
And wouldn't you know it, by March Kemp took his name out of the mix. Reagan was on his way to the G.O.P. nomination and Kemp believed the No. 2 slot on the national ticket was within his reach (for good reason – the Gipper’s first choice for V.P. was Kemp, though he ultimately tapped George H.W. Bush to promote party unity). Almost immediately, Maltese and O’Doherty threw their support behind D’Amato, guaranteeing him a spot on the fall ballot. Now, anti-Javits voters within the Republican Party had a powerful incentive to unite behind D’ Amato, lest the conservative vote be split in November. Prudenti’s and Clark’s organizations followed suit with endorsements. So did John Calandra, the Bronx chairman, who had originally committed to Caputo—until Margiotta had a talk with him.
With four country endorsements, D’Amato had an apparent lock on the 25 percent he’d need at the state convention to force a primary, and he’d suffocated Caputo too. National money from the burgeoning right-wing direct-mail network came gushing in: Conservatives across the country wanted Javits out, and now it was clear who their candidate was. At the June convention, Javits won the party’s official Senate endorsement for the fifth time, with 64 percent of the vote. But that was hardly news. The headline was that Joe Margiotta’s boy had nabbed 36 percent and that, for the first time ever, the state Republican Party had approved a primary.
Javits never really had a chance after that. With his flush coffers, D’Amato was on the air with a statewide television campaign by June. He pulled no punches, slamming the incumbent for his pro-Carter voting record and for turning New York into “the Cadillac of welfare states.” Javits’ health was also on the table. When he’d finally announced his reelection campaign, Javits had revealed that he was suffering from “motor neuron disease.” His illness, he said, was similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but not as severe. It might ultimately force him into a wheelchair, he said, but it wouldn’t keep him from serving out another six-year term. (This wasn’t really accurate; Javits did have ALS, and ended up dying from respiratory failure in March 1986.) In the most notorious D’Amato ad, a narrator said of the senator: “And now, at age 76 and in failing health, he wants six more years.” D’Amato himself was even more blunt on the campaign trail: “You take a look at the guy and you tell me if he’ll last six more years.”
On the morning of the September 9 primary, the New York Times tried its best to save one of its favorite public figures. “Javits, above all,” the paper’s lead editorial declared. A decade or two earlier, this might have helped. But in the new G.O.P., the support of the Times was the kiss of death, confirmation to suburbanites that a candidate was aligned with the liberal redistributionists they’d been fleeing when they left the city. On Long Island, now the top vote-producing area in G.O.P. primaries, D’ Amato took an astonishing 70 percent of the vote. In New York City, he bested Javits by a three-to-two spread, his strength heavily concentrated in the outer boroughs. Upstate, Javits managed to force a draw, but it hardly mattered: By a 12- point margin, the presiding supervisor of Nassau County had stolen the Republican nomination from a four-term U.S. senator. In defeat, Javits then did D’Amato a huge favor, opting to run on the Liberal Party’s line in the general election, where he siphoned off critical support from Liz Holtzman, the Democratic nominee. For once, it was the liberals who were divided in November, and D’Amato was elected with 45 percent of the vote, edging out Holtzman by a single point. His margins on Long Island were massive and for the first time ever, Nassau passed Manhattan and Brooklyn as the top vote-producing county in a general election. From town official to U.S. senator in less than a year: No one could remember a more improbable ascent.
NOT THAT THE NASSAU ORGANIZATION HAD MUCH CHANCE TO DWELL ON THIS. Within days of the election, Margiotta was hit with a federal indictment, charged with six counts of racketeering and extortion for masterminding a scheme in which county and municipal insurance business was steered to one firm—the Richard Williams & Son Agency—which, in turn, split commissions with Nassau politicians (who, of course, did no actual work). This wasn’t exactly a shock; the investigation had been ongoing since the middle of 1979, and for years there’d been talk of the feds poking around Nassau. Margiotta branded the indictment part of a “political witchhunt” and vowed to stay on the job and beat the rap. Suddenly, Nassau’s long-tormented Democrats sensed an opening. County and municipal elections—the elections that really mattered to Margiotta’s machine; the elections that were the reason for that $4 million war chest—were coming up in 1981, and Boss Joe was sure to be a liability for the ruling Republicans.
It was in this chaos that Peter T. King, a 36-year-old Hempstead town councilman, spied an opportunity for advancement. A native of Sunnyside, Queens and the son of a city cop, King had attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn and earned a law degree from Notre Dame before settling in Seaford, one of Hempstead’s 37 hamlets. He was a machine man, breaking in with the Nassau district attorney’s office in 1968, when it was run by a Republican, then switching over to work for County Executive Ralph Caso in 1974, when a Democrat, Denis Dillon, won the D.A.’s post. When Margiotta feuded with Caso in 1976, King stayed loyal to the boss, prompting Caso to fire him. But it was a smart play: Caso could use his office to make Margiotta’s life difficult, but as power struggles went, it was a mismatch. Sure enough, Caso was replaced on the G.O.P. ticket by Francis Purcell for the 1977 election—the same election in which Margiotta rewarded the loyal King with his organization’s support for the Hempstead council.
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.
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.
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.
First, Robert Mrazek, the Democrat who had ousted John LeBoutillier in ’82, announced that he’d give up his seat for a longshot campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination (which looked quite appealing, with D’Amato bogged down by an ethics scandal). Then, Norman Lent, a ten-term Republican, walked away, citing the likelihood that his district would be merged with that of fellow Republican Ray McGrath. But then McGrath, a moderate who was just 50 years old and who had bounced only two checks (while many of his colleagues had written dozens, even hundreds, of overdrafts), announced his retirement too. It took a while for the new lines to be worked out— when the state legislature failed to create a satisfactory plan, a federal court drew up its own, prompting the state to come up with a counterproposal—but it was clear that some way, somehow Peter King would be running for Congress in 1992 with the backing of the Nassau G.O.P.
The Justice Department gave final approval to New York’s new map on July 2. Essentially, Mrazek’s old district was eliminated, while those of Lent and McGrath were redrawn. Both were winnable for the G.O.P. That same night, Mondello’s executive committee met and unanimously ratified King as its choice for Lent’s district (which, under the new map, would become the 3rd District, the designation previously used for Mrazek’s seat) and David Levy, a Hempstead town councilman, for McGrath’s seat, now the 4th District.
The good news for King was that he avoided a serious challenge in the September primary. The only real suspense was whether Robert Previdi, a Nassau political gadfly who had already mounted two hopeless congressional bids and a losing campaign for North Hempstead supervisor, would even be on the ballot. King challenged his petitions successfully over the summer, and it was only through a last-minute court ruling that Previdi was even an official candidate on primary day, when he was crushed by King.
But the general election was a different matter. The politics of Nassau were changing. Shifting demographics had something to do with this, as did the high taxes and heavy spending and periodic corruption scandals that had come to define G.O.P. control at the county and municipal levels. National factors were involved, too. By ’92, Republicans had been controlling the White House for 12 years. The country, particularly the Northeast, was plagued by a stubborn recession and intense economic anxiety. The Reagan Revolution had gone stale. For president, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, whose butter-smooth style and “New Democrat” identity positioned him perfectly to capitalize on the frustration endemic in suburban areas like Nassau. Since 1968, the Republican candidate had carried Nassau with ease in every presidential election. Just four years earlier, in 1988, George H.W. Bush had won it by 15 points over Michael Dukakis, twice his national margin. But as the fall of 1992 arrived, Clinton had a reasonable shot at picking off Nassau (and was a shoo-in to win the state).
The new district King was running in favored the G.O.P., but the built-in advantage was hardly overwhelming. A Labor Day poll found Clinton running ten points ahead in the district. For their nomination, Democrats turned to Steve Orlins, a multimillionaire Shearson Lehman executive who pledged to invest heavily in his own campaign. A Roslyn Heights native, he had been splitting his time between Manhattan and Asia for the last few years, only renting a home in Manhasset when the seat opened up. Orlins positioned himself as a Clinton-style Democrat, socially liberal but business-friendly, and attacked the giant deficits— $130 million in ’92—run up by Nassau’s G.O.P. leadership. He also sought to paint King as unacceptably outside the mainstream, playing up the Republican’s support for the IRA and adamant opposition to abortion. Orlins called him “a zealot and an extremist.”
Orlins had more money and the political winds were at his back, but King relished the campaign: It was the perfect chance to channel his inner working stiff. Orlins attacked King’s ties to the Nassau machine, but King stood his ground. The machine was the only reason middle-class folks like him were still able to climb the political ladder. The machine was the reason that he, the son of a cop and the product of Sunnyside, Queens, was able to compete with a filthy-rich, globe-trotting carpetbagger—a guy who was too big, too smart and too sophisticated for the commoners on Long Island and who had only shown up when there was a chance to use them for something.
"He talks about the plight of the Nassau County homeowner,” King said, “and he doesn't even own a home in Nassau. Steve Orlins is the ultimate in voter fraud."
In the closing days, Orlins zeroed in on female voters with a television ad that showed a husband being told that his wife, who had just been raped, would not be allowed to have an abortion because of Peter King. King portrayed himself as a victim of forces from outside the district and reminded voters that he’d never hesitated to go after his own party’s leadership when it was the right thing to do. Remember Ralph Marino? On Election Day, Clinton carried Nassau by six points and the new 3rd District by two. But in an exceedingly close finish, the Republican nominee defied the tide and fended off Orlins and his bottomless pockets by just over 6,000 votes—a margin of barely more than one point. It wasn’t quite the same as being county executive, but at 48 years old, Peter King would settle for being a member of Congress.
King was hardly the only Nassau Republican to find himself running uphill in the early ‘90s. The first warning sign came in the 1991, when Democrats made stunning inroads in several towns and won enough spots on the county Board of Supervisors to veto any Republican measure (voting power on the panel was weighted). This represented the strongest position Nassau’s Democrats had achieved since 1917.
Not surprisingly, Mondello’s intraparty foes set out to exploit the Democrats’ gains for their advantage. For the first several elections after taking over from Margiotta, Mondello had benefitted from favorable national climates, which allowed his organization to hold its ground in Nassau, sometimes making incremental gains and sometimes suffering minor losses, but never deviating significantly from the dominance that had defined Margiotta’s tenure. Then came the ‘90s, the Bush recession and Clinton’s rise. With the economy reeling and Nassau’s finances in shambles, contributions to the county began drying up. Layoffs of county and municipal employees began.
Critics crawled out of the woodwork, most notably Margiotta himself, now into his 60s and completely marginalized by his successor. With the Democrats’ gains, he saw one last chance to foment an uprising and win back a measure of control over the machine he’d built. Teaming up with two other luminaries from yesteryear, Purcell and Joe Carlino, a former Assembly Speaker who had once been on the outs with him, Margiotta threw his weight behind Dan Frisa, who was challenging Levy, the Nassau organization’s candidate for the new 4th District U.S. House seat in ’92.
“This is the first opportunity we have to put the heat on Mondello,” Carlino said.
Levy survived the primary and went on to eke out a win over Democrat Phil Schiliro, an aide to California Rep. Henry Waxman who, years later, would serve as President Barack Obama’s chief congressional liaison. But the story wasn’t that Mondello had crushed a coup; it was how hard the chairman had to sweat just to survive.
Then came another headache for Mondello. In 1993, Gulotta ran for and won his second full term as county executive. But his margin over Democrat Ben Zwirn was puny; Republicans had come within a few percentage points of losing the county executive’s post, a development that almost surely would have been fatal to Mondello’s chairmanship. And yet Gulotta was anything but unnerved, setting out immediately after the election to run for governor in 1994.
On one level it made sense. Cuomo was sending mixed signals about his intentions. If he didn’t seek a fourth term, the race would be wide open. If he did, he’d be vulnerable; polls showed his approval rating plunging to an all-time low, and, with Clinton’s numbers tanking too, ’94 was shaping up as a strong Republican year. So for all his troubles in Nassau in ’93, there was reason to think Gulotta, if he could secure the nomination, would have a real chance of winning the governorship. This was how Gulotta, who had been dreaming of making the leap to statewide office since he watched D’Amato do it in 1980, saw things. But not Mondello, who, having watched Gulotta nearly lose in ’93, feared having to deal with a vacancy and a special election anytime soon. Gulotta had just been reelected to a four-year term, and as far as Mondello was concerned, the least he could do for the party was to serve it out. On top of this, there was the old friction between the men. Mondello was hardly a Gulotta cheerleader. So, when Gulotta asked for his county chairman’s support to launch a statewide campaign, Mondello refused to provide it. A stunned Gulotta put his plans on hold.
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.
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.