The circumstances aren't special anymore, but Bob Turner still sees a 'fair shot' running statewide against Gillibrand
9:40 am Mar. 19, 2012
The coalition that gathered at the Roma View Restaurant in Howard Beach six months ago to celebrate the upset victory of congressman-elect Bob Turner included former Mayor Ed Koch, who supported Turner over the Democrats to "send a message" to President Obama about Israel, and New York State Conservative Party chair Mike Long, who said it was about spending and jobs.
"I am telling you," said Turner, more subdued than the rest, when he finally took the stage that night. "I am the messenger. Heed us. This message will resound for a full year. It will resound into 2012."
Now, with his congressional district slated for elimination in the redistricting process, Turner, a 71-year-old retired cable executive, is seeking the Republican nomination to run for U.S. Senate against Kirsten Gillibrand. But neither Koch nor Long is with him this time.
And that may be the least of the relative disadvantages Turner faces, as he seeks to parlay an unexpected victory in very special circumstances—low-turnout special election after the resignation of a scandalized Democratic incumbent; Koch endorsement capitalizing on latent anti-Obama sentiment in a secretly quite conservative Brooklyn-Queens district; running against David Weprin—into a statewide win over a well-armed and reasonably popular Democratic incumbent. In a presidential year. In a heavily Democratic state in which no Republican has won a Senate race since 1992, and no Republican has won without Conservative Party backing since two decades before that.
Turner has his response ready.
"1992?" he said, when I asked him on Sunday what he planned to do differently from the succession of Republican candidates who lost to Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand since then. "That's nothing! How about 1922! Come on!"
1922 was the last time the Ninth Congressional District, where he won his famous victory, had sent a non-Democrat to Congress.
Turner was holding court for a very small crowd of reporters outside a Hess station on Tenth Avenue—it was me, a New York 1 reporter, a Daily News photographer and a Gillibrand tracker, as far as I could tell—where he had just criticized Gillibrand for following the lead of President Obama and voting against the proposed Keystone Pipeline.
Laughing along with him as he gave his 1922 answer were two of the advisers who helped deliver his House victory, Bill O'Reilly and E. O'Brien (Obie) Murray, which gave the event a getting-the-band-back-together feel.
Of course, there was no Koch, who had been a mainstay of that famous congressional win over the Queens Democratic organization, defining the narrative of the Turner campaign by casting him as an antidote to what the former mayor felt was the White House's overly accommodating Middle East policy.
When Obama fiercely defended Israel before the United Nations, just two weeks after Turner's victory, Koch said he was re-boarding the "Obama Re-Election Express," and last week, he said he still liked Turner, but that he will be supporting Gillibrand for re-election. (Turner and Gillibrand both praised the president's speech too, at an event outside the United Nations, where they each appeared and urged Palestine not to seek statehood.)
At the Sunday event, Turner told me he expected Israel might become a big issue in the Senate race, but that there's not much to criticize the president for at the moment.
"I think there's a good chance this'll heat up tremendously," he said. "Right now, hypercriticism of the president is not warranted ... He's said all the right things, and we're at a critical point. But I think this is an issue that comes to a head in 90 to 120 days."
So, absent Israel, Turner is attempting to make the other half of his 2011 case as an independent citizen-candidate, in contrast to Gillibrand, who he is hoping to yoke to unpopular aspects of the president's agenda.
"I don't think she's crossed him on any policy thing ever," he said after the event on Sunday. "We need an independent voice here in New York."
(That's not quite true: Gillibrand has been generally supportive of the Obama, but voted against a couple of compromises pushed by the president on the Bush tax cuts and the debt-ceiling deal, and was out front of the administration in calling for troops to come home from Afghanistan.)
Turner shrugged at the prospect that it might be tougher to run against Obama this year, with the president at the top of the ticket, in a heavily Democratic state.
"Well, I think that is an issue, but we've got to call them as we see them," he said. "There's a fair shot here. Things are not going well and those in charge need to be called to account. And we're offering good alternatives."
In strictly policy terms, those alternatives don't stray too far from the conventional Republican line.
According to the Washington Post, Turner has voted with the House leadership 98 percent of the time, including key votes against the Senate's payroll-tax-cut compromise in December and in favor of a Balanced Budget Amendment.
Turner said he recently supported changes to a House transportation bill, along with a number of New York representatives, for its lack of funding for mass transit. I asked Turner if there were other areas where he disagreed with House Speaker John Boehner.
"No, maybe the gun bill," he said, after a long pause. "Usually things that have an impact on New York."
Turner said he agreed with Boehner "in the macro view" of jobs and the economy and mentioned the 30 House bills that pertain to the economy that have yet to move in the Senate.
"These are important job-stimulating bills, tax bills, reregulation and deregulation," he said. "The Senate does not have a good reason for opposing these, as far as I can see, other than just partisanship."
On Israel, Turner said he supported a stiffer package of Iran sanctions proposed by the House, which go beyond what the administration has in place.
And on energy, which was the topic of the day, Turner proposed more domestic drilling, on land and offshore, said he would support exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (ANWR, for short).
"Yes, ANWR has a section about three percent that has been reserved for future drilling," he said. "It is in an area that's accessible, remote and would have very little environmental impact, and I think we ought to begin doing that ASAP, as well as many of the offshore areas that have already been preapproved, that can be done safely and soundly and quickly."
Of course, Turner still has to fight his way through a Republican primary. He is a relatively late entrant, having waited until he knew his congressional seat was going away before he got in, and that late entry was reflected in his performance at the state party's nominating convention in Rochester on Friday. Turner could only translate his status as a party hero into 25.28 percent of the convention's support—enough to automatically qualify for a spot on the primary ballot, but less than either of his two opponents, conservative judicial activist Wendy Long (47.37 percent) and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos (27.36 percent).
And, despite his big win last year in Brooklyn and Queens, it's unclear whether Turner can connect with the more right-leaning conservatives upstate, who helped deliver nearly 62 percent of the primary vote to firebrand Carl Paladino in the 2010 gubernatorial race.
"I will admit [Turner] has name recognition in his district, but he certainly doesn't have name recognition in the North Country," the state Conservative Party chairman Mike Long told me last week.
Long favors Wendy Long (no relation), a more fiery conservative who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, when the Conservative Party holds its own nominating convention today.
Turner said he planned to stop by anyway.
"Relations are a little strained," he conceded. "We all know what happened. I would like to have been there a little earlier, and maybe this wouldn't have happened, but that's not the way it worked out."
Before aides pulled Turner away to get a shot of him pumping gas, the congressman said he only planned to do one thing differently than his precedessors in the party, who had failed for so long to win back a seat in the Senate.
"I think I'll begin by telling people the truth and offering practical solutions," he said. "You know, what else is there to do?"