Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Left at the gate - Spirited young GOPers ignored by party elders

Some of the most interesting and energetic Republicans in New York won't be in Madison Square Garden this week. They're young party outsiders who have been running spirited campaigns in politically hostile districts for the last few years, only to be thwarted at every turn - primarily by leaders of their own party.

The dispute appears to be based on ideology. The young, self-styled urban Republicans call themselves conservative in the tradition of Ronald Reagan: devoted to low taxes, less government, school vouchers and a no-nonsense approach to crime and national security.

The chieftains of the New York GOP often give lip service to the same positions but have either stood in the way of the young activists or denied them crucial help when it counted.

Party leaders seem to think success in New York depends on presenting Republicans as genteel, inoffensively moderate and even liberal at times, a formula that worked for decades, particularly on Manhattan's East Side, but recently led to a string of electoral losses.

You don't have to share the ideology of the GOP mavericks to feel empathy for them. Nobody should be happy about the way machine politics chases young, creative people out of public service at a time when city and state government are starved for talent.

Michael Benjamin, for instance, a 34-year-old investment banker who has raised money for Gov. Pataki and other Republicans, spent 14 months on a lonely trek through all 62 counties in the state, meeting local GOP leaders to line up support to challenge Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Although Benjamin initially met with success - he claims to have raised nearly $1 million from 25,000 contributors - the effort ended when state chairman Sandy Treadwell selected a different candidate, Assemblyman Howard Mills, and abruptly ordered county chairmen to dump Benjamin. They did, and he dropped out.

"We built support among local Republicans, but every time we made any progress, we were undermined by state party leaders," says Benjamin. "They give no consideration to anybody but their handpicked candidates, and they did everything they could to stop me."

"We've been running candidates to re-brand the party, but without the party getting in the fight with us, it's a message that is doomed to failure," says Robert Hornak, the chairman of a New York Young Republican Club. In addition to recruiting and supporting candidates, the club sponsors lectures, parties, social events and debates against young Democrats.

Hornak, a political consultant, managed last year's City Council candidacies of Jennifer Arangio, Josh Yablon and Jay Golub, who challenged, respectively, Gifford Miller, Gale Brewer and Margarita Lopez. All lost, but they used the opportunity to challenge Democratic orthodoxy - without help or encouragement from the state GOP.

Hornak's reward for his GOP activism is a literal lockout by the party: He was unable to secure any kind of credentials for this week's convention and watched last night's proceedings with his club at an Irish bar in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

The young turks say the closed-shop attitude of the state party is not only cruel but self-defeating. "Party registration in this state is rolling against us. We've got no advantage. We've got to start fighting in New York City," Hornak says. "Why should any Republican stay a Republican if the party doesn't reach out and doesn't stand for something?"

Tonight, the Democratic National Committee is holding a Masquerade Ball to lampoon the way its Republican counterparts are presenting a moderate face to voters this week. The Dems shouldn't be surprised if the shunned urban mavericks, unable to attend their own party function, show up at the ball, looking for a new home.

Originally published on August 31, 2004


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