AT FACE VALUE  

 







 

  BY PETER SMITH
EMPIRE STATE REPORT
OCTOBER, 1996

Before Albany voter Judy Doyle decides which candidates to support, she tries to find out who else is backing them. In education but not union member, she nonetheless pays attention to teacher unions' endorsements, won't vote for anyone listed on the Right to Life line, and studies newspaper endorsements, which she says delineate reasons why candidates are worthy of her support.

Such endorsements and scores more like them have become as much a part of the campaign landscape as lawn signs and attack ads. Less conspicuous, though, are the politics behind them.

Advocacy groups often parcel them out, not so much to like-minded candidates as to the most probable victors. Politicians lend their names to their colleagues' campaigns, even if they share little other than a common party banner. Newspapers try to fulfill a civic duty by endorsing candidates, though longshot candidates don't always get a good hearing from them. Minor political parties usually hand out their lines to candidates sporting similar ideologies, but candidates cut from a different cloth sometimes walk away with them.

However skewed the endorsement process, voters nonetheless pay attention to who's endorsing whom. If they knew more about the process itself, however, they might not. "The candidates seem to think they matter," says Philip Boffey, deputy editorial pace editor for The New York Times. "They ask for our endorsement. In the political world, there must be a gut-level sense that endorsements are useful."

This becomes particularly true farther down the ballot line in races for legislator, school board member or village judge. "The more obscure the office, the more important the endorsement will be, because voters are fishing, for shortcuts,"says Robert Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University. In presidential and other high-visibility races "endorsements aren't going to matter much because [voters] probably have enough information to make their decisions."

'Endorsements help voters in "objectively-verifying the rhetoric that they are inherently distrustful of," argues Martin Brennan who managed Lee Wasserman's unsuccessful primary challenge against Rep. Mike McNulty in the Capital Region's 21 st district.

Advocacy groups generally track incumbents' voting records and ask candidates their views in questionnaires or interviews. It's not a tidy exercise. "It's a pain in the neck," says Mark Alesse, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). "You get people angry. People like power, people like to hang onto it. I'd rather stay out of this and concentrate on legislation, but you have to get involved because you have to try to change the complexion of the Legislature to get these things done."

A debate within the Public Employee Federation (PEF) over whether to endorse two Capital Re-ion Republican senators-Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Michael Hoblock-illustrates the wrangling many groups go through.

At PEF, which represents 54,000 state workers, individual labor locals first vote to recommend candidates. Then regional political action committees (PACs) vote, then a statewide PAC, and finally the executive board, whose vote becomes the official stance of PEF.

One PEF local, representing Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) employees, endorsed Bruno's opponent, Democrat Virginia O'Brien and Hoblock's challenger, Democrat Neil Breslin. The Senate majority, in their view. failed to block fellow Republican Gov George Pataki's cuts in state jobs. Counting layoffs, early retirements and transfers, "'a lot of people's professional careers were disrupted," says Wayne Bayer, a PEF shop steward at DEC. "Can you imagine [former majority leaders] Ralph Marino or Warren Anderson taking a cut of 5,000 jobs out of their Senate district and not fighting that successfully with their governor?"

But the local failed to convince PEFs Region 8 PAC Committee, which endorsed Bruno and Hoblock. "The reality is, the Republicans are likely going, to retain the Senate," says Jeffrey Satz, Region 8 coordinator. "You never get everything you want from everybody, but we have some ability to pressure these people because there are significant numbers of state workers in their districts."

Bruno and Hoblock worked quietly to prevent a bad situation from cetting worse, says Satz. The early retirements and job transfers, while not ideal, were better than layoffs, he says.

The debate continued up the line, with the statewide PAC recommending O'Brien and Breslin but the executive board settling on Bruno and Hoblock.

In fact, many groups are betting, on the ones in power. With most legislative seats considered safe in November, the strength of the incumbency looms large in endorsements. Endorse an office holder-and with the endorsement sometimes add volunteers and campaign contributions-and the recipient likely will be in a position to return the favor. So happy was a painters union with Democratic Congressman Michael McNulty of Albany that it painted his campaign office. "We're not going to make enemies blindly and ideologically," says NFIB's Alesse. "We're going to be pragmatic."

A candidate's voting report card can be deceptive. Alesse says. Many, Assembly, Democrats support his group's small-business agenda. for example, but don't get a chance to vote on the legislation it favors because the speaker's office decides which bills get to the floor.

Assembly Majority Leader Michael Bragman of Syracuse received a low 54 percent vote ratinc,, but Alesse says lie "worked very diligently in his conference to achieve workers' compensation reform. That probably wouldn't have happened in his house without his efforts, so the chances of our challenging Mike are very slim."

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) endorsed virtually all legislative incumbents, mainly because both chambers rejected Pataki's proposed education budget cuts, says spokeswoman Linda Rosenblatt. Unproven challengers spoutinag pro-education rhetoric will not swing an endorsement against an incumbent who has voted the way NYSUT likes. "Actions speak louder than words," Rosenblatt says.

The union nevertheless is opposing several Republican incumbent congressmen who it says have poor voting records.

Groups sometimes endorse incumbents so routinely that challengers are taken by surprise, as when the AFL-CIO backed incumbent Republican Assemblyman Arnold Proskin of upstate Menands in 1994, giving him a 90 percent approval rating. Republican Robert Prentiss, the eventual primary and election winner, and Democratic challenger Kevin Luibrand never received a questionnaire or invitation for an interview. If they wanted to make the case that they would have been the better representative for labor, they could not "I would have liked the opportunity at least to decide if I wanted to make a presentation," says Luibrand.

Wasserman, a liberal Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged the conservative McNulty in his party's primary, did not by virtue of his positions have endorsements from the left simply handed to him.

John Stouffer, legislative director for the Sierra Club's Atlantic chapter-which eventually endorsed Wasserman, former director of Environmental advocates over McNulty had to work hard to convince his national office that Wasserman's candidacy was credible before it agreed to back him. "Where you have an entrenched incumbent, we had to make the case that. One there was a real environmental reason to do it, ... two, that Wasserman had a chance, and three, that our members were excited about this campaign."

Though the group's Atlantic chapter was "horrified by what McNulty was doing," Stouffer says it still had to lobby its national office.

Such persuasion would have gone merits end up using them nowhere in the case of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, however. Stouffer says he agrees more with Nader than with President Bill Clinton, but that a vote for Nader only would help GOP candidate Bob Dole. "Clinton has been a stop-gap for some of the worst environmental legislation coming out of the 104th Congress," Stouffer says.

The liberal Wasserman also pushed a pro-labor agenda, but union groups were content with McNulty. "We disagreed with Mike on one or two issues, but as a whole he's been supportive on our issues," says the AFL-CIO's Suzy Ballantyne. "We don't expect a 100 percent vote out of all our candidates."

PEF ultimately backed McNulty, noting that he has a role in shaping, federal funding to the state Department of Labor, where Satz and other PEF members work. But Satz says some local PEF chapters had voted to support Wasserman and generally back any candidate who represents a spectrum of "anything that is left/progressive."

Almost always backing candidates representing "anything that is left/progressive," the Liberal Party endorsed Wasserman. McNulty got the Conservative Party line. "The label Democrat Liberal juxtaposed with the label Democrat-Conservative clarifies the differences," says Brennan, Wasserman's campaign manager.

PEF's Bayer sees limits to the logic of supporting incumbents. The Senate needs a strong Democratic minority, just as the Assembly has a formidable Republican minority, he says. "If you don't narrow that margin to within striking distance. you're never going to maximize your influence because one or two swing votes won't matter," he says.

Perhaps less predictable than how advocacy groups tend to endorse incumbents is how those who seek the endorsements end up using them.

In the Republican primary for the lower Hudson Valley's 19th congressional district, pro-choice groups, business organizations and the National Rifle Association supported incumbent Sue Kelly, while pro-life and police organizations backed unsuccessful challenger Joseph DioGuardi.

Kelly's vote against a ban on late-term abortion drew a stark battle line. But with the GOP fundamentally pro-life, the Kelly campaign asked the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion not to issue a press release announcing its endorsement, seeking instead its support behind the scenes.

Political consultant Jay Townsend, who advises Kelly, says the coalition was "extraordinarily helpful" in renting a list of 10,500 pro-choice Republicans whom the campaign contacted and ur-ed to vote. "Our endorsement has tremendous impact. Politicians vie for it , says coalition President Polly Rothstein

But in the general election, the coalition endorsed both Kelly and Democrat Richard Klein. Despite her vote on late term abortions, Kelly "hasn't been [the] kind of leader [on abortion issues] that would warrant support over Richard Klein," Rothstein says.

If the Kelly campaign was nervous about bringing up the abortion issue to Republican voters, there's good reason. Candidates often use their opponent's endorsements as a sign they are beholden to special interests, as presidential nominee Bob Dole did at the Republican Convention by denouncing teacher unions, which overwhelmingly support Clinton

Of course, groups don't have to endorse candidates to play the game. The formidable Business Council of New York State, for example, eschews endorsements but contributes money through its political action committee.

The Christian Coalition is distributing voter guides this fall at churches and other locations listing candidates' positions on such issues as taxes, education, casino gambling and late-term abortion, according to Executive Director Jeff Baran. While the group does not endorse, the coalition's views on these issues are public record.

If there's a group endorsement more objective than others, it may come from local bar associations, which rate judicial candidates on qualifications ranging from "outstanding" to "not recommended." At the Bar Association of Erie County, a 29-member non-partisan panel reviews the candidates. The rating does not function as an endorsement, since opposing candidates could both receive positive ratings, and since it's an assessment of prospective judges' competence, not their ideology. But local newspapers usually report the findings, campaign literature often boasts of high ratings, and voters often carry the information into voting booths.

If bar associations offer the closest thing to a non-political endorsement, politicians unsurprisingly offer the farthest thing from it. Because of politicians' self-serving reputations, voters pay their endorsements little mind. Among non incumbents, however, such endorsements can help a candidate gain some legitimacy and perhaps draw crowds on the rubber chicken circuit. When former U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts endorsed Christos Apostle in an eightway 1994 Democratic primary in Albany, many were puzzled, given other candidates whose agendas appeared more closely linked with Tsongas'. The puzzlement dissipated, however, when Apostle revealed he had been Tsongas' upstate coordinator in New York for his 1992 presidential campaign.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a staunch supporter of the poor and many of the entitlements that have helped support them, left Wasserman supporters scratching their heads when he gave a high-profile endorsement to McNulty, who had sided with 13 of 15 tenets of the GOP's Contract With America.

Gingrich and other top Republicans told DioGuardi in a letter that he was doing the GOP "a great disservice" by launching an "ill-timed campaign" against incumbent Kelly.

Incumbents have a working relationship with each other despite policy differences, political observers note in explaining the seemingly incongruous endorsements. Party leaders also are known to give colleagues a long leash on some issues to appease their constituents. And as Gingrich might someday face a challenge to his leadership post - or even a primary contest-he may need the support of every Kelly he can find.

Voters are so accustomed to politicians taking care of their own that they only notice the major exceptions, such as when Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cross endorsed Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, says Gerald Benjamin of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. "Counterintuitive behavior by prominent-politicians does get voters' attention," he says.

The endorsement came at a price: Giuliani drew the wrath of Pataki and other GOP brass, probably costing the city the chance to host the 1996 national convention. But the mayor is at it again: While most state Republican leaders climbed aboard the Dole bandwagon in early 1995, Giuliani in mid-September still was toying with the idea of endorsing Clinton. "Republican mayors of New York City do strange things," says Benjamin. The motive is clear: the city's overwhelming Democratic majority.

The impact of Giuliani's endorsement of Cuomo might have swung the election had it occurred later, says Benjamin. "It moved the polls very dramatically, but there was time for a counterattack," he says.

But Columbia's Shapiro says those who applauded Giuliani were probably Cuomo supporters anyway and were overwhelmed by "voters feeling badly about Clinton and the Democrats."

Endorsements made by the likes of retired Gen. Colin Powell and paralyzed "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve who made emotional appearances at the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively, are "symbolic" and help in image-building Benjamin says, but are unlikely to sway voters directly. Candidates might, however, draw a bigger gate at a fund-raiser if they have Arnold Schwarzeneger or Barbra Streisand in tow.

Taken much more seriously by voters are newspaper endorsements, which candidates often highlight in their campaign literature. "The less important the election, the more important they are," Benjamin says, because "people know less from other sources."

Most newspapers' editorial boards interview candidates and research their records and literature. At the New York Post, the conservative editorial board usually has little trouble deciding whom to support, says Robert McManus, deputy editorial page editor.

"I think we help voters here get a different perspective on some of the races than they might have otherwise," he says. Some conservatives might vote according to the newspaper's endorsements, he surmises, although "people who abhor what we stand for might vote for the fellow we're opposed to."

At The New York Times, a board member usually will conduct the interview and call in experts familiar with the race for additional perspective. The full board then deliberates on whom to support, says Boffey, the deputy editorial page editor. Though the newspaper has a reputation for liberal endorsements, Boffey says there is no one “litmus test” that decides an issue.

The process is similar on smaller papers. A five-member editorial board at The Daily Messenger of Canandaiga, a familyowned newspaper with 13,000-subscribers, interviews candidates in area races and generally splits endorsements among Democrats and Republicans, says Richard Zitrin, editorial page editor.

Some newspapers don't endorse, saying it's not their business to tell voters whom to support. Even editors at newspapers that do endorse candidates often ask themselves why. 'I think the prevailing attitude is that we have a responsibility to the community,"' says Zitrin. "I know people particularly in Canandaigua take it seriously, and the candidates take it very seriously and want our endorsements.

The Times' Boffey says he wonders if it's sometimes worth the extensive manpower of researching minor races. But it's a public service, he says, particularly as most voters don't have the time or resources to study such races. "If it's difficult for us sometimes to figure out who looks like the best candidate in an obscure race, think how much harder it must be for the voting public," he says.

For minor-party candidates, however, the very obscurity of their own parties often makes it difficult to get through the newspaper door, making the endorsement process anything but an inclusive exercise. "I'm not sure we have a hard and fast rule," on interviewing such candidates, says Boffey. "If there's a credible minor-party candidate, we would throw them into the mix."

Zitrin says Messenger board members might ask each other, "Gee, did anybody get a hold of the Right-to-Life candidate," but the paper does try to interview most minor-party candidates, he says.

The Press & Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton ties to bring minor parties in but doesn't always have the time in less prominent races, says editorial page editor Frank Roessner.

But the paper did endorse Independence Party candidate Don Elliott in a 1994 race for county sheriff. Elliott, the party's statewide vice-president of operations, calls the endorsement "the beginning of the beginning, where you're going to see newspapers and unions and smaller groups taking a look at every candidate who is willing to look at the issues."

Minor parties often endorse or cross nominate major-party candidates. New York is one of the few states that allow that, and without that might many of the parties "would probably disappear," says Columbia's Shapiro.

Instead, these parties serve as power brokers, offering candidates cachet and another voting line. They also expect and receive political paybacks if and when their candidates come to power. "I don't make any bones about the fact that if there's a conservative in the field and we've helped someone win a race, we do our best [to] see that ... conservative values be espoused in that situation," says Ralph Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party.

The Conservative Party vote helped give Pataki and Attorney General Dennis Vacco their margins of victory in 1994; the Conservative and Right to Life parties contributed to Sen. Alphonse D'Amato's winning edge in 1992.

Minor-party nominations also can give candidates early momentum. "It's just a bonus, the votes they met on the Liberal line in the general election," says Liberal Party Chairman Raymond Harding. "The contribution we make to a candidate is more a political one and less an electoral one."

The Liberal party takes credit for giving an early boost to the first gubernatorial candidacies of Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, and its leaders also were key players in Giuliani's 1993 mayoral victory.

It's no wonder, then, that the candidates go after these nominations with gusto. Bracalman, despite having the Assembly majority leadership and the Democratic Party's nomination, obtained the Independence Party backing to shore up support in his Republican-dominated Onondaga County district.

A candidate who seeks too many labels, thou-h, risks getting another one: chameleon. Neither Republican Sen. Ronald Stafford of Plattsburgh, the only state legislative candidate to receive both the Conservative and Liberal nominations, nor his staff would respond to inquiries on how a candidate could represent both lines.

"We ask candidates if they're seeking the Liberal line, and if they are, they're not going to get our line," says the Conservative Party's Lorigo.

While major parties increasingly are trying to set up an ideological big tent, smaller parties tend to hold more absolute positions and generally prove stingier in handing out their endorsements. "We're not looking for winning," says Elliott, but rather for supporting candidates who want smaller government and cleaner campaigns.

Liberal Party candidates, for example, almost always must oppose the death penalty and support abortion rights and the separation of church and state. The Right to Life Party, on the other hand, demands wholehearted opposition to abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide from its candidates.

Most minor party officials, though, view their role as offering a constructive protest vote. "Disillusioned" major party voters may consider candidates endorsed by the Liberal Party, says Elliott.

Disillusioned voters like Philip Bradley of Albany, however, have no stomach for endorsements from major or minor parties, or from anywhere else. "I don't trust newspapers or other people, I guess," he says. "I trust my own gut instinct."