No Contest

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Politics in Queens are usually as predictable as the stench of Flushing Bay at low tide. But for a few months this year, residents of western Queens faced an unbelievable prospect. For the first time in recent memory, they were going to choose who would represent them in Washington.

Then, as if it were all a dream, a contested primary in the 7th Congressional District became a one-man show again. That man is incumbent Joseph Crowley, the protégé of Queens Democratic county leader Thomas Manton. His challenger, City Councilmember Walter McCaffrey, dropped out of the race in late July amid charges that he had misappropriated campaign funds.

How those charges came to light, and the efficiency with which McCaffrey was pushed out of the race, says much about where the Queens Democratic Party stands these days. Ending a race that had promised to bring new immigrant and advocacy groups into the borough’s tight orbit of power, the coup was potent proof of how desperate the county’s all-white leadership is to stay in command.

On July 26, a host of NY1’s Inside City Hall confronted McCaffrey with a report that the candidate had used campaign funds from his City Council races for personal purposes. Specifically, he had paid a livery cab service some $50,000 out of this pot over the past two years. A flustered McCaffrey responded that because of his weight and his inability to drive, he needed a car service. The next day, the weekly Queens Tribune published a story revealing discrepancies in McCaffrey’s account keeping. Both stories, insiders say, were orchestrated by the Queens county leadership.

Within another 24 hours, McCaffrey dropped out of the race. “Questions about my financial filings and difficulties in raising sufficient funds have cast a cloud over the campaign,” he wrote in a terse statement. McCaffrey’s own consultants were taken aback. After the television appearance, one member of McCaffrey’s team recalled, “I felt he had handled himself well, his argument was credible.”

But it wasn’t just the news reports that persuaded McCaffrey to drop out. Sources within the Queens Democratic Party say McCaffrey met with City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Queens Party boss Manton before he announced his resignation. Apparently Vallone, who had already thrown his support behind Crowley, offered McCaffrey a deal: The council ethics committee would not pursue the matter of misused campaign funds if McCaffrey shelved his congressional aspirations. In either case, McCaffrey–whose term in the City Council ends next year–was finished.

“This was not about beating Walter. It was about destroying him,” says Lois Marbach, a political consultant to McCaffrey. “This was personal.”

Described by one supporter as the guy who “could have been a contender,” McCaffrey is considered by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle as one of the more savvy players in City Hall. But McCaffrey, inexplicably, had left himself open to attack during a particularly contentious election. This is not the first time McCaffrey has faced questions about his finances. A few years ago he faced scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service for not filing his taxes. McCaffrey apologized, settled his IRS tab, and promised it would never happen again.

“It was the first thing I asked him when I heard he was going to run,” recalls Arthur Nitzburg, a longtime Queens political columnist. “I questioned him whether there were any financial problems that could catch up with him. He assured me there weren’t any.”

Manton didn’t waste any time in hacking away at the opening presented to him. The county leader, sources say, was outraged that McCaffrey was challenging his authority by running against Crowley, and he did his best to dissuade McCaffrey from running. Early on in his campaign, McCaffrey did confirm that he had had a meeting with his boss but refused to reveal the substance of the discussion. “That’s personal,” he said.

Another insider says Manton didn’t take kindly to McCaffrey’s refusal to drop out and vowed he’d “wipe the floor with him.” Going after the councilman, Manton promised, would be “like blood sport.”

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This summer’s wild ride was the sequel to a previous act of Mantonian chutzpah. In July 1998, Thomas Manton suddenly announced he would retire from the congressional seat he had held for 14 years. Just days before the deadline to file nominating petitions for that fall’s primary, he handed over his signatures to a little-known assemblymember, 36-year-old Joseph Crowley.

McCaffrey had been patiently waiting in the wings for Manton to vacate the congressional seat, confident, he has suggested in recent interviews, that he was next in line for the Capitol Hill job. When Manton chose Crowley instead, the scorned McCaffrey decided to take on the machine that had helped create him. “I think Tom made a major error in the manner he left office,” McCaffrey huffed this July. “That in essence is what this is all about.”

In this political grudge match, it was the Queens leadership that delivered the knockout punch. A week before the NY1 report, a package containing the details of McCaffrey’s alleged financial improprieties arrived at the offices of The Hill, a Washington political weekly. The Hill is owned by News Communications, the newspaper chain that also owns the Queens Tribune. And it was the Queens Tribune that had sent the package to editors at The Hill.

They assigned the story to Adam Arenson, a summer intern at The Hill. It appeared the following Thursday-not in The Hill, but in the Queens Tribune, where it appeared under Arenson’s byline as a “special correspondent.”

A source familiar with the situation says that Queens Democratic Party leaders had hoped the story would first appear in The Hill and then be picked up by New York media, distancing the report, at least geographically, from the blood feud within the party.

Tamara Hartman, managing editor of the Tribune, explained the out-of-town byline: “We are sister papers. We often share stories.” But there is no evidence that the Tribune has ever previously published a story from The Hill. When asked why the Tribune chose to investigate McCaffrey’s City Council campaign financial records, and whether it had subjected Crowley to the same scrutiny, Hartman refused to comment further and said that the assignment had been the decision of the editor and publisher, Michael Schenkler. Schenkler did not return calls from City Limits.

Ever since it was founded by Congressman Gary Ackerman, the Queens Tribune has earned a reputation as a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. Under subsequent owner Jerry Finkelstein, it was to be the propaganda sheet for his son Andrew Stein’s mayoral campaign. And under current owner Wilbur Ross, the Tribune was supposed to help his wife Betsy McCaughey Ross realize her gubernatorial fantasies.

The Tribune also retains its ties to the Queens ruled by corrupt party boss Donald Manes. The newspaper’s associate publisher and head of community relations, Michael Nussbaum, ran Manes’ campaigns. In 1987, he was convicted of soliciting a $250,000 bribe from Cablevision, which was seeking the deal to wire Queens, on his boss’s behalf. (The conviction was later overturned on appeal.) Manes also appears at the top of a Schenkler list of the 30 best things that “touched” him in his life.

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McCaffrey’s political career is most likely over, but he’s not the biggest loser in this race. With its burgeoning immigrant population, western Queens is home to dozens of associations, political clubs and other groups that were in the process of exchanging their support for McCaffrey or Crowley for promises of future favors and endorsements.

Assuming they picked the winner, that backing would have provided the crucial support their own candidates need to get into political power themselves. Now, no longer needed, a host of aspirants find themselves grounded. “Is this a dictatorship?” asks Haydee Zambrana, president of the immigration advocacy group Latin Women in Action. Zambrana is a Crowley supporter, but she wastes no time in blasting the county leadership. “Even 20 years after Manes, nothing has changed.” Her immediate concern is the political future of her community. “What will happen to Latino empowerment if this kind of mechanism exists in Queens?”

It’s a question of immediate concern to Colombian immigrant William Salgado. Salgado was ostensibly loyal to Manton, who had appointed him as one of six “at-large” district leaders. Manton had created these ceremonial posts in the early 1990s and filled them with Latino and Asian allies. It was an easy response to criticisms that the party leadership didn’t reflect who actually lived in the borough.

But in 1998, Salgado decided to oppose 11-term assemblymember Ivan Lafayette, the county organization’s choice. “My main interest was to bring Latino power in Queens,” says Salgado, who lost that election. “No Latinos from Queens have been elected to office.” He is trying again this year and had counted on McCaffrey’s support.

Crowley, too, had been shoring up his standing in the Latino community, by supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants and using his office to provide resources and favors to social service groups. While McCaffrey was still in the running, Zambrana was realistic about why Crowley has worked so hard for Latinos. “If he knew there would be no election, do you think he would have made an effort?” she asked.

But Zambrana also knew why she was pulling for Crowley. While working with the incumbent for now, she looks to a future where a Latino representative will bring in the same services and dollars that Crowley does. “Not because he or she is Latino,” she points out. “But because we are just as qualified.”

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Though Crowley would have had to fight for the Latino vote, he already had his backing assured from another increasingly influential group. In June, the Queens Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club voted to back Crowley.

The vote, split 33 to 22, was highly divisive. Compared with McCaffrey, who has a long history in the Council of advocating for gay and lesbian issues, Crowley has an unremarkable track record. To some club members, Crowley’s opposition to abortion was also unacceptable. “I was bitterly disappointed,” says Jimmy Van Bramer, the club’s executive vice president and an agitator for campaign finance reform.

“This was not about principles but politics,” agrees one political consultant and gay rights activist. “They are a political club searching for credibility and respect. If you want that, you are not going against Manton.” But the fact that Crowley even sought the club’s endorsement was a victory of sorts for gay political leaders. Only 15 years ago, such a move would have been political suicide. “This is an indication of the progress we’ve made,” concedes Van Bramer. “Our endorsement is sought after, fought for, and trumpeted.”

It will take more than a few club endorsements, though, to pull the Queens machine through the coming years, where term limits for the city council, state and federal legislative redistricting, and ever-increasing numbers of immigrant voters are just a few of the landmines in its way. “I cannot imagine the county controlling every race next year,” says Marbach, who has made her reputation managing underdog candidates.

Manton has held on, but close watchers say his moves are only delaying the inevitable. In Queens, an autocratic Irish political boss surrounded by an all-white palace guard can’t expect to survive for long. “It’s not the dusk or the twilight of the Queens county machine,” says one observer. “But it’s definitely late afternoon.”