New York dominates political field

[25 June 2007]

By Philip Dine

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

WASHINGTON - The Heartland and most of the rest of the country has long had an iffy view of New York, admiring its energy but wary of its culture, personality and values.

That arms-length relationship has been reflected in presidential politics. Over the past half century, the two major parties have looked elsewhere - mostly south and west - for their nominees, selecting candidates from California, Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kansas, Tennessee and Arkansas.

New York, with its decidedly liberal reputation, has been left out.

Until now.

Polls show the leading contender for the Democratic nomination is New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. The top Republican candidate: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. And the man generating the most buzz in recent days is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last week said he was leaving the GOP and won’t rule out running as an independent.

Not since Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider patrolled center field for New York’s three baseball teams in the 1950s has a trio of New Yorkers so dominated their chosen field.

Clinton and Giuliani may well be surpassed - Midwesterners Barack Obama and Fred Thompson are among their chief rivals - but for the moment are their party’s favorites. Bloomberg, meanwhile, would appear to have the independent terrain to himself. A billionaire, he is in the unique position of being able to fund a campaign with his own money.

Having two, let alone three, nominees from any one place is extremely rare in presidential politics, let alone from New York. The city hasn’t produced even one presidential nominee since Franklin Roosevelt - unless you want to include Dwight Eisenhower, a Kansan who was serving as president of Columbia University when he ran as the GOP candidate in 1952.

“It’s going to be a circus,” says Steven Puro, a political scientist at St. Louis University and a Brooklyn native.

“There still remains a lot of suspicion about New York and New York City, and those negatives will come out in terms of cultural elements and other things,” Puro said. “It’s something that goes back to the 19th century. It was the big city, and they were doing things in an urban sort of way, in great contrast to the rural areas of the country.”

Why do so many New Yorkers suddenly loom as White House prospects? Analysts provide two diametrically opposed schools of thought.

One involves sheer coincidence.

“You can’t attribute it to the state being on the rise in any sort of political sense,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Michael Franc, a native New Yorker. “You have to totally attribute it to a historical circumstance, of the state generating three very astute political personalities.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., agrees that New York’s status in the election thus far is “serendipity.”

“I don’t think there’s some kind of acknowledgement in the United States that we need New Yorkers” running the country, she said. All three New York candidates “are strong, smart people, and they’d probably be in the running if they were from Iowa or Oklahoma or Delaware.”

(Indeed two of the three candidates became New Yorkers later in life. Clinton was from Illinois, and Bloomberg hailed from Boston.)

Another explanation revolves around Sept. 11.

“I think Americans look at New Yorkers who were there then and in the aftermath as tougher and more pragmatic,” said John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute.

The two mayors either handled Sept. 11 effectively or have helped keep the city safe since then, while Clinton quickly sought a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to demonstrate her interest in keeping the country safe.

New York politicians generally benefit from an intense media interest, Puro says, and that’s only increased since Sept. 11 because New York was - and perhaps remains - the terrorists’ top target.

Whatever the reason, how would Americans as a whole react to an all-New York choice?

“Being from New York does represent challenges,” McCaskill said.

“I think in Missouri there’s a little bit of a higher bar for people from the East Coast. A lot of the presidential election is an analysis of who can relate to me, who has a sense of my problems, and I think it’s hard for Missourians sometimes to relate to people who live in New York, especially in New York City.”

That’s particularly true, says Charles O. Jones of the Brookings Institution, because each of the three aspirants feeds part of the stereotypes about New Yorkers. Clinton is seen by some as brash and ambitious, Giuliani has led an unconventional personal life, and Bloomberg is filthy rich.

“It would be an enormous selling job to convince the rest of America,” Jones said.

Would the public at large be intrigued, or be turned off, by an all-New York race?

“They’d certainly be attentive,” Jones said. “They would pay attention because the winner is going to have to be convincing. It would be wild if you had three candidates from New York running against each other.”

An all-New York election would place unusual emphasis on the vice presidential picks, Franc says, as the candidates sought to differentiate themselves and broaden their appeal.

While New York’s high profile this campaign season is in sharp contrast with recent decades, it mirrors the norm of an earlier period. In the post-Civil War era through Roosevelt’s presidency, Gotham boasted a much larger share of the country’s population and was the leading source of national politicians.

In fact, in two successive presidential elections, New Yorkers competed with each other, as FDR fought off challenges from Republican standard bearers Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey in 1940 and 1944.

For New Yorkers, such a spectacle would surpass the World Series a couple of years ago between the Mets and Yankees.

“They talk about the subway series in baseball,” Fortier said. “This would be the ultimate series.”

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