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Independence Party’s road to prominence

Frank MacKay in October 2005.

Frank MacKay in October 2005. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

The New York State Independence Party was the creation of three Rochester-area political mavericks, including Thomas Golisano, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who ran unsuccessfully for governor three times, Newsday stories at the time show.

The party, according to the stories, first appeared on the ballot in 1994 and was envisioned as a home for disillusioned centrists who no longer felt welcome in either the Republican or Democratic parties.

Today’s Independence Party has a similar self-conception. According to its website, the party “seeks to foster balanced, pragmatic leadership and an end to partisan stagnation.”

Though supporters still portray the party as a nonideological alternative to a failed two-party system, prominent editorial boards and high-ranking political leaders across the state have described it today as devoid of conviction and chiefly concerned with serving the interests of its leaders.

Frank MacKay, who leads the Suffolk County Independence Party, emerged as the state party leader in 2000 following courtroom battles and an intraparty feud. MacKay established himself as a savvy electioneer, striking deals with major party candidates eager for Independence Party backing.

MacKay tapped Gary Melius as his chief adviser in 2008 for an effort to take the party national, and Oheka Castle has served as an operations hub for the Independence Party.

MacKay has earned income as an Oheka employee. On financial disclosure forms, which ask for reported income in broad ranges, MacKay listed earnings from “Oheka Castle Catering, Inc.” of between $345,000 and $525,000 from 2012 to 2016. During the same period, MacKay reported he collected income of between $315,000 and $510,000 from the state and Suffolk Independence parties.

Money flows in the other direction, too. Expenditure reports show that the party’s Chairman’s Club and Nassau Club have paid nearly $250,000 to Melius; his businesses; his former son-in-law, Richard Bellando, who works at Oheka Castle and is the party’s Nassau leader; and to two nonprofits that Melius controls.

Critics have labeled as misleading the party’s enrollment figure, which stands at more than 480,000 statewide, according to the state. That’s because many people have registered as Independence Party voters mistakenly, actually intending to register as independent of any party, critics contend.

“The name of the Independence Party is misleading: it neither represents ‘independence’ nor is it ‘independent’ of the major parties,” Susan Lerner, director of the good-government group Common Cause New York, wrote in an email.

Though some candidates have publicly questioned or even condemned the party’s influence on state politics and rejected its backing, others prize its line on Election Day. The state’s arcane fusion system allows candidates to pool vote tallies when they run on more than one line. Party support in tight races and judicial elections can provide the winning margin.

Take the 2012 Supreme Court races on Long Island. Twelve candidates ran, with the top six vote-getters winning a judgeship. The six winners all had Independence Party support; the six losers did not. Party support more than covered the difference between the sixth-place victor and seventh-place loser.

Republicans in the State Senate in particular enjoy a close alliance with the Independence Party. In 2013, the Moreland Commission, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo convened to study public corruption but disbanded after less than a year, revealed that $350,000 from the housekeeping account of the Senate GOP had been transferred to the housekeeping account of the Independence Party.

By law, housekeeping money is supposed to be used only to cover party expenses like maintaining a headquarters and paying staff, not to support candidates. However, the money transferred from the Senate GOP to the Independence Party was used to pay for attack ads against Democratic candidates.

While Senate Republicans have benefited from Independence support, Independence officials have also collected salaries from GOP elected officials. Among them are Tom Connolly, the Independence Party’s vice chairman, and Bellando, the party’s Nassau chair and Melius’ former son-in-law.

Connolly was paid $88,691 in 2017 as director of operations for state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore). Bellando collected $30,762 last year as a legislative aide for the Senate GOP majority operations office.

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