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McKinstry: A price for Independence nod in Westchester County

Dr. Giulio Cavallo, chairman of the Westchester County

Dr. Giulio Cavallo, chairman of the Westchester County Independence Party, is interviewed at his party's law firm, Binder & Binder, in White Plains. (Oct. 25, 2012) Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

In his bid for re-election, Rob Astorino didn't get the Westchester Independence Party's nomination for county executive. It went to Democrat Noam Bramson.

No big surprise there.

That party's boss, Giulio Cavallo, endorsed Astorino in 2009, but soon after became disenchanted with the Republican. Now, as Cavallo was doling out endorsements this week, he's saying that Astorino is too far to the right for his party and that the incumbent’s budget cuts are hurting the county's quality of life.

But we all know what this is really about: jobs. Those patronage gigs and cushy government positions that come with nice perks and pensions. Cavallo never got them after Astorino took office in 2010 and he's been bitter ever since.

"Obviously, it's a personal vendetta," Mike Edelman, a longtime Westchester political consultant who has been railing against cross-party endorsements for years, told me Tuesday.

Astorino's campaign said it never expected the backing and cited an "overly candid interview with Newsday" where Cavallo said he expected some payback for helping Astorino win.

"There's nothing for me to speak to him about if he's not going to listen to who I recommend," Cavallo told Newsday last year, referring to county posts. "I believe that if I help you, I should get the first crack at any position."

The move can be viewed as a blow to Astorino, as it is often believed that any Republican in Westchester needs at least three ballot lines to overcome the Democrat's roughly 2-to-1 registration advantage. There are 253,000 registered Democrats, 135,000 Republicans and 120,000 not affiliated to any party.

Astorino won the election with 93,382 total votes (Spano got 70,739). Of that, 12,605 were on the Independence Party line -- fewer than Astorino's 22,643-vote margin of victory.

The Independence Party's power doesn't necessarily come from its members -- there are only 22,000 -- but many nonaffiliated voters, whose numbers trail the membership of the Republican Party, view themselves as "independent" and sometimes vote on that line. In that sense, these small-party lines are far more important to a Republican than a Democrat in this county.

Such a snub is nothing new to Astorino. Although he had the Independence line last go-round, he didn't get the Conservative Party’s backing because its bosses opted for a liberal Democrat -- Andy Spano -- instead under the ruse that he was a "fiscal conservative." Back then, there were Conservative party infighting, accusations of false signatures on petitions, and plenty of time in court. It ended up with an ouster of that party's leaders by its members, and its new leader getting a job with Astorino.

All this is a bit in the weeds for the average voter, but most politicos know exactly what's going on with these cross endorsements -- and the Independence Party.

This particular case in Westchester highlights problems with cross endorsements and the so-called Wilson-Pakula law, or ability for party bosses to give their line to candidates. Named decades ago after state Sen. Irwin Pakula (R-Long Island City) and Assemb. Malcolm Wilson (R-Yonkers), the Wilson-Pakula Act was supposed to protect the integrity of political parties by making it harder for candidates to run on multiple lines. But what it's really done is given smaller party bosses like Cavallo far too much power over those running for office.

"The problem is it gives minor parties too much say," said Edelman. "You're talking about political extortion. It may not be illegal, but it ain't right."

The law is so much a part of New York's political culture that lines are routinely bartered for jobs, contracts and campaign contributions.

It's not just a local problem: It also relates to the case involving six officials -- including four elected leaders and two party bosses -- who are accused of taking lots of cash in a conspiracy to manipulate New York City's mayoral race, and to make a land deal in Rockland County.

Federal investigators claim that state Sen. Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens, tried to buy the Republican line in the New York City mayoral primary by paying off GOP leaders who promised to deliver it. He is also accused of trying to steer $500,000 in taxpayer money to a Spring Valley developer.

And that's just one example of why this law's time has passed.

Bramson, the New Rochelle mayor who has the Democratic Party's backing, now has the support of Independence Party. But he should beware: It comes at a price.