The end of an era in New York came this week at a Holiday Inn just north of Albany. At a state Conservative Party conference, longtime chairman Mike Long said he’d be stepping down. The 79-year-old father of nine and grandfather of 23 has led the party since 1988.
There are not that many capital-C Conservatives in New York, which is home to about 40 times as many registered Democrats and 20 times as many registered Republicans. But New York’s unusual system of fusion voting — when candidates run simultaneously on the ballot lines of major and minor parties — has given power to some minor parties.
Hence Long, who helped elect Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Republican Gov. George Pataki. No New York Republican in modern history has won statewide office without the Conservative endorsement.
That endorsement has been used to enforce orthodoxy among Republicans, particularly on Long’s strong beliefs about issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.
In 2011, for example, Long campaigned against legalizing same-sex marriage, and then led the charge against Republicans who supported the change, three of whom were not re-elected.
A former Marine, Long’s consistency in opposition paid off for years. But it’s a new Albany. One by one, his social priorities are tumbling down given a solidly Democratic State Senate. In the last two weeks alone, the State Legislature expanded abortion protections and banned gay-conversion therapy.
Long says his departure isn’t a declaration of defeat. He looks forward to more time with family after years of work. He says he was close to a decision to leave last summer, but didn’t want to walk away in the middle of state elections, during which he “wanted to secure Row C,” the automatic ballot line the party gets if it nabs 50,000 gubernatorial votes.
“We’ll turn the tables back,” he said. “The pendulum will swing back.”
It’s a common argument among Republicans — wait for the Democrats in charge to do something “crazy,” and then the right will return. It has happened before in New York.
But focus on Long’s “Row C” line. He is proud that Conservatives got their 50,000 (they ran the losing Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro), meaning that for another cycle, Conservatives are eligible to be on the ballot in various races without an onerous petitioning process. That leads to strength and bargaining power.
But what if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled legislature change the “fusion” rules that allow minor parties to flourish? Ideological parties like Conservatives and Working Families can present annoying purity tests for the big fish, and minor parties can be patronage pits.
A change to the fusion system would threaten Conservatives, but so might the loss of Long, who has held the line for his followers for so much time.
What happens to the right in New York as Democrats grow in strength? Will a potentially weakened Conservative wing mean less of a focus for Republicans on social issues? Would that mean a full-Democratic sphere, or a shift of focus from social to fiscal issues? Will another political leader rise who can last for three decades?
Changing times after that Holiday Inn announcement.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.