It was, as Eric Schneiderman said in his victory speech at the Sheraton on election night, an improbable journey. A year ago, after all, he had wavered about and then aborted a long-expected run for Manhattan DA. When he finally pulled the trigger on his attorney general run, Schneiderman stayed further to the left than anyone would have thought possible to win statewide in New York.
But really, November was not all that improbable for Schneiderman as Tom DiNapoli’s election made abundantly clear, even a Democrat with pretty much the entire universe aligned against him will win in New York by being a Democrat and having the labor machine’s nomination, along with the surplus of Democraticinclined voters committed to not filling in a GOP bubble.
And the primary win was not so improbable either Schneiderman is the latest candidate propelled by the new coalition that has taken control of New York politics. The axis spins through the progressive heartlands of the Upper West Side and brownstone Brooklyn on campaigns that now regularly connect the New York Times editorial board to the Working Families Party, and all the constituent parts of each. In recent years, to have the support of one of these is nearly always to have the support of them all. To have the support of most, if not all, is usually to win.
At the center is Jerry Nadler, the man Schneiderman identified in that victory speech as his mentor. Nadler was there for Schneiderman at the beginning, at the official kickoff of the attorney general campaign on the steps of City Hall in April. He was there a year earlier on a colder, wetter day for Bill de Blasio, preemptively sealing up the public advocate race. David Yassky tried desperately to get him there in last year’s comptroller’s race, calling him nonstop and even cornering him for some frantic arm waving after most of the others had left Charlie Rangel’s last birthday party at Tavern on the Green in August, but to no avail.
Schneiderman won. De Blasio won. Yassky, left to campaign outside of Fairway by himself, never really had a chance.
So looking back on 2010, the improbable part was not that Schneiderman won.
The improbable part was that despite Andrew Cuomo’s concerted effort to box him out, Schneiderman stayed in the race at all. No one needed a poll to know that Cuomo could have effectively ended things by coming out publicly for Kathleen Rice, or even, at the end of the campaign, for Sean Coffey. Schneiderman’s supporters held him off, and then, once the nomination was secured, helped force that awkward endorsement in Columbus Circle almost two weeks after the primary.
That had a lot to do with Nadler, too. The Harlem machine is waning. Unions are strong but not what they used to be. The Working Families Party, though now rebuilding, was clipped by the investigations and legal troubles of the last year. Vito Lopez is still strong in Brooklyn but threatened, and Joe Crowley’s grip is only a little looser locally in Queens, but no longer has the same sway over larger politics that Tom Manton’s did.
With his money and his popularity, Mike Bloomberg wins elections in New York. But as Dan Donovan and Harry Wilson showed again this year, Bloomberg’s power does not transfer. Nadler’s does.
He is the heir to the progressive mantle at a time when the New York electorate, especially in local primaries, has keeled to the left. He is a hero on the West Side, where there are more votes to be had in primary and general elections than in any other part of the city or state, and his sway stretches out to parts of Brooklyn he has never represented, but is full of his former constituents.
The Jews in the tip of his district, which goes into Boro Park, love him, and so do the Jews far beyond. Union leaders connect with him. The New York Times editorial board always takes his calls. He may not be Boss Tweed, or really any kind of stereotypical boss, but right now, Jerry Nadler rules local politics.
Nadler professes not to notice the organization he has built up under himself or the sway he has acquired. He seems surprised by the suggestion. The furthest he will go is, “I think of myself as trying to advance certain things, progressive public policies, and people who will be effective in promoting those.”
Helping Chuck Schumer (the only person left who calls him “Jerrold”) win the 1998 Senate primary was the first big move, and being there for Scott Stringer’s borough president run in 2005 brought the West Side apparatus to the next level of power. But the first real test was the 2005 Council speaker race. Nadler’s backing was a signal to other powerbrokers for Christine Quinn and, crucially, a progressive stamp of approval.
“It would be a very hard race if I wasn’t able to make that point, and there’s no better way to make that point than with Jerry Nadler’s support,” Quinn said. “Before Jerry made the decision, I certainly heard, ‘Where is Jerry?’ So to be able to report back, ‘Well, Jerry’s with me,’ that made people say, ‘Oh wow. Okay.’” Next up was Cuomo, running for resurrection in the 2006 attorney general’s race.
Nadler came on early, bringing with him much of the progressive credibility that was Mark Green’s base. Green’s candidacy floundered while Nadler smiled through all those “big shoes to fill” Cuomo ads, foot measure proudly in hand.
Nadler’s support for de Blasio in 2009 showed again how much he could do by speaking up. His refusal to back Yassky showed how much of an impact he could have by staying silent.
Cuomo seems to have been paying attention. The governor-in-waiting never forced Nadler’s hand, never truly tested that progressive constituency. For Nadler and the people around him, this is gratifying: a recognition both of the role they played in past elections and the role they could play in standing by Cuomo as he gears up for fights with key elements of the traditional Democratic coalition and the inevitable wars with the Legislature to come.
The weekend before Election Day, Cuomo held a rally at the plaza in front of the 72nd Street and Broadway subway stop. Nadler joined Schneiderman and Schumer for a brief photo-op at Fairway before walking down to the Cuomo campaign truck and exhorting the crowd to send a West Side reformer to Albany. Along the way, they picked up Linda
Rosenthal, then Stringer. One by one, they made their speeches to the crowd.
Just over 48 hours later, Schneiderman was the attorney general-elect.
“It’s not just about Fairway anymore, though Fairway will always loom large in all our lives,” Stringer said a few days later. “It’s gone beyond that.”
Walking around the West Side, Nadler relates a story about a poorly located fundraiser for him featuring Carl McCall, Charlie Rangel and men in towels in the background at the gay bathhouse in the Ansonia that predated Plato’s Retreat.
Almost before he is finished, he starts running through the same game plan for a special small business tax cut he just gave Chuck Schumer for undercutting the Republicans on the expiring Bush tax cuts. Both, like just about everything else he says, pour out of him in a slightly amused, can-you-believeit/of-course-you’ve-got-to-believe-it tone.
There is just enough distraction in his voice to make it clear he is thinking about the next three things and at least one topic from a conversation with someone else, while still engaging with the person in front of him.
Nadler is not the most introspective person, at least on display. Two years ago, while waiting for the inevitable hammer to drop on his doomedfrom-the-start dream of getting the Senate appointment (despite the work he had done to get David Paterson to the State Senate back in 1985), he almost never let the pain show beyond a winced smile. Only occasionally, maybe in the back of a cab in an off-hand conversation with a political friend, will he let slip how much he might actually want to be mayor himself.
Likewise, when he accuses Barack Obama of political negligenceas he did publicly two days after the midterms while the rest of the Democrats were trying to hold their heads defiantly highit was not to jockey for position in the House or bully the president into signing one of his bills. The stimulus should have been bigger, both for the sake of economic policy, and for politicsNadler determined this back before the bill was passed, and started saying it. You can debate about it, and he is ready to go point for point, but really, he will just be waiting for you to catch up.
Nadler approaches politics the same way. When Kirsten Gillibrand called once, twice, three times a day asking for his endorsement, he held off for nearly a year, and when he did, he approved the press release knowing that he was effectively ending the possibility of a primary challenge from Gillibrand’s left. But by then, all the prospective alternatives he might have supported had already dropped out and Gillibrand had rocketed leftward on several key positions. His endorsement probably brought more with it than any other piece beyond Schumer’s.
HE MAY NOT BE BOSS TWEED, OR REALLY ANY KIND OF STEREOTYPICAL BOSS, BUT RIGHT NOW, JERRY NADLER RULES LOCAL POLITICS.
This year, faced with Stringer’s mix of competing political needs, competitiveness, jealousy and paranoid anxiety about his own future that kept the borough president from endorsing Schneiderman until after the Times endorsement had effectively narrowed the field, Nadler did not force Stringer on board. He just helped bring Stringer to the inevitable conclusion, that moment when he put his hand on Stringer’s arm and said, essentially, “Look, Scott, in the end, you’re going to have to support Eric.”
“I think one of the points is: We are close, but you can’t always agree. And if you try to enforce discipline in some waywe’re not talking about political bosses here, you can’t enforce discipline,” Nadler said, explaining how he makes his case “by talking, by logical reasoning, by explaining the reason why I think this is it. Sometimes that’s persuasive. I tend to think that I’m a fairly persuasive person.”
Nadler likes the term “close associates,” to describe his political allies. He also sometimes jokes about a farm team. Others see a dynamic more like a family, with all of its function and dysfunction. Nadler is the head, not paternalistically but in the sense that he was in office long before any of them, and they all look up to him. Even when fighting with each other, they all still like him. Roughly, then, Stringer and Linda Rosenthal are the immediate family, with Schneiderman something like a stepbrother. Tom Duane, Quinn and the LGBT political activists function as one set of cousins, and de Blasio, Brad Lander, Daniel Squadron and the other Brooklyn progressives as another set.
Harlem, especially with some of the old powerbrokers on the wane and now Adriano Espaillat headed to Schneiderman’s Senate seat with some key West Side support, is an increasingly close family friend.
Nadler has known them for decades.
Stringer, then Rosenthal, joined him as aides back when Reagan was president. Schneiderman first caught his attention for having a fundraising committee committed to putting Democrats in the majority in the State Senate back when he was a young staffer to then-Assembly Speaker Mel Miller in the mid-’80s. (Also, Nadler said, because Schneiderman is “one of the few people I know who really thinks about progressive economics.”) Quinn managed Duane’s primary run against him in 1994, the last time Nadler got a serious challenge. De Blasio has been in the orbit since roughly the same time, when he was chief of staff to a Brooklyn Council member dispatched to a diner for a one-on-one, hour-long dissertation on the cross-harbor rail freight tunnel.
All of them built deeper relationships from there. Nadler helped all of them get into office, but populating the government with protgs was not what he set out to do.
“I never thought in those terms,” Nadler said. “You do what you can when you see a race, and I think a lot of people are always looking to government to nurture political talent. It should be.”
Rosenthal, who worked for Nadler for almost two decades before she took over the Assembly seat in which Nadler had spent 16 years and Stringer had spent 13, remembers her old boss once mapping out for her how, in hindsight, he had determined that he would have ended up in the congressional seat, one way or another. Nadler himself does not recall doing this.
On the contrary, he says, there would have been no way to predict what had happened, especially given his history going into the 1992 race. In 1985, he lost 65-35 to David Dinkins in the Manhattan borough president primary, and in 1989, he pulled out of the city comptroller race two weeks before the polls opened because he ran out of cash. Nor did his stamp of approval work so well back then: In the race for the West Side’s open City Council seat, Stringer got less than half as many votes as Ronnie Eldridge, kicked to the curb just like Nadler.
Those were dark days. Rosenthal talks about feeling smothered, a sinking feeling that they had been outdone. Nadler does not like to think of it much, and so he does not. All he will say before moving on is, “That was not pleasant.”
Unexpected opportunity took three years. Ted Weiss, who had held the seat since Bella Abzug gave it up to run for Senate in 1976, died the day before the primary. He still won, leaving it up to the county committee to fill the nomination. Abzug, along with Weiss’s widow, State Sen. Franz Leichter and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried all got into the race, but in that marathon weekend of backroom campaigning in the classrooms of a local school, Nadler left them all in the dust.
“It’s symbolic of Jerry Nadler’s precise, pragmatic approach that he was already reaching out to district leaders while others were sending ‘Get Well’ cards,” said
Ralph Andrew, Weiss’s former chief of staff. “By the time Weiss died, Jerry was well on his way to having a large quantity of votes of county committee members, and a commitment of a large number of votes for subsequent ballots.”
Gottfried agrees. The race was over before it even started, just like the races he watched Nadler dominate when they were in high school together in Stuyvesant.
“He was just a terrific vote-getter,” Gottfried said. “It helped that we were in a high school where you didn’t have to be a student athlete to be popular, since our little band of friends were all a bunch of nerds.”
Nadler’s time in Stuyvesant student government, along with Gottfried and a then much less conservative Dick Morris, led to canvassing for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential campaign. They were the West Side Kids, a cadre of political prodigies whose ’60s activism took the form of tenant organizing, canvassing and dominating district leader races.
That mix of magnetism and nerdiness still defines Nadler. Told that he has been called the “Bono of Fairway,” to describe
his popularity at home, Nadler says quickly that he had Bono on his committee in Washington. This is a joke. Nadler means Sonny Bono, but by the time he has explained it, his mind is on to something else.
Gottfried remembers sitting next to him in a particularly boring meeting in Albany one day while they were both in the Assembly together. Some people were sleeping. Other people were doodling. Nadler drew a chart and filled it in from memory with the turnout numbers from every election district covered by his Assembly seat.
Nadler still works out charts of numbers based on history and voting patterns in his ballpoint pen, though on election night, he graduated to a staffer’s iPad and sat in a corner of the Schneiderman suite constantly refreshing and reassuring the nervous room that the numbers coming in early spelled victory.
He can also draw a perfect outline of the continental United States, freehand.
Nadler also works out some more straightforward political calculations. When Rosenthal started telling people at Stringer’s borough president victory party that she was thinking about getting into the race for his Assembly seat, Nadler and Stringer soon swung into action to deliver her the county committee vote. Among the people shoved aside was Marc Landis, a district leader and former Stringer campaign treasurer who had been waiting patiently for the seat to open. But Nadler and Stringer worked the phones and the county committee meeting itself to make sure the deal was done, and then several months after, backed a supporter for an almost unheard of primary for a state committee spot occupied by a woman who had refused to budge on her support for another one of the candidates.
Nadler becomes the boss when he needs to be. Or when he wants to be. A couple of calls to judicial convention delegates have sparked scattered complaints about his heavy hand. More than one black robe over the years has gone to a Nadler friendall of them qualified, respected and supported more widely, certainly. But the congressman’s preference has not gone unnoticed.
The day after the county committee selected Nadler for Congress in 1992, it gave Stringer the Assembly nomination, beginning what has been an extremely orderly succession of power on the West Side, and generally resulting in the election of Nadler allies. If not for the term limits extension, Micah Lashernow the mayor’s state legislative affairs director but then a Nadler staffer who had joined the office with his eyes on 2009would have been the next priority for Gale Brewer’s Council seat.
When Nadler endorses, he starts by interrogating candidates, gauging their support, testing their relationships and viability. Then there are discussions with staff and with the larger family. They proceed strategically, guided by operatives like Amy Rutkin and Rob Gottheim, two aides who combined have spent almost 30 years working for Nadler.
None of it happens in a vacuum. Last year, for example, he capped a list of nearly every elected official in Manhattan backing Richard Aborn for district attorney. Rosenthal and Schneiderman did too, but Stringer sat on the sidelines until the New York Times endorsement went to Cy Vance and he was shown an internal poll that suggested Vance was going to win. Two weeks before the primary, Stringer endorsed Vance. The West Side got a piece of the win.
In the city comptroller race, Nadler was stuck: The Working Families Party had engineered a deal backing Liu so that he would quit the public advocate race and clear the way for de Blasio. Nadler has been one of the party’s top advocateson a flyer that was distributed around Brooklyn this year, he is quoted saying that no one works harder than the WFP, and urging people to vote on that line.
Looking back at 2009, Nadler insists that he could not see the separations that nearly every voter in town saw, and were more pronounced on substantive policy than in some of the other races in which he has spoken up over the years.
“I like David, a like David a lot. I like John Liu. There was not that much difference that I could really tell people, ‘You’ve got to vote for this one, you’ve got to vote for that one,’” Nadler said.
As close as he is and was with the WFP, he could not go against Yassky. So he stayed silent, while Stringer, Schneiderman and Rosenthal all backed Liu.
The West Side got a piece of the win.
The players insist that they are all just coming from a common philosophy, and what appears to be arrangements is really happenstance.
“No one goes in there and says, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Because I’ll do what you do,’” Rosenthal said.
Occasionally, Nadler maneuvers directly against the public positions of the family. This year, for example, Schneiderman, Stringer and Rosenthal all came out early behind Adriano Espaillat in his run for Schneiderman’s State Senate seat. Nadler made no endorsement, but he quietly urged the Times editorial board to look at Mark Levine, Espaillat’s main primary opponent.
The resonance he has with the decision-makers at the Times is one of the greatest assets Nadler brings to a campaign. As with the rest of his political power, Nadler downplays the significance of his influence.
“They ask my opinion, I give my opinion. Sometimes I call up and give my opinion when they don’t ask,” he said.
On Aborn, the Times went a different way, and for Schneiderman’s State Senate seat, the paper of record went with Espaillat. But most of the time, and for the races where the Times nod means the most, if Nadler supports a candidate, that candidate is in good shape to get the endorsement.
“The Times endorsement matters a lot in this district, and I don’t think it’s any secret that the Times was going to look at what Jerry said,” said Council Member Brad Lander, an ally whom Nadler endorsed early last year and coached on his interview. “His weighing in, I know, made a big difference.”
Nadler acknowledged that there was not much coincidence to the fact that he and the decision makers usually agree.
But “not on everything by the way,” he added quickly. “They’ve been much more hawkish on Afghanistan than I am.”
Last year, the night of the runoff, de Blasio and his supporters gathered at the conveniently named Union Bar, just north of Union Square. Mark Green’s last fans were across the street, in a small office on the 19th floor of one of his brother’s buildings. The drinks were flowing at de Blasio’s party, but at Green’s, no one was even touching the Styrofoam bowls of pretzels and Hershey’s miniatures on one of the desks.
They turned the volume up on the small TV playing NY1 just in time to hear Stringer, down at the de Blasio bar, talking about what a great night he expected it to be.
Lew Fidler, Council member and de Blasio detractor, snorted.
“You’re going to regret the day you brought him onto the West Side, Scott,” he said, half to the TV, half to Jerry Goldfeder, the election lawyer who ran against Stringer both for Council and Assembly. Goldfeder smiled.
Schneiderman’s win, like de Blasio’s, was possible because the coalition agreed. There was no contest for the progressives, there was no division between what the Upper West Side wanted and what the Working Families Partyled Brooklyn progressives wanted. The gay political leaders, for the most part, backed them both.
Schneiderman’s election might represent the cementing of a new reality.
“It’s not just about Fairway anymore, though Fairway will always loom large in all our lives,” said Scott Stringer. “It’s gone beyond that.”
It might also represent those moments when everything comes together perfectly one last time before crumbling completely.
Fast forward to the 2013 mayor’s race.
Stringer is putting together cash to run.
The City Charter almost requires de Blasio to run as part of his job description.
And Quinn already pushed back her own ambitions once with the term limits extension.
According to the progressive family tree, this would mean a mayor’s race pitting Nadler’s son versus his nephew versus his niece. Nor would he be the only one torn: Up against each other, Stringer, de Blasio and Quinn crisscross bases in so many different ways that a race with all of them would probably mean a race with none of them as serious contenders.
Another problem: De Blasio and Schneiderman both got to be the blacksupported candidates in all-white fields, which helps explain why Sharpton endorsed them, enhancing their credibility with another key chunk of primary voters. Hard to see how that would happen if there is a black candidate in the race, either through Bill Thompson or, if he skips the race, through an already impatient Eric Adams. If Liu gets into the race, that would scramble things even more, exposing more fault lines among progressives, minorities and unions.
And none of this even begins to account for Anthony Weiner, who would no doubt draw support from both the Upper West Side and his old Park Slope neighborhood if he is in the race.
At this point, most of the candidates and the people around them can explain why each prospective opponent is not going to run. What the members of the Nadler family can agree on, though, is that they would not want to be in the race without the congressman at their side.
Imagining Stringer in the mayor’s race without Nadler’s support is like imagining Mike Bloomberg without his Massachu setts accentfeasible, but Twilight Zone odd. If Stringer runs, it will be with that endorsement. If he runs. But Stringer is planning to run, and he wants to drive the point home: Together handing out Schneiderman flyers early in the morning of Election Day, Stringer paused just long enough to put his hands possessively on Nadler’s shoulders and said, “He’s mine.”
De Blasio had Nadler deliver his oath of office in January.
Though the public advocate, like all the rest, will not talk much about 2013, he will talk about the key supporter he would want for whatever race comes next.
“I can’t think of a person who anyone would rather have on their side more than Jerry Nadler,” de Blasio said. “In between the respect that people have for him, and what he means substantively and what he’s achieved and the way people listen to him, of course, Jerry’s one of the most respected political figures in the city.”
Quinn too, in another made-forpaean impromptu statement.
“Jerry Nadler is a force in every local, borough, city and statewide race in New York, and anyone who runs for any office wants Jerry Nadler. Doesn’t matter what it is, where it is,” Quinn said.
The family is hoping to work out an arrangement: Stringer runs for mayor, de Blasio takes advantage of his three terms to stay public advocate until 2021, Quinn goes for Manhattan borough president. Or de Blasio runs for mayor, Stringer runs for public advocate and Quinn runs for borough president. Or de Blasio and Liu against each other for mayor, Quinn for public advocate and Stringer for comptroller. Or Quinn runs for mayor as Bloomberg’s preferred choice, and de Blasio or Stringer go up against her as the progressive pick.
Any of these would avoid the showdown, if someone could only seal the deal. Nadler acknowledges that if anyone could, he would be the person who could make it happen.
“Yeah, but I’m not the king of politics in New York,” Nadler said. “I can’t do that. It would obviously be much more comfortable if people you liked always only ran against people you despised. The world doesn’t work that way.”
Between now and 2013, Nadler has a national election to worry about and what he fears is going to be an onslaught of Republican policies that he will have to try blocking as a ranking member on the House Constitution Subcommittee. For now, Nadler and the political axis he controls are the determining force in New York politics. He will get to how that will probably all fall apart if the family goes to war with itself.
“We’ll jump off that bridge,” Nadler said, “when we come to it.”
Of the 18 years that Jerry Nadler has been in Washington, 12 of them have been in the minority. So he has an idea of what to expect when he returns to the Capitol in January following November’s heavy swing of the House to Republican control.
Nadler will likely return to his role as ranking member on the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a position he held from 2000-2006. (He was chairman of the committee for the last four years.) He expects to play a similar role as he did the last time Republicans controlled the House.
“I was the first line of defense for all kinds of crazy initiatives on anti-choice initiatives and anti-civil liberties initiatives, and anti-gay rights,” Nadler said. “That will be a large part of my time and effort, just fending off idiotic, terrible thingsprobably not being able to stop them, but laying the groundwork to try to stop them in the Senate.”
Nadler does not expect the Republicans to try a full repeat of the last time they were in the majority with a Democrat in the White House. “They can do havoc enough without impeaching the president,” he said, but he is girding himself for two years of fights over economic policies he believes are the wrong way out of the continuing recession.
And while committed to winning back the House, he is far from optimistic. Nadler has called the president politically negligent for not pushing for a bigger stimulus package or managing a better public relations effort about its benefits. And going into 2012, Nadler says he wishes the president had not originally relied on the rosy projections that said unemployment would hover at 8 percent.
Without any sign of improvements as Barack Obama gears up for reelection, along with 23 Democrats in the Senate and a battered House conference trying to get back the power they so briefly held, Nadler believes there is reason to worry.
“If the economy continues limping along and doesn’t get better, the odds are that we lose the next election,” he said.
But things might be looking up for Nadler if the Democrats take back the House.
John Conyers, the Judiciary Committee chairman, is 81 years old and unlikely to serve many more yearsespecially in the minority. Rick Boucher, a Virginia congressman who was the third most senior Democrat on the committee, was a victim of this year’s Republican wave. That leaves only Howard Berman of California ahead of Nadler for seniority, and he is likely to return to his post as Foreign Affairs chairman if given the chance, clearing the way for Nadler to take the gavel of one of Congress’s most important committees.
But first, he will have to survive the next few years of Republican control of the committee.
“It’s going to be unpleasant,” Nadler said.
Disclosure: 14 years ago, the author spent several weeks as an unpaid high school intern for Rep. Jerrold Nadler.