The Empire backs down

The McCain insurgency battles its way onto the New York state GOP primary ballot and forces the Bush machine to capitulate.

Published February 4, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The Berlin Wall, as Arizona Sen. John McCain likes to call it, came down Friday, when U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ruled that McCain and Alan Keyes could qualify for the New York ballot. After urging from Gov. George Pataki, the state Republican Party abandoned its effort to keep the former POW off the New York ballot, essentially ending an archaic system giving New York the dubious distinction of having the toughest ballot access laws in the nation.

In the past three months, the McCain campaign has waged a masterful battle on the streets, in the courts and in the court of public opinion. With less than a handful of campaign stops in the state since last fall, the senator has managed to make himself into the crusader who has become the hero of some independent-minded New York Republicans. You couldn't buy that kind of publicity in New York's expensive media markets, even if you had the money.

For as long as anyone can remember, New York has had the toughest ballot access rules in the nation. So tough that until 1996, no Republican presidential primary had ever been contested in every congressional district in the state. Change came that year only because millionaire publisher Steve Forbes was able to hire enough campaign workers and lawyers to overcome the state's complex rules.

McCain, however, had to rely on volunteers. As soon as petitioning started Nov. 30, the McCain campaign's New York chairman, Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, began to send out signals that the Arizona senator would make it on the ballot in only half of New York's congressional districts.

Days later, McCain himself appeared at New York University law school to announce that the school's Brennan Center for Law and Justice was undertaking a battle in federal court to have the state's laws declared unduly burdensome, and therefore unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, as volunteer Steve Metcalf described it, the campaign had a petition gathering operation that ran with military precision. Metcalf, like most of McCain's volunteers, is a political neophyte, since "comrade Pataki," as McCain took to calling the governor, "and comrade Powers" -- state GOP chief William Powers -- had locked up every elected official and party activist in the state behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"We'd have several people on the telephone and we'd have [others] walking around with cell phones and you'd call them and say, 'Well, so and so is willing to sign.' And hopefully they would get eight or nine people in one apartment building, and you would do this until 9:30 p.m., when no one wanted to be bothered anymore."

Surprising everyone, McCain gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot in nearly every congressional district in the state. Enough, that is, until the challenges started coming in from the state Republican Party, which -- Bush officials claimed -- was acting on its own behalf.

In one district, neighbors living in the same apartment complex who signed the same petition were actually in different congressional districts -- and as a result the petitions they signed were invalidated, knocking McCain off the ballot.

In Brooklyn, the McCain campaign came up one signature short -- and he was therefore excluded from the ballot in that district. Two of those disallowed were registered Republicans whose addresses had simply been listed incorrectly by the petition workers.

By the time they were through, Bush partisans had knocked McCain off the ballot in nearly half the state. But the senator launched a P.R. war to get his name back on. "The Berlin Wall is down. We should have free, fair and open elections in New York," he said while campaigning in New Hampshire.

He traveled to the Russian consulate in New York and claimed there would be more candidates for president on the ballot in Russia than in New York. He said the governor should direct his "politburo" to let him on the ballot.

Still, Powers' lawyers defended their efforts in court, and Bush defended the law on the campaign trail. "It's important for all of us to play by the same rules, if that's what you're saying, do I think there ought to be the same rules for ballot access in New York that all of us must comply with? The answer is yeah, and I'm confident that chairman Powers will run the power in a way that is fair for everybody," Bush said on a snowy day in Portsmouth, N.H.

But then, two things happened. Judge Edward Korman, who was hearing the case in federal court, sharply criticized the party's rules and indicated he was prepared to place McCain on the ballot. Korman said the rules were clearly "designed to advantage the candidate of the state Republican party" and keep everyone else off the ballot, and that the rules were so strict as to render the primary process meaningless.

Then there was that primary in New Hampshire, which McCain won by an overwhelming margin.

On Tuesday night at the New York Athletic Club, among delirious McCain supporters, Guy Molinari said that the party establishment's strategy had backfired to McCain's benefit. "I think they've played this all wrong, I think its boomeranged, it's helped our campaign. "

Privately, Bush's friends were calling it a "fucking embarrassment" and a "nightmare." It had become a national story, fodder for the Sunday shows and appearing every day on the front page of the New York Times. By Thursday, the New York Post was printing an editorial calling on the governor to let McCain on the ballot, and Bush was getting pestered by reporters in Delaware about the New York ballot.

The Bush campaign and Pataki apparently saw that the battle was feeding into McCain's image as a populist champion of openness and reform. Late Thursday afternoon, Pataki issued a statement. According to his communications director, Zenia Mucha, "The governor believes the campaign in New York should be about issues and ideas and not about technicalities, and therefore he feels that its important for McCain to be on the ballot so that we can have a campaign of ideas and of issues."

Shortly thereafter, Powers called his lawyer, Lawrence Mandelker, and authorized him to proceed to settle the case. Settlement talks continued through the night, with McCain's counsel, Craig Turk, saying they would accept nothing less than total capitulation. "We're going to be satisfied when those rules are gone, not just when John McCain is on the ballot."

That could happen very soon, as the lawyers continued working out the final details in federal court here Friday morning.

By Andrea Bernstein

Andrea Bernstein is a New York journalist.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.