Enter the Donald

Trump tries to secure key third-party endorsement for Giuliani as Hillary attacks Buchanan and Fulani.

By Jesse Drucker
Published April 29, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

As the result of an obscure court ruling Wednesday, the ubiquitous Donald Trump may now be poised to become the 800-pound gorilla in New York's U.S. Senate race. At least that's what Rudy Giuliani could be counting on.

Giuliani's run has been thrown into doubt since his announcement Thursday that he has prostate cancer, but the machinations are falling into place should he move forward. And Trump is emerging as a key player in Giuliani's pursuit of a potentially significant third-party endorsement.

Let's explain: For years, the cross-endorsements of New York's major third parties have been considered key for successful statewide races. Republicans traditionally run with the backing of the Conservative Party. Democrats usually receive the endorsement of the Liberal Party. In recent years, the Independence Party -- New York's wing of the national Reform Party -- has taken on increasing importance. It is now the largest third party in the state.

But it still remains unclear who the Independence Party will endorse. The party is split into numerous different factions -- including one aligned with nut-case "social therapist" Lenora Fulani and Pat Buchanan -- making it difficult to figure out who, precisely, is running the party, and making an alliance potentially risky. Giuliani and Clinton -- who both
spoke at an Independence Party forum in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday -- could run
the risk of running on a ticket headed by presidential candidate Buchanan.

However, a state Supreme Court justice Wednesday reinstated the party's former chairman, an electronics consultant in Sullivan County named Jack Essenberg, who had been voted out amid allegations of corruption. Essenberg's lawsuit was financed by Trump.

And roughly a month ago, Mayor Giuliani and Trump discussed how Trump could help secure the Independence nomination, according to Trump's political consultant, Roger Stone. "They've discussed it," said Stone, "and Mr. Trump has volunteered to be as helpful as he can in securing the nomination."

Trump is prepared to round up support within the party -- a proposition potentially made easier by Essenberg's presence -- and exercise his prolific fund-raising abilities on the mayor's behalf, Stone said.

"Trump made a lot of friends in the party when he was seeking the nomination and I think he can be helpful to the mayor," said Stone. "If Trump decides to go out and raise money with the specific purpose of nominating Giuliani with the Independence Party, he has an awful lot of vendors he can solicit, he has an awful lot of friends he can solicit, he has an awful lot of executives he can solicit. I think he will. He's very strong for the mayor."

Essenberg said Trump has asked him for help supporting a Giuliani Independence Party candidacy. However, he insisted that he remains "candidate-neutral" and has not made any efforts to round up support for the mayor. "I can't provide the help," he said, as he grew increasingly defensive about his relationship with Trump. "I don't have any votes, I have friends. Do you think I've spoken to any of these people and said, 'I'm behind Rudy Giuliani'? Well, I haven't."

As for whether he feels indebted to Trump for financing his recent lawsuit, Essenberg would only say: "I feel that he's a friend, and I certainly like having a friend who has the ability to be in the media."

Giuliani and Trump go back years. Trump was one of Giuliani's earliest mayoral supporters, co-chairing Giuliani's first fund-raiser in his initial run in 1989. (The Village Voice later reported that an IRS agent working for then U.S. Attorney Giuliani dropped a probe of Trump at roughly the time Trump announced he could raise money for a Giuliani mayoral candidacy.) Trump and his family contributed or bundled at least $92,250 for Giuliani's three mayoral runs. And he has already contributed $3,500 to Giuliani's various Senate committees.

Trump is also represented by the law/lobbying firm that includes as its partners Liberal Party head and Giuliani advisor Ray Harding. The Liberal Party has thrice endorsed Giuliani for mayor and seems likely to do it again in the Senate race.

But most important, Trump may be counting on Essenberg for something else: He could help remove Buchanan as the party's presidential nominee.

As previously reported in Salon, the Independence Party is not obligated to endorse the Reform Party's presidential candidate. And if Buchanan is the Reform nominee, Essenberg says he is inclined to look for another presidential candidate.

Both major factions within the Independence Party agree that the New York party is free to do that. However, Frank MacKay, ousted as party chairman on Wednesday, disputed Essenberg's contention that such a move can take place by a vote by the nine-member executive committee -- now headed by Essenberg. MacKay says the party's rules require a vote of the party's state committee members.

So Giuliani's camp has a preliminary strategy for capturing
Independence support. But Clinton has no clear way into the party, an aide
explained, and has embarked on a strategy of calling public attention to
the party's more undesirable elements.

At Saturday's forum in Buffalo, speaking to a crowd of roughly 80
Independence Party members, she forcefully (and unexpectedly) condemned
extremists within the party. "If this party allows itself to become defined
by the anti-Semitism, extremism, prejudice and intolerance of a few shrill
voices of both the right and the left, you will be doing yourselves and our
state a great disservice," she declared.

She also added unequivocally that she would not run "on a line with
Pat Buchanan at the top of the ticket." (Giuliani, who has been
highly critical of Buchanan over the years, made no such pledge.) The
Clinton aide said the campaign considered it unlikely she would gain the party's
support and said that if Giuliani runs as an Independent, he will bear the
onus of a potential association with the likes of Fulani and Buchanan.

Nevertheless, despite Giuliani and Trump's wishes, it is far from clear whether Essenberg's ascension to the chairmanship clears the way for Giuliani to receive the party's endorsement.

MacKay said he expected the judge's decision to be overturned, and said Essenberg had virtually no support within the party.

Essenberg has the ability to call for the date and location of the party's convention, said MacKay. But "we control the votes" among the party's roughly 270 state committee members, he asserted. "Essenberg doesn't even have a single vote."

Not surprisingly, Essenberg disagreed, insisting he enjoys support among roughly a quarter of the party's state committee members.

Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani