Powell Case Is Boost for Democrats, Maybe

December 7, 1998

By Mark J. Grossman

What a difference a month makes. Especially in politics.

On Nov. 3, arguably the most powerful Republican senator in the nation, New York and Long Island’s Al D’Amato, lost. In his wake, the incumbent GOP attorney general, Dennis Vacco, was toppled, as was the Nassau legislature’s presiding officer, Bruce Blakeman, who was both trounced in the comptroller’s race and lost in his home community.

By all accounts, the day was a big win for New York Democrats.

Last Thursday, just 30 days later, came the news that the Suffolk Republican Party chairman, John Powell, possible heir apparent to the state chairman, Bill Powers, was arrested on bribery and theft charges that could bring 30 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Already, political analysts are predicting that 1999 might finally mean a watershed year for Long Island Democrats, especially in Suffolk. And perhaps they’re right. GOP scandal — from the Islip land deals of the 1960s, to national embarrassments such as Watergate in the 1970s — helped propel scores of Democrats into elected office.

However, today’s political climate seems to be different. In the early ’90s, Brookhaven Town voters re-elected GOP town board members despite the heavy cloud of the McNamara scandal which involved high-profile past and present town officials. And voters in Babylon last year gave Democrats a vote of confidence by increasing their town board majority, even though criminal charges — albeit trumped-up ones now severely reduced and which seem like a parking ticket compared to the Powell incident — were looming over top officials.

Perhaps this incident will give Democrats a short-term, temporary
“bump” that might help solidify their hold on the Fifth County
Legislative District, conveniently located in Powell’s hometown of
Brookhaven, where a special election to fill a vacancy will be held
next month. But whether this drives Suffolk voters to abandon their
proclivity for Republican politicians in November is yet to be seen.

If they expect to win, Democratic candidates will have to do more
than just point to sensational newsheadlines and then proclaim, “Vote for me, I’m not him!” They’ll need to demonstrate how they’ll better govern. They’ll need to run highly aggressive people-oriented grass-roots campaigns. And most important, they’ll need to stay united as a party.

Credit state Democratic chair Judith Hope, a Suffolk resident, for unifying the party this past year and running a tight, coordinated statewide winning campaign. That’s what needs to, and can, happen in Suffolk County in ’99.

Unfortunately, this task is made even more arduous because incidents like Powell’s further erode the public’s confidence in politicians and give voters more excuses to stay away from the polls. In fact, one could argue that the real loser here isn’t the Republican Party. With Powell suffering several major setbacks at the polls over the past two years, the Suffolk Republican Committee may, under new leadership, emerge even stronger.

The real losers, sadly, are the hard-working public and party officials of all parties, many of whom work for salaries that are a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector, who struggle each day to make this world just a better place. They will have to work even harder to regain public trust.

The day this story broke, I asked a colleague who is a Republican what he thought. “Today is Thursday and tomorrow it will be Friday,” he said. Time takes on an unreal quality in the world of politics. It can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare.

Mark J. Grossman was former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s Long Island regional director. He now heads Grossman Strategies, a public relations firm, among whose clients is the state Democratic Party.

Mark J. Grossman, Powell Case Is Boost for Democrats, Maybe.
Newsday, 12-07-1998, pp A31.