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Bob McCarthy: May's state conventions are looking lively

Back in 1994 when the Politics Column chronicled its first statewide political convention at Manhattan’s Sheraton Towers Hotel, it was hard to fathom that any similar confab would ever prove more compelling.

A previously unknown state senator from Peekskill named George Pataki had arrived on the statewide scene and was making a strong bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But a professor named Herb London was messing up everything, gaining Conservative support and making his own strong pitch for the ticket’s top spot.

As a result, GOP honchos jammed the Sheraton’s “back rooms” to haggle and horse trade. Back then, those rooms were probably smoke-filled, too. And when they all emerged, the state GOP coalesced around Pataki for governor and London for comptroller, while an ashen-faced John Faso (now a congressman who had previously sought the fiscal watchdog post) got left out in the cold.

It all amounted to fascinating political machinations – New York-style.

Maybe, however, this month’s state party conventions (GOP back at the Sheraton, Dems at Hofstra University on Long Island) will live up to the Republicans’ 1994 standard. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will stave off any convention challenge from actress-activist Cynthia Nixon at the Democratic conclave and save his showdown for the primary.

But the Dems will offer their own dose of “down-ballot intrigue.” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will learn her fate at Hofstra (or shortly before) following the Cuomo forces’ half-baked effort to dump her from the statewide ticket in exchange for facing Rep. Chris Collins. (Hochul did not ride into Albany on a turnip truck and recognized a bad deal when she saw it.)

By the time Democrats head home on May 24, it will be clear whether she has survived in the face of a challenge from New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams.

Now, Democrats must also face the previously unscheduled task of nominating an attorney general candidate amid Eric Schneiderman’s spectacular fall from grace last week. After four women accused him of physical violence against them (which he denies but acknowledges “role playing” during consensual sex), a classic succession scramble has ensued, with not enough space in the Politics Column to list all the contenders.

On the Republican side, new interest is building for a down-ballot attorney general spot after some in the party wondered if they could even field a sacrificial lamb. Now the GOP is discussing the race with potential candidates with real legal and political credentials. Though they face monster challenges, some Republicans like the new lay of the land stemming from Schneiderman’s resignation.

“The Democrats were not at all prepared for this,” said former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, who emerged as the party nominee from that same 1994 convention. “Now all of a sudden, there’s an open seat. Given Cuomo’s challenge from the left and trials coming up on the Buffalo Billion and for Shelly Silver, I really think this environment creates an opportunity for Republicans.”

A Democratic Legislature faced a similar situation in 1993, Vacco notes, when it appointed Oliver Koppel to fill the unexpired term of Robert Abrams, who resigned. The uncertainty caused Koppell to lose the Democratic primary to Karen Burstein, who in turn, was defeated in the general election by Vacco.

“An appointment by the Legislature is no guarantee,” he added, just as another Democratic Legislature ponders an appointed replacement for Schneiderman.

Much has changed since the wild and woolly GOP convention of 1994 that produced statewide winners like Pataki and Vacco. New York has donned an even deeper shade of blue and no Republican has won statewide since Pataki in 2002. It’s still a major challenge for any Republican given the overwhelming Democratic advantage in New York City.

But the conventions both parties will stage later this month will, for a change, interest more than political junkies. They just might set the stage for a most fascinating 2018.

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