After more than 30 years with Michael R. Long at their helm, state Conservatives will gather in Brooklyn on Saturday to choose between two potential successors as new party chairman, including Erie County’s Ralph C. Lorigo.
Lorigo, who is 71 and the longtime Erie County chairman, will face Jerry Kassar of Brooklyn, a veteran party power and State Legislature staffer who is widely predicted to win on Saturday. But while Lorigo acknowledges his underdog status, he believes he has a realistic shot in the special election to be decided by 55 Executive Committee members.
This week he mounted a mail and phone campaign to emphasize the minor party’s success in electing a host of Erie County candidates in recent years. He ranks the victories as a major accomplishment in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 – similar to New York State’s election demographics.
“I have to convince the downstate people, which is not an easy task,” Lorigo said Monday. “But I believe we can expand our Conservative numbers by talking about gun rights and the Second Amendment, talking to the right-to-life people, and concentrate on pocketbook issues and immigration. Those are the prominent issues today.”
Lorigo enters the contest with strong backing from several prominent Western New York Republicans who attest to the local Conservatives’ ability to win for the GOP in close elections. He has sent copies of letters of support to party leaders from former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, former state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, most of Western New York’s Republican state legislators, and 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino.
Long surprised just about all Conservatives last month when he announced during a statewide gathering in Albany that he would end his long reign over New York’s top minor party. During that time the Conservatives played an outsize role in steering the GOP to the right and providing winning margins for many top Republicans such as Gov. George E. Pataki in 1994.
Both contenders to fill the remainder of Long's term insist the party can play the same role even as Democrats now rule all of Albany, and their liberal wing exerts more and more influence. Kassar said his party’s philosophies still apply to millions of New York voters.
“The first seven weeks of the Legislature’s session has pretty much been a scorched Earth policy,” he said, referring to the flurry of progressive legislation enabled by new Democratic control of the Senate. “I think the state as a whole is basically center-right, and the Conservative Party has a role to play.”
Kassar, 60, has been active in New York politics for more than 40 years, most recently as chief of staff to former Republican State Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn. He is the longtime chairman of Brooklyn Conservatives, has been close to Long for many years, and along with Lorigo, serves as a state vice chairman.
Kassar says he represents the kind of “aggressive” leader the party needs in an era of Democratic control, and notes his ability to raise the funds needed to compete.
“I think I’m in pretty good shape,” he said of his chances on Saturday. “I have support from all areas of the state ... and many, many Executive Committee members.
“But one thing I have learned since first getting involved in 1977,” he added, “is not to take anything for granted.”
Though either Kassar or Lorigo will emerge as new state chairman on Saturday, the party will address the leadership issue again in July, 2020 when it meets to choose a leader for a full, two-year term.