Hank Morris: Last Man Standing Who Didn’t Know It All
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I’m a political junkie, and as such am somewhat familiar with the community of New York political consultants that exist to make the game of politics into a professional and profitable one. I’ve played in their arena frequently and enjoy the game.
Advising a candidate for office is central to the profession of a political consultant. Effectiveness is most frequently measured in victories. And through the years, New York has had its quasi celebrity political consultants.
There was Davia Garth, the man behind Ed Koch who also worked for John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. His client list was endless -- it also included Governor Hugh Carey.
There is Hank Sheinkopf, who got his start as a reporter for the Queens Tribune, and went on to claim Bill Clinton as his most well-known client.
And there was Hank Morris the man who engineered Chuck Schumer’s defeat of Alphonse D’Amato and then gave us Alan Who? Morris was Hevesi’s guru from Alan’s early days in the Assembly right up to his reelection as State comptroller. But apparently he was a lot more than that.
In the New York State pay-to-play pension scandal which brought down Alan Hevesi and his administration, Morris has agreed to a plea bargain which, according to published reports, would include the repayment of $19 million in kickbacks and guilty plea of a single felony of securities fraud. State Supreme Court Justice Lewis Bart Stone is considering whether to accept the deal.
I had my own encounter with Morris eighteen years ago.
Then, in his pre-multi millionaire days of consulting and lobbying, Morris was throwing his weight around locally. Flexing his muscles and capitalizing on a 1992 anti-incumbent trend combined with the new lines of redistricting, Morris declared he could beat nine year incumbent Congressman Gary Ackerman with a woman candidate.
Morris was aware that 90% of the District was new to Ackerman who had previously represented only Queens, and found his borough’s representation diminished and after weighing his options, outmaneuvered longtime Congressman James Scheuer and captured party support in Nassau and then Queens for a new tri-county district which stretched all the way to Suffolk along the water of the North Shore.
Ackerman, my friend and partner, appeared to be the popular and party choice for the district. And as Morris continued to mouth off about how he could engineer an upset, he quietly called prominent women in the area suggesting they challenge Gary. When all of them turned him down, Morris convinced his mother, Rita Morris, a librarian to enter the Democratic Primary.
Using favors earned and connections earned in his years in consulting, Morris planned to raise about $1 million, mount a negative campaign to bring down Ackerman who was new to most of the District. He believed he knew the District, the issues and was in control.
How do I know this?
Hank Morris told me.
When he announced his mother’s candidacy, as Ackerman’s friend and campaign chairman, I reached out for Morris to suggest that a Democratic consultant might be better off than making it personal with a sitting Congressman who was the Party’s choice.
Moreover, there had been no past history between Ackerman and Morris to account for a move I considered bizarre.
Well, Hank accepted my offer and we breakfasted in the city. He selected the Brasserie in midtown; I don’t remember what we ate.
I do remember a lengthy breakfast where he did his best to bully, scare, and impress me. He told me who he was and how much he knew and how he was going to crush Ackerman.
I told him, I just didn’t get it and that all he would accomplish is run up campaign expenses for Ackerman and his mother and at the end of the day, Gary would win and the margin would not be close.
He was arrogant and thought he knew it all.
I was calm, bewildered and paid for breakfast – Gary never reimbursed me.
I was left with the impression of Morris as a person who thought himself better than everybody else, who felt he had the right to make the rules as he went along and above and I found him just plain unlikeable and I think he relished the ability to elicit such a response.
Well Morris was right in reading voter discontent with incumbents, locally we saw once popular Congressmen Steve Solarz and Long Island’s Tom Downey lose their seats – it was similar in voter reaction to this year coupled with a house check kiting scandal and a large handful of previously-thought-unbeatable incumbents across the country were paying the price.
But that’s where his know-it-all visions ended. His mom was handily beaten by Ackerman with both sides spending close to three quarters of a million bucks – an election fortune for the House back then.
Hank went back to his clients and he and I never spoke again. The campaign caused some damage between Hevesi and me, who I believe sat on the sidelines choosing to not back Ackerman to please his friend and consultant Morris.
Morris engineered much of the political history of Alan Hevesi right up until his disgrace. In that engineering, it appears to me was the same arrogance and belief that he knew better than everyone else and could make the rules as he went along. I didn’t get it in 1992 and I don’t get it now.
I view Hank Morris as a sad, perhaps tragic figure. I’m not sure what voices he heard or tea leaves he was reading back in 1992 or in the Comptroller’s office of New York State. But I believe it was his bad advice to his friend Alan Hevesi that corrupted an otherwise decent person and public official.
Politics consists of some very bright and very misguided people.
And there are some good ones too.MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
No Peace, No Prosperity, Therefore No Re-election
By HENRY STERN
Though some contests are still unresolved, we have had the time to digest the results of last Tuesday’s election.
Nationally, the Republicans won rather convincingly, and though in New York State, they lost all six statewide races, they did pick up six Congressional seats and appear to have regained control of the State Senate.
There are two conditions that people historically have wanted their government to provide: peace and prosperity. The United States, at this time, has neither. It is therefore logical that people should vote for new leaders.
That is the way most people voted, except where the lack of qualifications of particular candidates took priority. Witches, kooks, Scientologists, bat swingers and people who are vulgar with regard to the President were generally disfavored by the voters.
That the Democrats lost only six seats in the United States Senate is due to the peculiar qualities of the Republican primary winners in Delaware and Nevada. Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell were not ready for prime time, nor was Carl Paladino, and their shortcomings were well known by the voters. TV coverage will do that.
Apart from the desire for a new direction, public dislike of Congress, and general antagonism towards incumbents, demographics played a major role in the election. Middle America appeared to be pitted against the North Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Middle America won; there, more states are landlocked than on the oceans.
Sadly, the ideas of compromise and bipartisanship in the 112th Congress are non-starters. Both parties will devote themselves to capturing the Presidency and winning the 2012 election. Over the next two year, they will attempt to kneecap each other. The only thing that may bring the parties together is a war, and that is too high a price to pay for political harmony.
As far as our own classically dysfunctional New York State is concerned, the problem is that the Republicans offered no well-regarded candidate for governor.
It was the weakness of Rick Lazio and the rage of the right that led to the 62-38 victory by Carl Paladino in the Republican primary, but it was the unsuitability of Paladino, which guaranteed the defeat of the rest of the Republican ticket, despite the ability and appeal of his running mates, neither of whom endorsed him.
Paladino lost to Cuomo by 1,134,228 votes, a margin of 27.1%. Dan Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney who ran for State Attorney General, lost to Eric Schneiderman by 441,171 votes, or 11.1%. The Republican candidate for State Comptroller, Harry Wilson, who negotiated the General Motors rescue and was endorsed by almost all of the state’s newspapers, came closest of all the challengers. He lost to incumbent Comptroller Tom DiNapoli by 96,291 votes, or 2.4%.
Wilson and Donovan’s electoral weakness is that the Republicans had no boots on the ground, phone banks or get-out-the-vote operations, while the Democrats, assisted by public employee unions with whom they are allied, did. You can’t spend all your money on television; there is still a retail aspect to politics. Meanwhile, for the Republicans, demographics in New York State are likely to continue to deteriorate, unless the GOP broadens its appeal.
Governor-elect Cuomo will face enormous problems, including a pending nine billion dollar budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2011. He would have a difficult task even if he were not surrounded by rivals and enemies. The last two governors failed dismally for different reasons. We hope this one has the ability, the bravery, and the cunning to change the way New York State manages its affairs, while coping with the enormous financial burden it faces.
We wish him the very best, but as Governor, he will have to lead while dealing with elected officials, some of whom have serious integrity issues, while others have problematic judgment, and still others are pawns of the outside forces that finance their campaigns and the legislative leaders who give them directions. Andrew Cuomo will have a more difficult task than his father did when he was elected 28 years ago. It is common knowledge that New York State is in worse shape than it was in 1982. The new governor will have to make difficult choices; the first is finding the most competent people for the agencies and for his staff. That will be the first of many tests of his mettle. Here’s hoping.StarQuest@NYCivic.org