Most Republican primary contests these days are characterized (however accurately or inaccurately) as fights between the Tea Party and the party Establishment. But in at least one case another characterization, more typical historically of Democratic than Republican primary contests, is more apt: a contest between a local party machine mainly interested in patronage jobs and an independent motivated by issues. That one case is the Republican primary contest next week in the 4th congressional district of New York, which includes most of the southern half of Nassau County, between machine-backed Bruce Blakeman and independent conservative Frank Scaturro. I wrote about Scaturro's race in 2012, when he lost the Republican primary to machine candidate Fran Becker by a 55 to 45 percent margin, but won the Conservative party nomination with 253 votes as a write-in, after the Republican machine had pressured the Conservatives to keep him off the ballot. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, first elected in 1996, is not running for re-election this year.
The Nassau Republican party machine, headed since 1983 by Joseph Mondello, is financed in large part by supposedly voluntary contributions from county and local government employees who owe their jobs to the organization. The machine has mostly controlled government in this relatively affluent suburban county, just east of New York City on Long Island, and has produced some of the most expensive local government anywhere in the nation. So much so that Democrat Thomas Suozzi was elected county executive in 2001 and 2005 and was only narrowly defeated by Republican Ed Mangano in 2009. The machine seems to be blocking Scaturro because it is less interested in capturing the seat than in making sure that someone who is not beholden to the organization gets in. In 2012 its candidate Fran Becker won only 32 percent of the vote to McCarthy's 62 percent; Scaturro received 6 percent as the Conservative candidate. Bruce Blakeman has not been electorally successful lately: He left office as presiding officer of the Nassau County legislature in 1999 and ran a losing race for mayor of New York City in 2009.
This year, as in 2012, Scaturro is being attacked for having worked for Sen. Arlen Specter when he was the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But those were the years in which Specter was an effective Republican, pushing through the Supreme Court confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Scaturro had left Specter’s staff long before he left the Republican party in 2009, and he has a strong endorsement from Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn attesting to his conservative bona fides. There is reason to believe that Mondello would prefer to have Democrat Kathleen Rice win the House seat; she is currently county district attorney and her election would open up that office, with more patronage to dispense than a congressman, to possible Republican machine control.
It’s a mystery why relatively highly educated and affluent voters in Nassau County have supported the current Republican machine and it will be interesting to see if Frank Scaturro can overcome its opposition in the primary next Tuesday.