The Life and Death of the Liberal Party

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, Oct 8, 2009  |  Updated 11:30 AM EDT
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The Life and Death of the Liberal Party

Raymond Harding

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If Alex Rose, the legendary founder of the Liberal Party, were alive today-he'd be furious at what’s happened.

Raymond Harding, the last powerful leader of the party, has pleaded guilty this week to taking more than $800.000 for doing favors for former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

Rose, a prominent labor leader in the years when Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, founded the Liberal Party with fellow labor leader David Dubinsky. It was a turbulent time. Rose organized the new party in 1944 to battle for liberal causes, even as he fought off Communist attempts to subvert liberal principles. Rose said the purpose of the tiny party was to keep Republicans liberal and Democrats honest. He hated corruption.

But now, a successor to Rose, the last, great boss of the Liberal Party, has pleaded guilty to a crime after an investigation by State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Rose was a wily operator. I remember how he enjoyed politics as a game. Back in 1961 when Mayor Robert Wagner was running for a third term against great opposition from some of the very Democratic bosses who were his long-time supporters, Rose devised an unlikely strategy.

Rose explained to me what advice he had given Wagner. ‘’I told him: ‘Bob, you’ve got to run against the bosses! That’s the only way you can win.’”

And, sure enough, Wagner ran against the very men who had once supported him and won. It was Rose’s genius to understand the temper of the voters and how to take advantage of their feelings. Again and again, through the decades, the Liberal Party, with a handful of members, provided the balance of power to the winning candidate in close elections.

Back in 1969, John Lindsay, after suffering defeat in a Republican primary, ran as a Liberal and won. The Liberals played a key role in the election victories of Senator Jacob K. Javits, Governor Hugh Carey and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Edward Koch would never have been elected to Congress from a Republican district without Liberal support.

And, ironically, Andrew Cuomo, who brought the indictment against Harding, was, to some extent, responsible for the earlier decline of the Liberal Party. In 2002, after a bitter feud with Harding in the 1980s, Andrew Cuomo reconciled with Harding---and ran for governor on the Democratic and Liberal lines. Later, Cuomo decided to withdraw from the Democratic contest and that left the Liberals without an active candidate. They got less than 50,000 votes in the general election and that deprived them of an automatic line in future elections.

In national elections, the Liberal party provided the margin of victory for Franklin Roosevelt, in 1944 and for Jack Kennedy in 1960. It was Harry Truman’s main backer in 1948, and strongly supported Averell Harriman in 1954 and Hugh Carey in 1974.

When Harding’s indictment was announced, back in April, Cuomo said that Harding collected some of the finder’s fees from investment firms that received deals to manage 100 million dollars for New York’s pension fund. This allegedly was arranged by aides to Hevesi. Said Cuomo: “They were using the fund as a piggy bank to pay people who were doing them political favors. The brazenness is breathtaking.”

Rudolph Giuliani won a reputation when he was U.S. Attorney as a great corruption fighter. Harding maintained a close relationship with Giuliani over the years. He was one of the Mayor’s chief political advisers. Rounding out this picture, Harding’s son, Russell, once an official in the Giuliani administration, served a prison sentence for embezzling $400,000 in city money and possessing child pornography.

So, old Alex Rose, who loved politics and the little party he created, would be distraught if he were alive now. He loved the political game----but he played it straight. That’s an ethic that seems to be lacking among many who play this game today.

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