The paid death notice in the New York Times had only a few sad words: “beloved husband…loving father… cherished grandfather…”
There was little to indicate the depth of the tragedy of the life of Raymond B. Harding, 77, former leader of the Liberal Party in New York.
He came here as a boy with his family. They were fleeing Nazi persecution in the Balkans. Ultimately, he became a protégé of Alex Rose, legendary founder of the tiny Liberal Party. I knew them both. But, if Rose was a wily politician whose object in life, as he saw it, was to keep the two major parties honest, Harding, it turned out, was personally dishonest. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges that he had taken $800,000 for doing favors for State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
Former Mayor Edward Koch was originally elected to Congress with the Liberal Party’s support.
Koch told me: “Ray Harding destroyed the Liberal Party.”
The former mayor said it was sad that Harding had risen to such a powerful political position and then let it all go. Harding, for a quarter of a century, was able to use the party’s coveted ballot line to accumulate power and influence in the highest circles of government.
His idea was to create a “fusion ticket” -- joining the Liberal Party with either major party -- and, in that fashion, he helped elect Mario Cuomo as governor and Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Liberals represented just 1 percent of registered voters.
Gov, Andrew Cuomo, who was a political ally of Harding and then wound up prosecuting him, called the former power broker’s death “a personal tragedy.”
Harding was one of the last of the old-time political bosses. His heavy frame, his chain-smoking, his clipped sentences were familiar elements on the New York political scene. He loved the political game, as did his mentor, Alex Rose.
Harding had the capacity to laugh at some of the absurdities in that game -- and he could laugh at himself too. He had a gruff, growly voice and a personality to match. His glasses gave him an owl-like appearance. And, like the mythical owl, he was always ready to dispense political wisdom and size up the field in any election.
He used his political power to accumulate patronage. After Giuliani was elected mayor, Harding got jobs for his sons, Robert, as budget director and deputy mayor, and Russell, as head of the Housing and Development Corporation. The words “conflict of interest” didn’t seem to exist in his vocabulary. He behaved in the time-honored political tradition, the operative words being: to the victor, belong the spoils.
In 2005, Russell Harding was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $400,000 from the housing and development agency.
Raymond Harding did violate one principle that political bosses usually live by. He betrayed the politicians’ code of omerta by testifying against another major politician, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Harding pleaded guilty to doing favors for Hevesi in return for $800,000. He helped state investigators put Hevesi in prison. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor but, in return for his cooperation, got no jail time. Hevesi was sentenced to one to four years.
In recent decades, major New York political figures have had spectacular falls. Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman, Queens Democratic leader Donald Manes were among those who fell. Harding’s decline was the latest episode in this series of disasters for major political leaders.
Lord Acton wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Certainly New York’s experience confirms Acton’s belief.