It was dinner with the 1%. Not that 1%, but the 1% of New York City voters registered as Bronx Republicans. The not-quite 40,000 registered Bronx Republicans comprise less than 1% of New York City’s registered voters and don’t have any New York City or New York State elected officials, but they hosted an energetic dinner last night featuring two mayoral candidates and one prospective candidate.
Cast by Bronx County Republican Chairman Mike Rendino as kicking off the 2017 Republican mayoral race, the dinner featured appearances by candidates Paul Massey and Michel Faulkner and possible candidate John Catsimatidis. Among the three hundred or so attendees were Republican State Chairman Ed Cox, Republican County chairs from Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island and New York City’s two Republican members of the New York State Assembly, Staten Islanders Nicole Malliotakis and Ron Castorina.
Catsimatidis, Massey and Faulkner each separately addressed the audience, pitching their candidacies and lauding the Bronx Republicans.
Catsimatidis spoke first, making a somewhat off-key speech and not connecting with his audience. Avoiding any policy discussion, he lamented the electoral condition of New York City’s Republicans, offering the observation that “it’s better to be on the inside looking out than the outside looking in,” and urged the assembled party stalwarts to build “a coalition of common sense Democrats, common sense liberals, common sense conservatives and all Republicans.” Unsurprisingly, that fits Catsimatidis’ description of himself. He also emphasized the value of a wealthy candidate, saying in his opening that “whatever your chairman needs, I’m one phone call away” and later declaring “we need a candidate that can put up enough money if we can’t raise it.”
His comments seemed at times to be aimed at a different audience, with a couple of out-of-place remarks. “If you people don’t think it exists, then you’re living in a dreamworld” he said as he described a program to watch “every toll booth to avoid voter fraud.” He then briefly spoke of the City’s municipal ID program as enabling voter fraud, without offering action or solutions. (Assembly Members Malliotakis and Castorina, who have sued the City over the program, both spoke at the dinner.) He also described himself as “very very much disturbed” at the Obama presidency because “I don’t think President Obama helped those [inner city] kids very much, even though he was black, he didn’t help the black kids enough.” His audience continued eating and talking.
Catsimatidis’ biggest asset is his assets; he’s wealthy and willing to self-fund. He’s also been around New York Republican politics for a while and has a meaningful number of friends and supporters. His weaknesses were on display in this speech, however, as he ambled along without connecting or energizing his audience. Catsimatidis said that he’ll decide “in the next few weeks” on whether to run.
Paul Massey spoke briefly, with a good reception for his anti-de Blasio pitch but not discussing any issues or policy. He drew big cheers as he opened saying that “I’m running for mayor to unseat Bill de Blasio.” A Wizard of Oz analogy fell flat at first, but drew large cheers when he declared that he learned that the “yellow brick road to City Hall” began in the Bronx, and specifically at the home of the immediate past Bronx Republican chairman whom he visited two years ago after deciding to run. He closed with the Wizard of Oz as well, declaring that “I’ve got a big icy cold bucket of water I’m going to throw on Bill de Blasio, the wicked witch of the west and then I’m gonna take his broomstick and sweep him out of City Hall.”
Massey was brief but well-received. He was at ease and connected with his audience, albeit without any discussion of issues and policies that may separate them. He missed most of the cocktail hour and its opportunity to talk with attendees, arriving just as attendees were sitting. He worked the room methodically during dinner, however, going table to table after he spoke while Catsimatidis and Faulkner sat at their tables.
Michel Faulkner was the most electric of the three candidates, mixing harsh words for Mayor de Blasio, brief discussions of the NYPD and education and his love for his adopted city in an energetic mix that mostly held his audience.. The former pro football player, who played one year for the Jets in 1981, opened with kind words about Paul Massey (who has had similarly kind words for Faulkner on other occasions), saying it is a “pleasure to be on the field of competition with Paul Massey.”
Castigating de Blasio as “dividing us by race, dividing us by social economics, dividing us by gender, dividing us by anything that will give him power” Faulkner was in overdrive throughout his presentation. He’s the most energetic speaker of the three candidates and he’s been actively campaigning for a while. (He said he’s knocked on 6,000 doors so far.) Like the other candidates, and virtually all Republican elected and party officials, he offered harsh criticism of de Blasio. Faulkner had a hard time discussing how he would change things in the current or proposed city budget when I spoke with him Monday evening, however, and doesn’t evince any deep policy knowledge. He’s also struggling financially, with his January report showing a negative balance of negative balance of $7,000 after raising only $53,000.
The Republican mayoral primary is well underway with this first large multi-candidate dinner in the books. There’s not a clear leader yet, with each of these three candidates having some plausibility. Each has some clear shortcomings, however, and it’s not even clear who will actually run. One consequence of these factors is a delay, if not ending, of the effort by the five Republican county chairs to avoid a primary and unite behind a single candidate. The county chairs met last week without any agreement on a candidate and they’re currently scheduled to meet again in May. They could, of course, reach agreement before that scheduled meeting, but the reality is that several, if not all, of the county organizations are still far from their individual decisions and any prospect of unity behind a single candidate seems far off.
As a final note, there’s an additional factor to watch. At noted in the introduction the Bronx does not have any Republican city or state elected officeholders. There is one elected official who represents the Bronx, however; President Donald Trump. He’s understandably an inspiration to underdog City Republicans yet also likely to be a blackhole-like burden on them in a citywide general election. Mentions of Trump drew solid cheers last night, and people I spoke with individually were unequivocally behind him. The candidates vary in their fealty to Trump though, with Massey and possible candidate Eric Ulrich less than fully enthusiastic about him. Faulkner is fully supportive of Trump and Catsimatidis … we’ll see. Among the factors in the primary is how these Republican voters, inspired by Trump’s unexpected victory, will value their candidates’ respective fealty to Trump in their personal choice versus the effect of that fealty on each candidate’s prospects of winning a general election.