Columnist

Which local candidates could be the next Trump or Sanders?

By Frank Morano |  

July 8, 2016 |  

(Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock)

The Republican electorate is fired up by a right-wing populist with controversial positions on border security, a man who has never held elective office. Clinton has staved off a challenge from an anti-establishment populist with broad appeal to the disenfranchised and those on the left. A third-party candidate is becoming an attractive alternative for millions and having a noticeable presence in national polls. Meanwhile, here in New York, Gov. Cuomo, who is widely perceived to have national ambitions, is watching the election with great interest.

The year? 1992.

That’s right. Change is certainly in the air this year, and the last time you could sense Americans this determined to switch direction irrespective of their political affiliation was 24 years ago, when Pat Buchanan nearly bested a sitting Republican president in the New Hampshire primary, California Gov. Jerry Brown gave Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, agita right up until the Democratic convention, and millions of dissatisfied voters flocked to third-party candidate Ross Perot in the general election. The parallels between the 1992 election and 2016 are striking, but one of the forgotten lessons from that year is that it was a harbinger of a dramatic sea change in local political races.

One year after the ’92 election, New York City voters kicked out an incumbent mayor, David Dinkins, to elect a Republican, Rudolph Giuliani, for the first time in decades, a U.S. attorney who had never held elective office. They also overwhelmingly approved a referendum for term limits to “throw the bums out.” That same year, New Jersey voters ousted their incumbent governor, Democrat James Florio, in favor of Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who also had never held elective office. Then, in 1994, New Yorkers voted out longtime Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo to take a chance on an obscure Republican state legislator from Westchester, George Pataki, while a Perot-esque independent named Tom Golisano helped establish a new party with an insurgent gubernatorial candidacy.

If past is prologue, and this year is 1992 on steroids, will next year be 1993 redux? Will 2018 be 1994 all over again? If so, who are the possible candidates best suited to be the local Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders?

The factors that have played into the electoral appeal of Trump, Bernie and the third-party candidates are:

· A populist ideology on the issues

· Constant railing against “insiders,” “the establishment,” “a rigged system,” lobbyists, special interests and the leadership of both major parties

· The thought that private sector business success would be an asset in government (in Trump’s case)

· An absolute refusal (or inability) to speak in a politically correct manner

· Communicating in a plainspoken manner that’s easily understood by the masses

· A remarkable ability to effectively garner and utilize media attention

· An appeal to white rural voters, a bloc that is often ignored by presidential candidates but has been integral to the success of both Trump and Sanders

So, who are the candidates best positioned to take advantage of this mood change on the part of the electorate in the races for mayor and governor? Here are a few possibilities:

State Sen. Tony Avella. He’s a maverick’s maverick. Like Sanders, who has served in Congress as an independent, Avella does not sit with the traditional Democratic conference, but is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference. As Christine Quinn can tell you from her time working with him in the New York City Council, Avella has never gone along with the desires of the party leadership. Avella’s vote against a property tax hike, commuter taxes and term limits appeals to the same sort of outer-borough, white ethnic voters that will overwhelmingly vote for Trump in the general election. The fact that he’s repeatedly won elections for both City Council and the state Senate in a district that generally votes Republican is a testament to his non-partisan, populist appeal. So, while he certainly doesn’t have Trump’s money, in many ways he’s a hybrid of Sanders and Trump, who could do surprisingly well in a Democratic primary.

Marty Markowitz. He sounds like Sanders with the same type of vintage Brooklyn accent. He’s as entertaining as Trump. He’s the closest thing to a non-politician in New York politics, and while he’s probably unlikely to run against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, he would make a pretty compelling candidate. His campaign stump speeches would certainly be entertaining.

John Catsimatidis. Is he gaffe-prone? Absolutely. Does he speak the King’s English? Certainly not. But neither do Trump and Sanders. He speaks in a way that regular New Yorkers understand plainly, which adds to his appeal. While many people have questioned Donald Trump’s actual wealth, no one can question John’s, nor can they question his willingness to spend it for political purposes. After getting some rookie mistakes out of the way in 2013 and learning from Trump’s successes and failures, coupled with the evolving tastes of the electorate, he is likely to be a far better candidate this time around. The appeal of not being beholden to donors or special interests will resonate with the public in light of all of de Blasio’s fundraising scandals.

Curtis Sliwa. If there’s one person who has the ability to utilize free media on a local level as effectively as Trump has done nationally, it’s Curtis. He attacks politicians on both sides of the aisle, and is incredibly well-known by New Yorkers from all walks of life, even those that don’t traditionally follow politics. A member of the Reform Party now, if he were to run as a third party candidate against a pair of politicians like Bill De Blasio and Eric Ulrich, his appeal might lead to some general election surprises.

Carl Paladino. Paladino was Trump before Trump. The only thing missing from his 2010 gubernatorial race was a desire to build a wall between New York and New Jersey.

Preet Bharara. I know that he’s repeatedly indicated he isn’t interested in running for governor, but for a guy who mentions reforming Albany and weeding out public corruption 900 times a day, there’s no better role for a Teddy Roosevelt-style reformer.

Rob Astorino. Astorino may already hold elected office, and he may have run before, but his populist positions on issues like term limits and Common Core, coupled with his “Albany outsider” appeal may find a more enthusiastic reception in 2018 than it did in 2014.

Maybe I’m off-base, and 2016 just an anomaly that it will have no local ripple effect, but I doubt it. Who do you think is best positioned to capitalize on the broad based non-partisan populist fervor of the electorate?

Frank Morano is a political activist and radio talk show host.

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