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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Dignity is not on the menu

GOP Presidential Candidate John Kasich eats a piece

GOP Presidential Candidate John Kasich eats a piece of pizza at Gino's Pizzeria and Restaurant on March 30, 2016 in Queens. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bryan Thomas

Maybe it’s Nelson Rockefeller’s fault.

He was a millionaire, living in a different world from the people whose votes he was seeking. To bridge the gap during his first campaign for governor in 1958, he embarked on a food-and-handshake visit to the Lower East Side, then an ethnic Jewish neighborhood.

It was incongruous: The scion of New York’s first family noshing in Weitzman’s Deli and speaking Spanish to Puerto Rican voters over pizza and hot dogs at Jack Levy’s Famous.

People were “gobsmacked” to find him there, says Rockefeller biographer Richard Norton Smith.

The trip was not without missteps. In “On His Own Terms,” Smith recounts the story of a patron who refused to shake Rockefeller’s hand. More happily, Rockefeller was able to help a woman who accosted him about affordable housing.

Thus was born the so-called “blintz tour,” for which Rockefeller would become famous. Mixing it up with the people, on the path to votes: the "Full Rockefeller," as journalist and political commentator Jeff Greenfield tweeted last week, as the practice made its way back to NYC.
Slightly more consultant-polished, the 2016 blintz tour is now upon us. With New York’s April 19th primary around the corner, and New York a competitive race on both sides, the culinary delights of the city have become political shows.

Recently, we’ve had Sen. Bernie Sanders at Nathan's for a hot dog; Hillary Clinton staring down slices of Junior's Cheesecake (she told reporters she doesn't eat in front of press); Sen. Ted Cruz making matzo in Brooklyn; and then, the true winner of the cycle so far, Gov. John Kasich learning about great Italian food on Arthur Avenue.

On Arthur Avenue, Kasich redeemed himself for an earlier “blintz tour” related gaffe: marring a perfectly good slice with silverware. Much sauce has been spilled over those who dare put tine to crust, a list of out-of-touch elites that includes Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

To be fair, Kasich only started with the fork, before embracing his New York Values and picking the slice up with his bare hands.

It’s mostly a pastime, but candidates keep coming back for the same reason Rockefeller wandered the LES — not just to convince voters that the candidate is just like us, but also to prove that he or she cares and will care about the people who eat down here.

For Rockefeller, this performance became a science. Smith notes that during his race for governor in 1970, Rockefeller was prepared for an appearance at the Feast of San Gennaro by learning “which stall to stop at, how to pronounce the dish.”

But Smith says it was effective because Rockefeller continued his patronage of the people between elections: building the state university system, fighting discrimination in housing and employment, naming the second woman to be New York’s secretary of state.

What would Rockefeller do?
It’s worth imagining what Nelson Rockefeller would be doing in New York were he running for president today.

For starters, he would probably skip the LES (unless for 99-cent pizza, the true snack of democracy) in favor of fish curry in Jackson Heights or street shawarma in Midtown.

It’s likely that the original Rockefeller Republican would be as aghast of a Trump candidacy as he was of Barry Goldwater's. The conservative senator defeated Rockefeller for the nomination in ’64.

But he would be getting pushback too for his strict drug bill, an effort of its time that went horribly wrong.

A long career of public service never resulted in the presidency for Rockefeller. His biographer says that there is a culinary rationale there. The people-first campaigning of a general election in diverse New York was very different than seeking the national Republican nomination, where primaries were less important than deals with conservative party leadership.

“You could do a blintz tour on the Lower East Side,” says Smith, but not “in Hastings, Nebraska.”

This year, on the Republican side, whether the will of the placated people or the decisions of party elites decide the nominee remains to be seen.

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