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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

End of a Long era

Longtime Conservative Party chief Mike Long shaped state politics on gay marriage and beyond.

Longtime Conservative Party chief Mike Long shaped state

Longtime Conservative Party chief Mike Long shaped state politics on gay marriage and beyond. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

The end of an era in New York came this week at a Holiday Inn just north of Albany. At the state Conservative Party’s annual political action conference, longtime chairman Mike Long said he’d be stepping down. Apparently, there was shock around the room. The 78-year-old father of nine and grandfather of 23 (No. 24 on the way) has led the party since 1988.

There are not that many capital-C Conservatives in New York, which is home to about 40 times as many registered Democrats and 20 times as many registered Republicans. But New York’s unusual system of fusion voting – when candidates run simultaneously on major and minor party-ballot lines – has given power to some minor parties: An extra line means an extra chance to nab votes.

Hence Long, who was Brooklyn county chairman for the Conservatives for 17 years before running the state operation. Upon taking the top job, he reportedly described his leadership philosophy this way: ''I tend to lead with my chin.”

He helped elect Republican Sen. Al D’Amato and Republican Gov. George Pataki in previous decades, just a few of the party’s bigger laurels. No New York Republican in modern history has won statewide office without the Conservative Party endorsement.

That endorsement has been used to enforce conservative orthodoxy among the Republican rank and file, particularly on Long’s strong beliefs about issues like gay marriage and abortion. Adele Malpass, a former Manhattan Republican Party chairwoman, puts it this way: Long has “a remarkable track record of getting people to run for office on the platform of his ideas."

A key example: Long’s full-court press to prevent New York from legalizing same-sex marriage, which ultimately was approved in a dramatic 2011 State Senate vote that featured just enough Republicans crossing the aisle. Long then led the charge against Republican supporters of the change, three of whom were not re-elected.

“The strength of his message is its simplicity: ‘We think this is wrong, and we won't support anybody who votes for it,’” Long Island State Sen. John Flanagan once said about the gay-marriage vote and Long’s influence.

While Republicans in New York sought and sometimes won office by tacking a little left on this or that social issue, Long was consistent in opposition and withholding/rewarding of ballot lines.

A former Marine who conducted state party business close to the Bay Ridge liquor store he used to own, Long’s opposition paid off for years. But Albany is now less open to him. One by one, his social priorities are tumbling down given a solidly Democratic State Senate. In the last two weeks alone, the State Legislature expanded abortion protections, banned gay-conversion therapy, and passed the Child Victims Act, which targeted abusers in various institutions. It was a measure the Catholic Church long opposed.

Long says the timing of his departure isn’t a declaration of defeat. He’s been looking to spend more time with family after years of work. He says he was close to a decision to leave last summer but didn’t want to walk away in the middle of state elections, during which he “wanted to secure Row C,” the automatic ballot line the party gets as long as it nabs 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election.

“We’ll turn the tables back,” he said. “The pendulum will swing back.”

It’s a common argument among Republican officials and operatives – wait for the Democrats in charge to do something too “crazy,” and then the right will be more popular. It has happened before in New York, it could happen again.

But focus on Long's “Row C” line. He is proud that Conservatives got their 50,000 (they ran the losing Republican candidate, Marc Molinaro), meaning that for another cycle, Conservatives are eligible to be on the ballot in various races without an onerous petitioning process. That leads to the strength and bargaining power that has helped Long hold real sway in state politics since Ronald Reagan.

But among the issues on the table this year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled legislature could be a change to the “fusion” rules that allow minor parties to flourish. Ideological parties like the Conservatives and Working Families can present annoying purity tests for the big fish, and minor parties can be pits of patronage (see also the Independence Party).

A change to the fusion system would threaten Conservatives, but so might the loss of Long, who has held the line for his followers for so much time.

What happens to the right in New York as Democrats grow in strength, particularly downstate, while upstate contracts? Will a potentially weakened Conservative wing mean less of a focus for Republicans on social issues? Would that mean a full-Democratic sphere, or a shift of the political battleground from social to fiscal issues? Will another political leader on any side rise who can last for three decades?

Changing times after that Holiday Inn announcement, indeed.

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