2006-03-31 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

McFarland Tackles Spencer as Queens Republicans Hold Their Breath
by Stuart W. Mirsky

The other night,Rockaway Republicans President Tom Lynchand I looked in on the Forest Park Republicans, an "outsider" GOP groupin the borough of Queens with whom the Rockaway Republicans once shared renegade status. But while the Rockaway club recently received its state GOP charter, two years after it formed, Forest Park Club president Matt Hunter indicated at the meeting that his owngroup, home of the Bloomberg-backed Haggerty brothers, is now going on itseighth year as a pariah Republican outfit inthe borough. Ouch!

The surprise guestspeaker for the evening turned out to be none other thanK.T. McFarland, a contender for the GOP nomination to oppose Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton this November. Ms. McFarland's a late entry in the race whose main claim to fame isa stint she did in the Reagan Defense Department some twenty years ago. Shespoke well andarticulately as shetouted herold White House resume and described herself as better suited to take on Senator Clinton than current GOP front-runner ex-Yonkers mayor John Spencer, since she and Hillary are bothpro-choice women. Spencer doesn't qualify on either count.

Walking a narrow line on the abortion question, Ms. McFarland spoke of her own severe health problemsduring her pregnancy, whilenoting that she wasglad to have seen itthrough and to have given birth to her daughter, now twenty and in the National Naval Academy. Still, she acknowledged theadvantagesher wealth gave her over othersin similar straits and explained how this realizationunderlies her refusal to oppose abortion in every case. That said, she went on to affirm opposition to partial birth abortion and to the sanctioning, by law, of gay marriage.

What wasn'tclear to me, though, as I listened to her, washow her twenty-year old resume qualifies her to stand for U.S. Senator today. While anyone can do so, of course, if they can get on the ballot, it seems oddthat she's jumped into the racenow, with former Yonkers mayor John Spencerseemingly poised to take the nomination this spring. Her abrupt entryeerily recalls events oftwo years ago when Brooklyn-based investment banker Michael Benjamin cris-crossed the state, drumming up broad grassroots support and name recognition for his own candidacy against Democrat Chuck Schumer, only to be elbowed aside by the Albany leadership with the late hour selection of State Assemblyman Howard Mills.

Mills, of course, went on to run the worst campaignfor U.S. Senate in recent memory, handing Schumer an historic win and a substantial boost in credibility and clout in Washington. Afterwards Mills accepted a high payingjob as State Insurance Commissioner in the Pataki administration, presumably as recompense for having had to give up hisAssembly seat to challenge Schumer.And everyone went home happy . . .everyone, that is,exceptgrassroots Republicanswho had taken Mills at his word when he saidhe meant to run a serious campaign.

So are wewitnessing the same thing again with McFarland's sudden decision to challenge Spencer? Like Benjamin before him, John Spencer's been racking up endorsements statewide, as others (Ed Cox, Jeannine Pirro,Bill Brenner) have quietly and not so quietly faded away.Butthe front-running Spencer, who came out to Rockaway last November,is somewhat controversial. He's blunt spoken and has a history of hard drinking and bar fights in his youth. A Vietnam vet and ex-construction worker, he turned his life around and gained the respect of the political establishment when he served as theGiuliani-like mayor of Yonkers for two consecutive terms.But the GOP leadership seems deeply uncomfortable with a statewide Spencer candidacy andmay have broughtthe moreestablishment-friendly McFarland in to hold the line against him.

Iactually asked McFarland if there was any truth to any of this in her Q&A at Forest Park that evening. Predictably, she assured me there wasn't and insisted she had the fire in the belly to run a real race should she edgeSpencer out in a Republican primary.But thenwhat else could she be expected to say? Mills, who had to give up an incumbency in the State Assembly to runagainst Schumer,probablyhad the promise of a future position in his hip pocket from the very first.Butonce he'd pushed the grassroots candidate, Michael Benjamin, aside, he fell unaccountably quiet, disappearing from everyone's radar. In the last two weeks of the campaign that year, the Rockaway Republicans took up a special collection from among their members to fund an ad,including a blurbfor Mills.But many who read itsaid afterwardsthey'd had no idea who Mills was. And this, just two weeks before Election Day that year!

Still,K.T.assures us she's not just another Howard Mills. Well perhaps she hasn't got the promise of a big job waiting for her as he did,if and when she loses to incumbent Senator Hillary Clinton, but what has she got to lose if she loses anyway? Not much, actually, given her tony background. On the other hand New York's voters, especially those who want an alternative to Senator Clinton, stand to lose a lot if they don't get aserious challenger on the Republican side this year.

McFarland says the Clinton people are soscared of her they're busy trolling throughpersonnel records at the Pentagon to see what they can turn up. I don't doubt it, but given how hard she says they seem to be looking, isn't it possible that this also reflects the relative paucity of her ownrecord to date? Is this upper East Side Manhattan socialite and, until recently,stay-at-home momreally ready to take ona seasoned national Democratic incumbent with all the connections and“war room" experience of teamClinton? Or would Republicans be better off with a feisty ex-marine Vietnam combat vet who's shown he knows how to live hard . . . but also how to run a city? rockirreg@aol.com

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