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Endorsements may sway tight boro political races

‘Tis the season for political endorsements. With the city’s primary just over a week away, this is the time of year when the Queens Democratic machine, unions and newspapers throw their support behind the candidates they deem to be the best.

The furor started around Memorial Day weekend and will end with the Sept. 11 primary, only to start up again the next day and last until the Nov. 6 election.

The first noise on the endorsement front came May 21 when the leaders of the Queens Democratic Party sat down in their Forest Hills headquarters to decide on the most desirable candidates for the party, county and city. Then came the unions’ turn to push for their choices and finally, only three weeks before the primary, the media began to voice its opinion.

The TimesLedger does not endorse candidates.

In this unheralded election, term limits have changed the political landscape of the borough and city. Queens is losing its 14 city council members, longtime Borough President Claire Shulman and has two lifelong loyal Democrats — City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Forest Hills — who are running for mayor.

What each candidate participating in this wide open election wants is the support of the party, unions, newspapers and respected government organizations. But what does an endorsement provide and how necessary is it to win an election?

“The party’s endorsement is the Big Kahuna,” said Evan Stavisky, a political consultant who has 10 candidates running in Queens’ city council races. “It is a key hurdle at the beginning of an eight-week period when hundreds of candidates get whittled down between Memorial Day and Bastille Day.”

In some districts and counties, the Democratic Party’s endorsement is much more valuable, Stavisky said, but candidates can still get elected without the party nod.

The support of the Democratic machine can help a candidate get on the ballot and can help get his opponents thrown off the ballot. The party also lends technical expertise and provides resources to its chosen candidates.

City Councilman Archie Spigner (D-St. Albans) said the party apparatus is important because it provides support and volunteers for a candidate. But he said the unions’ endorsement and backing can make or break a race.

“Unions are particularly important because they tend to mobilize and influence members,” Spigner said. “The help from other endorsements do not carry the same weight as a union endorsement.”

One political insider who agreed with Spigner said unions can mobilize their retirees and members through mailings and phone calls, encouraging them to vote for the organization’s anointed candidates.

This type of support in the era of spending caps can be invaluable to a candidate’s campaign because union expenditures do not count against a candidate’s spending limits.

“Someone else spending money on your campaign is like Christmas in September,” the insider said.

The impact that the Queens Democratic Party and unions have on races can be seen on the local level, but at the citywide level the support does not play as much of a role until a runoff, said Stavisky. Both the unions and the county organization can get thousands of volunteers to hit the street to campaign for their chosen candidates, which is vital with the limited time between the primary and runoff, he said.

In the council races, Stavisky said, the nod of a union or influential politician can lend legitimacy to a candidate’s campaign and give the message he is trying to convey credibility.

Education is the lead item on the agenda of every candidate from the City Council to the mayor. One way to differentiate a candidate from an opponent would be to get the endorsement of the United Teachers Federation, the elected officials who lead the education committee in the Legislature or the president of the Board of Education, Stavisky said.

“A newspaper lends even more legitimacy to a candidate’s message,” he said. “There is no baggage attached to the endorsement. The New York Times lends instant credibility and in Queens, Newsday does the same.”

Mattis Goldman, a spokesman for Vallone, said the speaker has not concerned himself with his lack of endorsements from county organizations. He said his campaign has been able to put together a broad coalition of support and endorsements ranging from the New York Post to the New York Daily News and from the municipal workers union to police unions.

“You always want more than less,” said Goldman, “and Peter Vallone would never trade positions with Mr. Hevesi.”

In what many observers considered a big blow to Vallone’s campaign, Hevesi received the endorsement of the Queens Democratic Party.

City Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis), who is in a tight race for the borough president’s job against former School Board President Carol Gresser and City Councilwoman Helen Marshall (D-East Elmhurst), said unions’ endorsements are given to the candidate the union thinks can benefit its members, “not the borough as a whole.”

He said people who follow the issues and “what is in the best interest of voters in general” will look at newspaper endorsements and endorsements from good government groups, such as the Citizens Union, to help determine how they will vote. The Citizens Union backed Leffler.

Special interest groups, which include the Queens Democratic Party and unions, mobilize their members to vote for a candidate based on financial interest, Leffler said.

“In general, an endorsement is what you make of it,” said Stavisky. “If you get an endorsement of Shulman and ... don’t use it effectively, the endorsement does not hold any weight.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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