Sen. Your Name Here

NY GOP Desperate for Schumer Challenger

Posted January 28, 2004 at 6:06pm

It has come to this for New York Republicans in their futile search for a remotely viable challenger to Sen. Charles Schumer (D):

• The Majority Leader of the state Senate goes on a radio show touting one of his colleagues, state Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffman (R) as a possible Schumer foe, then says in the next breath that Hoffman is almost certain to stay in the Legislature.

• Erie County Executive Joel Giambra (R) floats his name as a possible Senate candidate to the local media in Buffalo a day before he leaves for Albany — to increase the buzz about him in the state capital, in the view of some GOP operatives, in advance of his anticipated run for governor in 2006.

• The name of TV sports commentator and former NFL star Tim Green emerges as a potential Senate candidate — and no one knows why (Green did not respond to messages left for him at Fox Sports Network).

These developments, if they can be called that, come after Gov. George Pataki (R) tried and failed to draft controversial former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer (R) into the Senate race last fall. And they come while Michael Benjamin, an earnest, 30-something former financial industry worker stumps the state for the GOP Senate nod, hoping somebody notices him.

Benjamin’s claim to political fame? He took 16 percent of the vote as the GOP nominee against Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) in 1996.

“I don’t think Lincoln could have carried that district,” Benjamin said recently about Nadler’s heavily Democratic territory.

Through Sept. 30, Benjamin had banked $114,000 for his Senate campaign, while Schumer is expected to report having $20 million on hand.

“We’re waiting to see where the Republican state organization falls out on this,” Benjamin said.

When the names of Hoffman, Giambra and Green were aired in the New York papers earlier this month, a fourth name also surfaced: that of Upper East Side society matron Gail Hilson.

Hilson’s name has been bandied about in New York political circles — as a possible Senate candidate, or as a challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) — for months.

“I had heard she might be running for something that’s very surprising,” said Lawrence Mandelker, a leading New York election lawyer.

And with the GOP flummoxed by its inability to find even a sacrificial lamb to put up against Schumer, one national Republican strategist familiar with New York politics goes so far as to offer Hilson this modest praise: “Had she started a year ago, people would have been more interested.”

But if Hilson has taken any steps toward running for any office in 2004, they are difficult to discern.

Hilson, who is said to be in her late 50s, has an unlisted phone number. Efforts to reach her through a Manhattan public relations firm that has worked for her and two organizations whose board of directors she serves on — the Citizens Union of the City of New York and the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition — were unsuccessful.

Here is a brief thumbnail of her political history, to file away just in case.

A New York Times article in 2002 described Hilson as “one of New York City’s social lions,” a familiar figure on the charity circuit of the Upper East Side and the Hamptons.

Hilson’s first significant political involvement was as a candidate for delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, supporting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Although the New York GOP establishment was four-square behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), the delegate slate Hilson organized won a surprise victory — defeating, among others, a 32-year veteran of the state Senate.

“She’s a bright lady,” said former Rep. Guy Molinari (R-N.Y.), who was the Empire State chairman for McCain. “She ran a pretty good campaign.”

When it was apparent that Bush would be the nominee, Hilson moved quickly to make amends with party leaders. That gesture paid off two years later when she launched a campaign for an open state Assembly seat on the East Side: Pataki, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) and his successor, Michael Bloomberg (R), all hosted fundraisers for her.

Running in a heavily Democratic area — but in a district that nevertheless has been friendly through the years to liberal Republicans — Hilson finished just 500 votes out of the money, losing to a Democratic lawyer, Jonathan Bing. Three quarters of a million dollars spent, plus help from some old McCain hands and an endorsement from the Times, weren’t enough to put her over the top.

Joseph Mercurio, a New York political consultant who worked for Hilson but left the campaign before Election Day, said the wealthy candidate lacked the common touch on the stump. “She really doesn’t understand what it takes to get votes,” he said.

Still, Mandelker said Hilson would be a good Senate or House contender.

“She’d be an out-of-the-box candidate,” he said. “She has a lot to commend her.”

But Mandelker cautioned that Hilson comes from the fading “Rockefeller-Javits wing” of the New York GOP, and may be too liberal for the party rank and file.

Molinari said that regardless of Hilson’s gifts, running against Schumer is “a gargantuan task.”

“He’s a worker,” Molinari said of the Senator. “A worker, worker, worker.”

So is Hilson actually running for anything? Gerry O’Brien, a former McCain hand who served as campaign manager for Hilson’s Assembly bid, would not say.

“Gail’s a good friend,” he said. “If she had talked to me about it, I wouldn’t be able to speak to you about it.”

Which leaves the New York GOP back at square one: with no one — or with Michael Benjamin.

“You have to approach this in a very realistic way,” Benjamin said. “We have a very uphill battle. But with enough time and enough backing, we can do this.”