Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) has let Democrats know he would be interested in succeeding the late Rep. Thomas Manton as the chairman of the mighty Queens County Democratic organization — a grab for power that could set up a confrontation with the three-year-old Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
The chairmanship — held by Manton, Crowley’s political godfather and House predecessor, for two decades — is no ordinary political post. It’s one of perhaps a handful of truly dominant county party organizations remaining in the United States.
At issue is BCRA’s attempt to build a firewall between federal officeholders and soft money. These massive donations by corporations, unions and individuals are the lifeblood of most state and county political parties and were once a major force in federal races, but BCRA — and the Supreme Court, in upholding it — eliminated such donations for Congressional campaigns.
Specifically, the law prohibits a Member of Congress or any entity directly or indirectly controlled by or associated with that Member from soliciting soft money for any purpose — a provision clear-cut enough to prompt Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) to reluctantly surrender the reins his home county’s mighty Democratic organization in 2003.
The same entities also are barred from accepting any money from the treasury of a labor union or corporation.
“It would be extremely difficult for the Queens County party organization to find a way to insulate Rep. Crowley from the soft-money fundraising that lies at the heart of a county party’s existence,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center.
Not everyone agrees, though. Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) has had no trouble continuing as Philadelphia County’s Democratic leader even after the law’s enactment.
Some of Crowley’s Queens allies already have sought out lawyers for BCRA compliance advice — and they like what they’ve heard so far.
“The bottom line is we’re fairly confident it can be worked out,” one of the Congressman’s loyalists said.
No one has yet tested the law’s applicability to county chairmen, but Crowley might have good reason to try.
Across the country, county chairmen typically serve more or less as cheerleaders, organizing a picnic here and a fundraising banquet there. By contrast, the Queens County Democratic chairman is a prime mover in New York City and in state politics, with sway over municipal and judicial appointments, mayoral elections and even the face of the state Legislature. The two most recent New York City Council Speakers won their gavels only through Manton’s handiwork.
In many ways, too, Crowley would be a fitting successor to Manton, who timed his Congressional retirement — announced after the filing deadline in 1998 — to ensure that the party organization he controlled simply could rubber-stamp the elevation of Crowley, then an Assemblyman, to Congress. This crafty maneuver cut primary voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic district out of the process.
Like Crowley, Manton was serving in the House when the Queens chairmanship came open. He took over in 1986 and promptly whipped the organization back into shape after the demise of its previous chief, Donald Manes, who killed himself rather than answer for his role in a corruption probe.
For the 44-year-old Crowley, who previously has sent clear signals that he sees his political future in Congress, not in Queens, the party chairmanship could be a ticket to a city and statewide stature he doesn’t now enjoy.
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