… And the Rest Is History

1976 Primary Started Moynihan’s Senate Career – and an Empire State Rivalry

Posted April 2, 2003 at 1:33pm

Though you surely never heard him acknowledge it, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) probably owes his 24 years in the Senate to Ramsey Clark, the erstwhile attorney general and current anti-war crusader.

That’s because Clark almost certainly drained enough liberal votes from then-Rep. Bella Abzug to deny her the Democratic nomination in the 1976 New York Senate primary — enough to hand the victory to Moynihan.

Do the math: Moynihan beat Abzug in the five-way primary by just 9,992 votes out of more than 916,000 cast. Clark, who had run a noble, if doomed, campaign against then-Sen. Jacob Javits (R) in 1974, received 94,191 votes in his second try.

Clark reportedly could see it coming, and in the final weeks of the primary met with advisers to discuss dropping out of the race and endorsing Abzug. But one top aide, a former Nader Raider named Mark Green, convinced Clark that he was gaining, so he stayed in.

Abzug — probably to her grave — believed that Green prevented her from serving in the Senate. Some political observers felt she was too shrill and liberal to win a statewide general election in New York. But 1976 was a very Democratic year, and the Republican incumbent, James Buckley (who had been elected in 1970s three-way race as the Conservative Party nominee, without Republican backing), was very weak. In the primary, Abzug won not only liberal Manhattan, but also affluent suburban Westchester County and upstate, in Buffalo and Saratoga.

Green, of course, after serving at Ralph Nader’s right hand in the 1970s, ran unsuccessfully for the House in 1980 and the Senate in 1986 and 1998.

Green upstaged Abzug again during that ’86 campaign. When both won stunning Democratic primary victories — Green in the Senate race, Abzug in her attempt to win a House seat in Westchester — Abzug gave her victory speech just after 11 p.m., to maximize her exposure on the late-night news. But Green began speaking minutes later, and all the New York City TV stations pre-empted her speech to carry his.

Green also served two terms as New York City’s public advocate before famously blowing what seemed like a slam-dunk 2001 Big Apple mayoral election, even in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes (a defeat that upstanding Democrat, the Rev. Al Sharpton, had a hand in).

But Moynihan, the erudite, politically eclectic truth-teller that everyone has been lionizing since his death last week, trounced Buckley in the 1976 general and never had to sweat an election again.

Clark, meanwhile, abandoned electoral politics for more radical pursuits.

And Abzug made four unsuccessful comeback attempts: In 1977, she lost the New York mayoral primary; the following year, she lost a special House election to replace the man who was elected mayor, Democrat Ed Koch; in 1986, she lost the Westchester House race to then-Rep. Joe DioGuardi (R), who was drubbed two years later by now-Rep. Nita Lowey (D); and in 1992, following the death of Rep. Ted Weiss (D), she maneuvered to become the Democratic nominee in a special nominating convention to replace him, but was out-organized by a state Assemblyman named Jerry Nadler.

Politics is a funny game.

— Josh Kurtz