Spencer for Hire?

Former Mayor Among Intriguing Possible Opponents For Rep. Engel

Posted January 28, 2004 at 6:09pm

John Spencer, the colorful former Yonkers mayor and a favorite of New York Republican elders, says he could be a candidate for New York Rep. Eliot Engel’s (D) heavily Democratic 17th district seat, which includes parts of the Bronx, Rockland and Westchester counties.

Spencer — whose eight-year stint as mayor was marred by the revelation that he fathered two children with his then-chief of staff, Kathy Spring, while still married to his first wife — has already rebuffed entreaties by Gov. George Pataki (R) and other state GOP officials to take on Sen. Charles Schumer (D).

But Spencer, who married Spring last June and is still “decompressing” after just completing his second term as mayor, said of a run for Engel’s seat: “I don’t rule anything out.

“I never at this stage say what I will or will not do,” he added, cautioning that he didn’t have any current plans to try for Engel’s seat but was “talking to the [Republican National Committee] on related matters.” In recent months Spencer has expressed interest in a possible run for Westchester County executive in 2005 or for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D) seat in 2006.

Despite what Spencer refers to as the past “complexity” of his personal life, Republican officials both locally and nationally appear to be high on the 57-year-old former alcoholic.

“Mr. Spencer would be an excellent candidate for just about anything,” said RoseMarie Panio, Westchester Republican chairwoman. And National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti said, “Hypothetically, sure of course he would be” a good candidate.

But with no brand-name Republican yet committing to the race in this ethnically diverse, majority-minority district — which Al Gore would have won by a landslide in the 2000 presidential election — the real contest will likely be played out in the Democratic field, where Kevin McAdams, a 32-year-old New York City firefighter who grew up in Yonkers, is battling to unseat the eight-term, 56-year-old Representative in the Sept. 14 primary.

This will be the first election since district lines were redrawn in 2002 in which Engel has faced a Democratic primary opponent. Redistricting added parts of the less heavily Democratic Rockland County to the seat for the first time and reduced its black and Hispanic populations by eliminating chunks of the northeast Bronx, including the massive Co-op City apartment complex, home to a large black and Latino population.

The new boundaries have shored up Engel’s position and should prevent a racially divisive primary similar to the one that occurred in 2000, when the Bronx Democratic Party leadership backed a black state Senator over Engel in the Democratic contest.

A Bronx Democratic Party official said the Congressman enjoyed “a good working relationship” with the current chairman, José Rivera, who assumed office in February 2002.

“The organization had been helpful in 2002, and certainly we don’t see that changing,” said Howard Vargas, Rivera’s chief of staff.

While considered a long shot, McAdams, whose supporters include Al Smith, grandson of the legendary New York governor of the same name, is proving adept at filling campaign coffers, with upcoming fundraisers aimed at two key groups: Wall Street traders and firefighters.

McAdams, whose efforts to drum up support for his campaign have included a visit to the New York Stock Exchange, said fourth-quarter campaign finance reports would show $152,000 on hand, with an additional $40,000 raised after the Dec. 31 filing deadline. He hopes to top $400,000 by the next filing, with the goal of raising $1 million for the entire campaign.

For his part, Engel will likely show about $250,000 on hand, said campaign manager Bill Weitz, adding “we haven’t started our intensive” fundraising yet. He said Engel has “close to a dozen” fundraising events planned in the next three months.

McAdams, treasurer of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, comes from a union family, and is counting on the 3,000 firefighters who reside in the 17th district to provide a sizeable portion of his “ground troops.” He said he expects both the Uniformed Firefighters and the Firefighters International unions to endorse him.

“I’m a proven union leader and a proven part of labor in New York City,” said McAdams, who is stationed in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. “I think that there will be a lot of the unions that will stay out of the race altogether and not be as involved as [Engel] thinks they are going to be.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks McAdams, who said he lost 55 friends in the attack, spent six months “digging for remains” at the World Trade Center. He later helped lobby Congress for funds for rescue workers, an undertaking that helped solidify his desire to run for Congress.

Weitz questioned both the extent of McAdams’ labor backing given Engel’s “100 percent labor approval” and the sincerity of his positions considering that the challenger is a former Republican.

“I’m happy to have one more [Democrat], but it also raises questions about what he really believes,” Weitz said.

The upbeat McAdams said his strategy is simple: “I plan on knocking on 70,000 doors.” He pointed to his upset victory over the incumbent treasurer of the firefighters union two years ago — a feat he attributed to visiting 375 firehouses during the campaign — as a model for how to unseat the popular incumbent.

“I’m sure he’s hearing the footsteps, otherwise he wouldn’t be working so hard,” McAdams said of Engel.

McAdams, who like Engel favors abortion rights, said he switched parties because of the Democratic Party’s “100 percent” support for labor.

Indeed, the sharpest distinction between Engel and McAdams may lie in the foreign policy sphere. McAdams, a Navy veteran who opposes the Iraq war, has criticized Engel’s support for it.

“He’s lost touch with the fact we are putting more emphasis on the Middle East than we are on our own homeland,” said McAdams. “To the best of my knowledge, bin Laden was the one who attacked the U.S.”

Last cycle, Engel, a former New York City teacher and guidance counselor who is Jewish, bested his Republican opponent, Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef by a healthy margin — 63 percent to 34 percent — but it was considerably less than it had been in previous general elections thanks in part to the inclusion of Rockland County, which Vanderhoef carried.

While conceding that the image of “a fireman has cache in a post-9/11” world, veteran New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said that to be competitive, McAdams would have to “spend significant amounts of money in Westchester and the Bronx” — two Engel strongholds.

As for the Republicans, even if they fail to draft John Spencer, a self-described “stealth candidate” has emerged. John Fleming, a 46-year-old former New York police detective who once ran security for then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), has already thrown his hat in the GOP ring.

Fleming, who lives in the Bronx and is an officer in both a real estate services corporation and a security and investigation company, said he has $80,000 on hand, though fourth-quarter reports will show $60,000. And while the lone declared Republican candidate concedes “it’s a tough district” to win, he’s counting on the high-powered support of Giuliani, Pataki and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to boost his profile.

Earlier this month, a New York City fundraiser headlined by former “Saturday Night Live” star Colin Quinn, now of Comedy Central’s “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn,” brought in $20,000, Fleming said.

Few seasoned political observers, however, appear worried about the Empire State Congressman’s future employment status.

“Anybody who writes Eliot Engel’s political obituary is probably premature,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “It seems every two years somebody is going to run against him who’s going to eat him alive … and they have never done it.”