With a few days to go before Election Day in 2010, State Senator Eric Schneiderman was locked in a tight Democratic primary for attorney general. So his campaign released a television ad as rudimentary as any broadcast that political season, featuring a number of prominent politicians—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, West Side Congressman Jerry Nadler, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer—carrying a folded copy of The New York Times, while reading from its endorsement of his candidacy. The paper’s masthead floated at the bottom of the screen.
That campaign, like most Democratic primaries in New York City and State, had been staked on getting the paper’s backing, and a few days after he got it, Mr. Schneiderman eked out a 2-point victory over Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice, even though Ms. Rice was tacitly backed by Andrew Cuomo and much of the Democratic Party establishment.
“Eric Schneiderman became the attorney general because of that endorsement. Period,” said one political operative involved in the campaign.
The Times’ coverage of local politics has shrunk in recent years with the closing of the Metro section, but the paper’s ability to make or break candidates has grown. In conversations with nearly two dozen political operatives, office holders and candidates, the consensus was that The Times remains the biggest single factor in deciding who gets elected in this town. The paper’s imprimatur carries more weight than even the biggest unions. Pollsters estimate that a Times endorsement can boost a candidate anywhere between 5 and 20 points. Politicos say that it is worth the equivalent of out-raising your opponent by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“In Manhattan, I have colleagues who obsess over it,” said one City Councilman. “There are people here who, everything they do in public life, they gauge how The New York Times will react.”
There are, to be sure, local races in African-American or immigrant neighborhoods where getting The Times’ nod doesn’t much matter. But because of its sway in the whiter and more affluent parts of the city, which have the highest concentration of voters, the paper’s backing ends up being the primary factor in who gets elected to citywide and most boroughwide offices. And because Democratic primaries in New York State are so dominated by those voters—plus those in the affluent suburbs where the signature blue plastic bag is the must-have driveway accessory, the endorsement is the biggest prize for statewide races, too. (The other dailies, it should be said, have their audiences too, but The Times is still seen as an unbiased arbiter, and one whose editorial page most matches the sensibility of its readership.)
But even among those whose job it is to get politicians elected, very little is known about what it actually takes to get the paper’s backing. The point person for such an endorsement is editorial board member Eleanor Randolph. A lifelong newspaper woman who grew up in northwest Florida, Ms. Randolph studied history at Emory University, then quickly worked her way up the newspaper hierarchy with jobs at the Pensacola News, The St. Petersburg Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. There, she did a stint in Russia just after the fall of communism—her husband was the Moscow bureau chief for the London Independent—which led to Waking the Tempests, a book about “ordinary life in New Russia.” The family eventually found its way back to New York, and Ms. Randolph joined the editorial board in 1998. In time her purview has come to focus more and more on city and state politics (she was the author of the “Fixing Albany” series of editorials several years back.)
Ms. Randolph declined to be interviewed for this story—“I haven’t given interviews on this, ever,” she said. “It’s a matter of policy”—and she suggested The Observer contact editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal. He, too, declined an interview.
The seas part when Ms. Randolph makes an appearance in Albany or in the corridors of City Hall, but she is, by most accounts, an unassuming presence in New York political circles.
“There were people on that board who could come in and bloviate, big personalities, but that is not her—she was low key and to the point and informed,” said a former member of the editorial board. “She was really smart, and lived the minutiae of New York politics.”
“A very smart, down-to-earth person who can smell bullshit 10 miles away,” is how one lobbyist described her.
A cottage industry has grown up among political consultancies in town about how best to sway Ms. Randolph and her colleagues to your client’s cause.
“You want to help candidates maximize their relationships with key decisionmakers at the paper,” said one so-called “Times-whisperer,” who, like others in the trade, requested anonymity so as not to damage his own relationships. “So if you are running for dog-catcher on the East Side, and over the course of the planning stages of the campaign you find out that the candidate has a relationship with the former dog catcher on the West Side who has happens to play Frisbee with Eleanor Randolph, you ask him to put in a good word for you when they are tossing the Frisbee around.”
Congressman Jerry Nadler is thought to be a prime recommender, as are U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, former public advocate Mark Green, State Senator Liz Krueger, and others who have never been on a ballot, such as Kevin Finnegan, the political director of 1199 SEIU, and Victor Kovner, a prominent First Amendment lawyer.
But campaigns know that they have to be careful not to overwhelm members of the board.
“Occasionally, some electeds [who endorsed your candidate] will insist on making calls for you that you don’t want,” said one operative. “They don’t know what the talking points are, don’t know who else has called. You want people who have relationships, and who are enthusiastic. Sometimes your supporters are just doing their duty, and they make a perfunctory call, and it’s not helpful.”
Carolyn Curiel, a journalism professor at Purdue University who oversaw the local endorsements before Ms. Randolph, recalled being lobbied “all the time.
“But there is a risk that the candidate takes. If the person is an individual I know and trust, they can shed light, but why would that person be calling unless there was a feeling on the campaign that there were doubts about the candidate? It can come across as heavy-handed.”
It is one of the oddities of The Times that although its coverage rarely extends to the far reaches of the outer boroughs, the paper still regularly makes endorsements in local races in those areas. Ms. Curiel said she kept a network of on-the-ground sources and read small newspapers to keep abreast of neighborhood issues.
Ultimately, though, candidacies hinge on the endorsement interview. There, aspiring pols are often questioned by Ms. Randolph, with typically only one or two other board members present for local races—mayoral and gubernatorial races will often draw a much bigger crowd, but are ultimately said to be the prerogative of publisher Arthur Sulzberger (the page, for example, endorsed Mike Bloomberg twice for mayor, even though he withdrew from the city’s public financing system, a favorite hobbyhorse of the board and one of the exceptionally rare candidates to be afforded both advantages.)
Until recently, campaign aides and consultants were allowed to come in on the meeting, but that practice ended a few years ago when board members tired of consultants kicking their clients under the table for a gaffe—and after word got out that some consultants were bragging about their familiarity with the board.
Now, candidates go in alone for 45 minutes or so, and presentation counts for a lot.
“Superficial considerations count almost as much as any other kind of consideration—any one who denies that isn’t telling the truth,” said Michael Oliva, who is known as something of an expert at getting judicial candidates The Times’ nod. “People think of The New York Times as the old gray lady and a citadel of education and learning, but they are still human beings, and the humanity does factor in. You have to consider if the candidate is a Times kind of candidate—somebody who comes off as educated, well-spoken, physically put together, has a sense of humor.”
He has some other advice too: be a policy wonk, but don’t just regurgitate the paper’s own editorials back to them. Explain how you’re a good fit for the district. They will ask you about your opponent, he said, “But don’t let them draw you into that conversation.”
There are playbooks for this too. Consultants will drill their clients for weeks on how to handle the interview. Politicos say that Mr. Stringer is widely regarded as an expert on acing a Times interview after he scored their endorsement, now framed on his office wall, in his 2005 run for Manhattan borough president.
Invariably, the board will ask not just about your record and your ideas, but your campaign. Thus campaigns devote so much energy to rolling out policy papers, though few media outlets or voters bother to read them. Currying favor with the county machines is seen as a negative, and challenging your opponents’ signatures will almost certainly lose you the nod. Be in favor of good government and the environment, but anti-development absolutists should run for community board president. Ideas for closing the income gap are encouraged, but so is responsible budgeting. Going wobbly on abortion rights or gay rights is a disqualifier.
“You get the sense that for the single mother who makes $29,000 a year, they care a lot more about her right to an abortion than her right to a decent health care from her union,” said one political operative.
Back in the day, campaign staffers used to camp out at a newsstand across from the Times Building, or at another on Christopher Street where the first editions were plopped down at midnight. Today, the news comes via Google News alert on campaign blackberries, leading to virtual midnight celebrations.
But even still, the endorsement remains a vestige of an earlier era.
“When I was going to elementary school I was taught that if you don’t know who is running, you bring The New York Times into the voting booth with you and you vote that way,” said George Arzt, a local consultant also thought to carry great sway with the board. “There are a lot less publications than there were then, but they are still dominant.”