Seneca Falls, New York

It is around lunch time one weekday in mid-July, and Betsy McCaughey Ross, the lieutenant governor of New York, is addressing a rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women in the tiny upstate town of Seneca Falls. Ross has spent much of her speech emphasizing her commitment to legal abortion -- "the right to choose," says the former constitutional scholar, "is the most fundamental right of all" -- and is finishing up her remarks with an appeal to female solidarity. Thanks to the fact that men control Congress, Ross explains, health insurers will soon be required to cover the cost of Viagra, but not of contraceptives. It takes a second for the news to sink in, then the crowd erupts in howls of outrage.

As it turns out, Ross is wrong (it is the Clinton administration, not Congress, that has sought to mandate Viagra coverage), but her listeners, a couple of hundred feminists gathered in a concrete square grandly named the Women's Rights National Historic Park, don't seem to notice, and Ross continues. "Just imagine," she says, "a Congress dominated by women, barring men from access to Viagra." Many in the audience leap to their feet, waving signs and cheering. "Well," Ross yells, "make it happen!"

Even in a Democratic primary in New York, it's unusual to hear a candidate openly woo the pro-impotence vote, though somehow it's not surprising when Betsy Ross does it. Five years ago, Ross was an obscure conservative academic with a think-tank job. A couple of articles in the New Republic later, she became one of the best-known critics of the Clinton health-care plan. Shortly after, she was chosen by Republican gubernatorial candidate George Pataki to be his running mate. Last fall, Ross switched parties, and she is now competing against three other Democrats for the chance to challenge Pataki in the fall. You might expect New York Republicans to feel angry and betrayed by Ross's defection to the other party. But they don't appear to. Instead they seem relieved.

Ross began alienating fellow Republicans almost immediately after joining the Pataki ticket in 1994. Less than a month before the election, for instance, Ross met with Sen. Al D'Amato at the 21 Club in Manhattan. In conversation, D'Amato jokingly explained how the Pataki campaign might win the support of the city's mayor. "I've got the way to get Giuliani on our side," D'Amato told Ross. "You'll make him an offer he can't refuse." Chances are, D'Amato did not intend the remark as a sexist slur, though that is how McCaughey apparently characterized it later to reporters. D'Amato, who was Pataki's political mentor and most powerful supporter, was forced to make a humiliating apology.

It got worse from there. Ross publicly criticized Pataki's early-education and medical-spending initiatives. A year into the job, she began raising money for her own reelection fund. In January 1996, she created a minor scandal when she grabbed attention by ignoring her assigned seat and standing behind the governor for the duration of his 58-minute televised State of the State speech. Two months later, Pataki eliminated Ross's security detail, claiming she had used her bodyguards for personal errands. Ross responded by accusing Pataki of putting her life in danger. Soon after, Ross implied that the governor had tapped her office phone.

Meanwhile, Ross's increasingly odd behavior became a staple of the tabloid gossip pages. At one point, Ross found herself at the wrong end of a $ 5 million civil suit brought by a former housekeeper who claimed the lieutenant governor had threatened to kill her during a dispute over rearranging furniture. "She's flaky, genuinely flaky," says a former colleague. "She does strange things."

Strangest of all, perhaps, Ross began to make statements that indicated she had no idea why she had been chosen as Pataki's running mate. "The governor and I were elected together, and I owe the people of this state my best efforts," she told one reporter in apparent seriousness. Pataki, who had added Ross to the ticket merely as insurance against the gender gap, seemed confused by Ross's delusions of relevance.

Pataki should have consulted former governor Hugh Carey. In 1974, Carey, also hoping to draw female voters, chose Mary Anne Krupsak to be his lieutenant governor. After the election, Krupsak, a state senator and the first woman elected to statewide office in New York, claimed to be shocked to discover that her new job was largely ceremonial. Within months, she was publicly accusing her own administration of sexism. Krupsak spent the next several years making life difficult for Carey before leaving the reservation entirely and challenging him in the Democratic primary.

Krupsak lost the election, a fact from which Pataki supporters draw some comfort. But Republicans would be foolish to ignore the Ross campaign. For one thing, Ross's years in statewide office have made her famous in New York; she now has far higher name recognition than any of her three Democratic primary opponents. For another, despite her quirks, Ross has the discipline and focus campaign politics requires. This winter, Ross's chartered campaign plane lost power and crashed during take-off in Buffalo. Though her aides downplayed the incident, FAA investigators later expressed amazement that no one had been killed. Within an hour of impact, Ross had hired a car and was off to her next appearance.

No one accuses Ross of not working hard. And, for someone once immersed in academic political theory (her journalism from the early 1990s includes an article entitled, "Democracy at Risk: The Dangerous Flaws in the Electoral College"), she has proved remarkably willing to descend into the sort of crude interest-group pandering that wins New York primaries. Earlier this year, Ross made a pilgrimage to Harlem to kiss the ring of race-baiter Al Sharpton, at the headquarters of his National Action Network. According to an editorial in the Amsterdam News, Ross's suck-up to Sharpton made for a "sensational" performance. Others saw it as evidence that things were truly falling apart. "What this election suggests is the utter intellectual collapse of the Democratic Party in New York State," says Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute who has known Ross for years.

Siegel has a point, though if Ross is helping to destroy the Democratic party, many of the state's Democratic primary voters don't seem to care. Back in Seneca Falls, Ross has finished her speech and has returned to her seat on the stage. An official from NOW is drawing the rally to a close, and as she ends the event, she instructs the crowd to engage in an act of collective affirmation. Turn to the person next to you, she says, and speak these words: "You are strong. You are beautiful. You are powerful. You can change the world."

Ross is seated between NOW veterans Patricia Ireland and Eleanor Smeal, both of whom look slightly embarrassed. Ross, on the other hand, seems positively excited. Decked out in a double strand of grape-sized pearls, a diamond-studded gold watch, and expensive-looking patent leather cap-toed pumps, Ross looks every bit the socially conscious Junior Leaguer. Then the final chant begins: "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!" Ross is still giggling and clapping her hands when the chorus ends.

Embarrassing? Sure. Effective? Ask Sandy Rapp, a lesbian folk singer from Long Island who has seen Ross speak five times. Rapp says she has been a radical feminist activist for "many, many years" ("I sang at Bella Abzug's funeral," she boasts), so she might be forgiven for regarding Ross -- who until recently opposed affirmative action and who has never even voted for a Democrat for president -- with some skepticism. But she doesn't. "I think she's wonderful," says Rapp. Among radical feminists like herself, Rapp says, Ross "is beloved."

Yolanda Clark agrees. Clark, treasurer for the Texas chapter of NOW, has seen Ross speak twice and thinks the lieutenant governor should run for national office as soon as possible. "She's actually participated in the struggle," Clark says with some passion. "She's been discriminated against. Unlike Clarence Thomas."

The struggle? It is true that Ross grew up working class, the daughter of a janitor at a nail-clipper factory. On the other hand, she graduated from Vassar and Columbia, lives on the Upper East Side, and has been married twice to rich businessmen. Indeed, it is her present husband, investor Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who is paying for her current campaign to limit the patriarchy's access to Viagra. (Of the $ 2.4 million Ross's campaign had raised by the last disclosure period, Wilbur Ross, who was described in a New York Times headline as "The Lovestruck Midas Behind the Candidate," donated $ 2.25 million.) How do facts like these play at a feminist rally? "I don't know a whole, whole lot about her background," Clark admits. "I've just heard some of the stories in her speeches."

If she keeps telling the right stories, Ross has a good chance of becoming the next Democratic nominee for governor. Ross's chief rival is Peter Vallone, a longtime Queens politico who is speaker of the New York City Council. Vallone's poll numbers have risen lately -- doubtless thanks to a well-publicized feud he has been having with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner -- and at the moment he is beating Ross by around 10 points. But Vallone is not a natural candidate for the kind of hard-edged ideological voters who are apt to decide the race. Turnout is expected to be unusually low, and Vallone -- an oldschool, centrist Democrat who goes to mass daily and once described the pope as a personal "hero" -- probably won't be the first choice of many NOW activists.

Needless to say, the thought of Betsy Ross winning the primary drives many responsible New York Democrats crazy. "Not having

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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