For decades he was one of the most influential political figures in New York state and a national player in conservative politics.
The New York Conservative Party announced Sunday that its longtime former chairman, Mike Long, died at 82 after a battle with kidney disease.
In 1988, Long assumed the chairmanship of New York's Conservative Party, a third party founded in 1962 by William Buckley, among others, to stop the GOP's leftward tilt under then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican.
In 2019, Long stepped down from his post after overseeing the party for three decades, during which time he played a key role in electing conservatives like former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., and former Gov. George Pataki.
"I had a great run," Long told me just last Thursday before entering a hospice. He added, "Make sure you write that!"
"A great run" seems an understatement in terms of the impact the Brooklyn-born Long had in his state and nation.
A high school dropout, U.S. Marine and liquor store owner, Long connected with middle-class and working-class voters, making the Conservative Party endorsement a "must-have" for almost any Republican in the state.
Candidates — from those running for Congress and state office to presidential hopefuls from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump — all were greeted by Long's gravelly Gotham accent, his signature cigar, and down-to-business questions about what they felt about issues and why they should have the ballot line of the Conservative Party.
After 60 years, the Conservative Party frequently has been characterized as the most successful third party anywhere in the United States.
It made history in 1970 when James Buckley was elected to the U.S. Senate over the two major-party nominees. It later sent registered Conservatives to the U.S. House in 1978 (former Rep. Bill Carney, R-N.Y.) and to the state Senate in 1988 (former state Sen. Serphin Maltese).
Now 99 and the last person anywhere to be elected to the Senate on a third-party ticket, Buckley noted the New York Republican Party went from one dominated by liberals such as Rockefeller, Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., and New York Mayor John Lindsay to one in which Conservative Chairman Long had a "seat at the table."
Under Long's aegis, the Conservative Party broke the liberal stranglehold on the state's Republican Party, largely because New York is one of five states that permits cross-endorsement — that is, candidates of one party may appear on another ballot line and have their votes counted aggregately.
The Conservative Party has been a player in national politics, as every Republican presidential nominee has simultaneously carried the Conservative line in all but one presidential election since 1964.
The self-styled "shopkeeper" who ran an ice cream parlor in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, and then a liquor store in nearby Bay Ridge, Long guided the Conservative Party to support D'Amato for the Senate in 1980 and Pataki for governor in 1994 — the latter ending the career of three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat.
"I would have never been governor had it not been for Mike Long," Pataki, who served as governor for three terms, told Newsmax.
"It was the Conservative line that gave me the margin of victory over Mario Cuomo," Pataki said.
He added that Long's "Marine Corps mentality and strong beliefs in faith, family and the process of freedom benefited the people of New York and America."
That's not bad for someone who began life as the archetypal New York "street kid" embodied on screen by James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
Long dropped out of high school in the 12th grade to join the Marine Corps, then came home to launch his small enterprises and raise nine children with wife Eileen.
But politics beckoned the young Long, and his brand of politics was definitely not that of New York's then-governor, Rockefeller.
Rather than register as a Republican, Long joined the fledgling Conservative Party, launched in 1962 by attorneys Kieran O'Dougherty and J. Daniel Mahoney to protest Rockefeller's grip on the GOP.
Within a few years, the Conservatives established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
In a race that drew national attention, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Jim Buckley's younger brother, in 1965 became the first Conservative nominee for mayor of New York and drew 15% of the vote against two major party contenders.
"I worked in these early campaigns," Long once recalled to Newsmax of his days coming up in the Conservative Party, "and in 1970, when Jim Buckley made history by getting elected U.S. Senator on the Conservative line, we had a big event for him in front of our ice cream parlor. We had a huge crowd and a big band."
Long noted that as the Conservative Party was beginning to become a factor in the 1960s and '70s, there were few rules governing electioneering.
Merchants donated storefronts for headquarters, volunteers were a more potent element than the embryonic class of "consultants," and there were no limits or reporting requirements on contributions.
"You could accomplish a lot more under those circumstances," he said.
Long himself was drawn to public service. He served as chairman of the local Community School Board in Cypress Hills and served as councilman-at-large from Brooklyn from 1981-83.
In both capacities, Long, a devout Catholic, was a lonely voice for the pro-life cause, traditional marriage and no additional municipal taxes.
In recalling Long, the words "family" and "faith" inevitably come up.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the Roman Catholic bishop emeritus of Brooklyn, remembered Long as a man who was "very honest."
Noting that "politics was not a place where people can be completely honest," the bishop said Long "was upfront about his values and had great faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ."
"His concern for people showed in his chairmanship of the Conservative Party and in all he did," DiMarzio said.
At the time of Long's retirement from the Conservative helm in 2019, then-President Trump wrote the following to the chairman, who had nine children, 24 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (now five): After so many years "of trying to make the world a better place for his grandchildren, Mike Long deserves the time to enjoy them."
Jerry Kassar, who succeeded Long as Conservative chairman, told us, "A patriot has passed from a world that was a better place because of the life he led.
"The Conservative Party of today is a result of the leadership of Mike Long over the decades. The Party mourns the loss of a lion. I mourn the loss of a dear friend."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
© 2022 Newsmax. All rights reserved.