On June 24, 1965, William F. Buckley Jr. took to the podium at the Overseas Press Club in New York City and did something that would dramatically change the course of politics in New York.
"I propose to run for mayor of New York," declared Buckley in his signature patrician accent.
Declaring that "I am a Republican," the founder of the conservative weekly National Review and host of TV's "Firing Line" revealed he would seek the nomination of "the honorable Conservative Party [then in only its third year on the Empire State ballot] because the Republican designation is not, in New York, available nowadays to anyone in the mainstream of Republican opinion."
Buckley was referring to his fellow Yale University graduate, Rep. John V. Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayoral nominee. Lindsay had refused to back Republican nominee Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and repudiated his party's platform. He also had voted with House Democrats more than half the time and supported all of President Lyndon Johnson's big-spending domestic agenda.
"I'm not running as a Republican," he liked to say. "I’m running as Lindsay."
With the dual ballot line of the labor union-fueled Liberal Party, Lindsay might have been a slam-dunk against the Democratic nominee, City Comptroller Abraham D. Beame.
But Buckley complicated the contest by making it a three-way race — or, as some concluded when it was over, a three-ring circus.
Freely admitting he had no chance of becoming mayor ("I have never considered it"), the Conservative hopeful was asked by reporters the first thing he would do if elected.
"Demand a recount!" he shot back.
In recognizing his modest chances in November, Buckley was free to say what he wanted on issues in a city where, in his words, "it is impossible simultaneously to give people any kind of economic freedom, any kind of economic hope, and continue to squander their money at the pace at which it has been spent by the [outgoing Mayor Robert] Wagner Administration, which managed to double the budget during the course of its [12-year] tenure."
A government anti-poverty program, he declared, "seeks to accomplish, by a variety of means, wholly praiseworthy goals which however are not accomplishable merely by the infusion of money into poor areas."
In terms of dealing with what he called "arrogant labor leaders," Buckley took a hardcore right-to-work line: "The police of New York should protect the right of every New Yorker who desires to work, whether or not he belongs to a labor union."
He also called for replacing all of New York City's business taxes with a single Value Added Tax akin to that used in Western Europe.
And in a tense atmosphere surrounding law enforcement not unlike that in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore today, Buckley came down foursquare on the side of the police.
Sid Davidoff, then a top Lindsay campaign aide and now a millionaire lobbyist, "recalled policemen wearing orange 'Buckley for Mayor' buttons and some even joined in booing Lindsay [who favored a civilian review board to hear complaints of police brutality]," wrote Vincent Cannato in "The Ungovernable City."
"Bill Buckley's positions in the campaign hit a nerve with the neighborhood blue-collar ethnics, who felt themselves the victims of high taxes and rising crime," wrote George Marlin, then a teenage volunteer in the Buckley campaign, who went on to become the Conservative mayoral nominee himself in 1993 and later head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "In Buckley, they found more than a spokesman. They found a hero."
Mike Long, then chairman of the Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Conservative Club and now state chairman of the Conservative Party, agreed.
"It was an exciting time, and while I didn't know Bill when he announced, he soon became a hero to me," Long told Newsmax. "And a lot of people saw him as the prince the liberals couldn't equal. He presented a clear and concise course, not just about New York but about conservatism."
Noting that the 1965 race "was at a good time when politics was mercifully unregulated," Long, who owned an ice cream parlor at the time, recalled "printing up literature on the press in our clubhouse and getting kids to hand out more than 10,000 brochures by giving them hamburgers and ice cream cones."
On Election Day, Lindsay defeated Beame 45.3 percent to 41.3 percent. Buckley, drawing from Republicans and Democrats alike, drew 13.14 percent.
But Buckley did something else in that election. As Mike Long put it, "he put the Conservative Party on the map."
In 1966, educator and Conservative Party gubernatorial candidate Paul Adams placed third as Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was winning a third term in New York, and thus gave the Conservatives "Row C" on the state ballot, which they hold today.
Two years later, James Buckley, Bill's brother and campaign manager, racked up more than 1 million votes as the Conservative nominee for the U.S. Senate. In 1970, he made history by actually winning a Senate seat over the nominees of the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Republican George Pataki won all three of his terms as New York governor by also having the Conservative line, and since 1974, no statewide Republican candidate has been elected without the endorsement of the Conservative Party.
Along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, who died in 2008 at age 82, is renowned as one of the towering figures in modern conservatism. He never held elective office, but in launching his one race for office a half-century ago, Buckley began a crusade that would make changes in New York politics that last to this day.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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