New York primary candidates duel over Big Apple bona fides

Which U.S. presidential candidate is the most authentically New York? The first consequential New York primary in decades is bringing small-town retail politics to the Big Apple. And that means pandering galore.

When rural-style retail politics comes to New York, the pandering begins

Duel over the Big Apple

The National

5 years ago
The entire state will head to the polls but the focus has been on its biggest city and its millions of eligible voters 2:49

"He ate like an animal."

As a political endorsement from a Bronx business leader, this was as good as any. It was how David Greco described the way Republican presidential candidate John Kasich "walloped" platter after platter of Italian subs and pasta at his restaurant, Mike's Deli.

He said to me, 'Did I overeat?' I said, 'No. Let me tell you something, you eat like a New Yorker.'- Bronx restaurant owner David Greco, describing an encounter with Republican presidential candidate John Kasich

"He finished the bowl of spaghetti bolognese. Meanwhile, he ate a sandwich, a half a Yankee Stadium Big Boy — and a half a Big Boy is more than enough for most people," Greco said, standing behind a counter heaping with cured meats at his Little Italy eatery. "Then he ate a quarter of another sandwich, the Michelangelo. And then … he eats the pasta fagioli, and he ate three quarters of that. And that's what blew me away."

"Mamma mia," Kasich proclaimed during the meal, washing it down with gulps of red wine.

When Greco tried to take a half-finished plate of pasta away, the Ohio governor objected.

"He said, 'I'm going to finish it, David,'" the restaurateur said, his eyes wide. Kasich seemed a bit self-conscious, if not sated, after his banquet for one.

"He said to me, 'Did I overeat?'" Greco recalled. "I said, 'No. Let me tell you something, you eat like a New Yorker.'"

Like a New Yorker. Few appraisals are as delectable to a candidate in the lead-up to Tuesday's high-stakes New York state primaries.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has talked up his New York real-estate ventures and Queen's pedigree.

Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have duelled over her two terms and eight years as senator from New York and his Brooklyn birthright. Even Texas senator Ted Cruz, who caught flack for disparaging "New York values," has found himself rolling matzo, donning a yarmulke and singing Passover songs with Orthodox Jews in Brighton Beach.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rides the New York City Subway in the Bronx borough of New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

This is, after all, pandering season in the Empire State, a time when Democrats and Republicans are coming to realize they're more authentically "New York" than voters might think, and trying their damnedest to prove it.

There's a key reason why.

"New York is in play. For the first time in decades, New York's primary is important," said Ester Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York City.

State not an afterthought this time

Unlike in previous elections over the last 30 years, the difference this cycle is that the Republicans appear to be hurtling towards a contested convention in July. Although Trump is leading the race, no contender has locked up the nomination, and it's already April.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz wears a yarmaulke as he speaks to Jewish community leaders at a campaign event in Brooklyn. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

"I mean, you have Ted Cruz going out and baking matzo," Fuchs says. Those kinds of stops are bringing the ground-game "retail politics" dynamic — a campaign strategy typically reserved for rural areas like small-town Iowa — to the most populous city in the country.

Fuchs, who directs the online voter engagement initiative, expects record turnout for Tuesday's election.

"It's extraordinary," she said, noting that playing up New York lineage can only help candidates from both parties connect with voters.

It's what drives the messaging in Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders TV spots touting "values forged in New York." (Airing this month, the ad characterizes the Vermont senator as the "Brooklyn-born native son" of the 2016 nomination battle.)

WATCH: Sanders eats pizza on The View

It's why Sanders demonstrated his New York pizza-eating technique — pick up with hands, fold, enjoy — on ABC's The View.

And it certainly amped up a Brooklyn Heights audience during Sanders's inter-faith dialogue at First Unitarian Congregational Society, where Sanders's self-referential phrase "born and raised in Brooklyn" elicited such raucous cheering it rattled the upstairs pews.

Asked which candidate from either party was most authentically New York, the answer was clear to Bronx resident Will Smith.

Donald Trump, who received a New York Veteran Police Association endorsement on Sunday, is 'carved into the city,' according to one Bronx resident. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

"Donald Trump. The guy has buildings here, his office is right over Central Park," Smith, 57, said of the billionaire real-estate magnate and former reality TV star. "He's carved into this city. New York is what made him."

Trump has hyped that factor in a big way.

"Talk about home-field advantage," said George Hoehmann, a Republican supervisor for the northern suburb of Clarkstown who attended a party gala last week featuring a Trump keynote speech. "Literally, the first few minutes of his whole speech were, "I took over this project, I took over that project.' And the hotel we were in, Trump actually built."

2 different Brooklyns

Both Sanders and Clinton established New York campaign hubs in Brooklyn, though the two offices are in very culturally different areas of the borough.

"I know Hillary's down in Brooklyn Heights. It's kind of like the Upper East Side of Brooklyn. Old money, established, I mean it's where the Huxtables grew up," said Vinnie Ma, a Brooklynite from Sunset Park, referencing the upper-middle-class family from The Cosby Show.

Watch: Bernie Sanders's 'Brooklyn-born native son' ad

By contrast, Sanders's ramshackle New York State headquarters took over a former cloth-diaper factory in Brooklyn's Gowanus area. It's just minutes away from the Gowanus Canal, one of the most polluted bodies of water in America.

"It's essentially an [Environmental Protection Agency] SuperFund site in between burgeoning and up-and-coming neighbourhoods," Ma said.

Token response not on the money

Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has comfortably leaned on her service as a New York State senator from 2001 to 2009, but it didn't stop her from a photo-op on mass transit.

Vinnie Ma, a native Brooklynite, sits outside the Table 87 pizzeria in Gowanus. He believes Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is doing better outreach in the borough. As for how he eats his pizza? 'Always with your hands. I fold mine. It makes it a one-hand meal.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Bronx commuter Jennifer Melenciano saw the breathless coverage of Clinton's one-stop ride on the 4 Train at Yankee Stadium at 167th Street. The trip became a much-discussed campaign moment when the turnstile demanded five swipes of the candidate's Metropolitan Transit Authority MetroCard until she got it right.

"But you know what? It can take me five swipes, too," sympathized Melenciano, speaking from the 167th Street station, the scene of Clinton's minor MTA misadventure.

"I usually get through once. You just put a little bend in it," Melenciano coached.

Several commuters rushing to catch the approaching Brooklyn-bound train were defeated at the turnstiles at least once before being allowed through.

Bronx resident Jennifer Melenciano swipes through the turnstile at 167th Street station near Yankee Stadium, where Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton ran into some trouble using her MetroCard last week. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Although Sanders retains a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn accent and memories of playing stickball in the streets, he's lived in Vermont since 1968. Cracks in his New York bona fides shone through when a New York Daily News editorial board asked him how he rides the subway.

"You get a token and you get on," he answered, apparently unaware that MetroCards replaced tokens in 2003.

One way or another, playing to the locals seems to work.

Case in point: Kasich's feast at Mike's Deli. It may have begun as atonement for Kasich's sin of devouring a slice at Gino's pizzeria in Queen's with a fork and knife instead of the New York-approved fold-and-bite.

Bernie Sanders may not have lived in New York for decades but this cutout at a rally in Brooklyn on Sunday had him head and shoulders above Donald Trump. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

But Greco, the Bronx restauranteur who served Kasich last week, said the visit made him reconsider his support for Trump.

"Kasich, he's a real guy. There are certain guys that try to make the impression they want to hang with New Yorkers," he said. "Kasich can hang with a New Yorker. To me, that's his credibility."


  • The article has been corrected to reflect Hillary Clinton having served eight years as senator, not eight terms as senator.
    Apr 18, 2016 5:35 AM ET


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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