James Larocca, unknown and underfunded, is a prohibitive underdog in the Democratic primary for governor. “We’re broke and proud of it,” he boasts. Larocca recently completed a petition drive to get on the ballot after failing to gather enough support at the statewide nominating convention for an automatic spot.
“We did it for less than $2,500,” says Larocca, 54, a former commissioner of energy under Gov. Hugh Carey and commissioner of transportation under Gov. Mario Cuomo. He is currently a consultant to the law firm of Cullen and Dykman. “We didn’t hire a single organizer or petition-gatherer.”
A recent Quinnipiac College poll found only 5 percent of likely Democratic voters favored Larocca in the Sept. 15 primary, compared to 16 percent for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes; 23 percent for Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross and 34 percent for Council Speaker Peter Vallone. He has raised about $845,000, with only about $3,000 remaining. Not surprisingly, he has made campaign finance reform a prime theme of his campaign.
“Money poisons and corrupts the process,” he said in an interview with Jewish Week reporters. Larocca, a Brooklyn native who has lived most of his life on Long Island, is a graduate of Hofstra University and earned his law degree from the Catholic University of America. Larocca describes himself as “hopelessly moderate,” ardently backing gay marriages on one hand and supporting the death penalty on the other.Following are excerpts from the interview:
Jewish Week: You served on the Task Force on Bias-Related Violence convened by Gov. Cuomo after the 1986 Howard Beach incident, which recommended the bias crime bill. More than a decade later, the bill has not been passed. How do feel about that?
Larocca: The bill has been blocked by Senate Republicans over the inclusion of sexual orientation. We very quickly came to the agreement that adding hate and bias as an element of the crime was a good idea … The appearance of the sexual orientation matter as the barrier to getting it done came as a shock and surprise to a lot of us … [Regarding a suspect’s motivation,] our whole criminal justice system [weighs] a person’s state of mind in determining everything from an accident to inadvertence to gross neglect, all the way through full premeditation. So your state of mind in every one of those stages is examined as [part of the crime] …Hate crimes are up by a significant amount. We still need the tool. I’ve been a very strong advocate.
What would you do as governor to get the bill passed?
The governor has enormous political authority. This governor hasn’t used it, hasn’t even attempted. He says I’m for it, then never lifts a finger to pass it. I think the governor has to be prepared to go to the mat, spend political capital to rally public opinion … That’s one of the areas where the governor ought to be leading, particularly because he has insisted on being seen as serious about crime.
You have never been elected to any office, yet you’re now seeking the highest elected office in the state. Is this a strike against you?
I’d like to see it as a virtue. I don’t think you have to run for office 11 times to be an effective governor. I had three cabinet offices in New York … and I have what no other candidate in either party has, and that’s significant private-sector experience in business and economic development [as president and CEO of the Long Island Association]. That combination is what we need, especially in my party, because we Democrats pretty clearly have demonstrated we have a decent social conscience … But we get faulted for not having sufficiently smart grasp on business and economic development and how to make jobs.
How would you create jobs in the state?
I led the effort on Long Island when the Cold War ended and we lost our defense and aerospace industry. We created this new economic development partnership to look at where our opportunities lie, then we tried to build toward those industries. In our case it was high-tech, biotech, information technologies, computer science, tourism and recreation … We said, let’s pretend we are a business and just lost our biggest customer. How do we build ourselves up? I would use that as a model.
I do know what doesn’t work and that’s what this governor has been doing: giving tax breaks, regulatory relief, economic development assistance to companies who say that’s what they need to grow. The question is, at the end of the day, what have you got for your investment? General Electric [a big employer in upstate New York] got everything they asked for; it’s awash in profits and executive bonuses. What are they doing to Schenectady? They just laid off another 1,000 people … At minimum we should require them to pay back if they don’t deliver to job retention.
How do you feel about the return of the death penalty in New York?
I would have told you 25 years ago when I came home from Vietnam as a young man I am against capital punishment. I will tell you now I have come to accept it as part of the criminal justice system. Maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s being a parent, maybe it’s seeing a lot of life … There are some crimes, some acts that are so hateful, so contrary to civilized behavior that they are an appropriate part of our response … I accept the death penalty, and as governor I will apply it, follow the law.
In Wisconsin, the courts recently approved state vouchers for religious schools. Would you support such a program in this state?
I don’t think so. What worries me about these voucher ideas and charter school ideas is that, while certain elements of the concept have merit, the likely outcome will eventually strip away resources from our public school system, skim perhaps the better and brighter students and gradually diminish the overall quality of public education.
What’s your view on the Kiryas Joel school district controversy?
I think the courts have spoken. I understand the political pressure, the ability to get the Legislature to keep coming back to it, but it seems to me that having to come back at it two or three different ways the courts have been pretty clear about the separation issues.
What type of health care reform do your propose?
One out of four families has no health insurance … In New York as a matter of law and regulation, if you go to your automobile insurance company and they won’t give you a policy, you have a right to get auto insurance from an assigned group. If you want to underwrite insurance in this market, you have to participate in this common pool … You have no such right to health insurance. This is one of the richest health insurance markets, 18 million people or so … My approach would be to create a threshold level of health insurance using the existing regulatory authority we have to impose on all those current providers to create a common pool for minimum-level health coverage, just as we do with automobiles.