Former Seneca President Rob Porter for Governor of New York?

New York State’s Republican Party is in dire straits: it hasn’t had a competitive candidate for governor in four elections; has an embarrassingly small caucus in the Assembly; and the Senate caucus cannot retain a majority without the help of a breakaway faction of Democrats. Despite well funded and credible Downstate candidates for the Attorney General and Comptroller’s Offices, the GOP has been sweepingly unsuccessful and has been so for years.  If the party is to make gains, it must move swiftly to the middle ground.

Robert Odawi Porter is a former President of the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He is a Harvard educated lawyer, a tenured Syracuse University professor, and an attorney with Denton, the prominent international law firm.  A resident of Salamanca, deep in the hills of the Southern Tier, he could be the strongest and least form fitting Republican gubernatorial candidate, perhaps, in the State’s history.

Porter would have a monied natural constituency that has a great deal to gain from an Indian friendly Governor. The Seneca Free Trade Association, which at times has clashed with Porter when he was President, is a consortium of tobacco manufacturers and retailers who are eager to see liberalized marijuana laws in the State. Porter is a leading expert in federal Indian law and advocates for marijuana legalization as an attorney.

Tobacco retailers from Tuscarora, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk territories would be quick to back Porter’s candidacy, and to do so with deep pockets. The legalization of recreational marijuana in the state would allow Tribes the right to regulate and tax the industry themselves.  The resulting tax arbitrage could create a $3 billion dollar industry on Indian reservations across the State, practically overnight.

The Seneca Gaming Corporation has much to protect in running its Niagara Falls’ gaming monopoly. If Porter runs, the Seneca Gaming Corporation would be well advised to contribute $5 million or more to the effort. Only three Indian Tribes in New York operate casinos — the Senecas, Mohawks, and Oneidas — but Porter’s extensive national network among tribal leaders would yield support from many of the 563 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States.

Porter could easily raise $20 million from Indian gaming and tobacco interests alone.

If Porter runs as a Democrat, it could be a crowded field — although political neophyte Zephyr Teachout made challenging Cuomo from the left look easy and energizing simultaneously.  But the Republican field, if he should choose to run on that party’s line, is more likely to be clear.

No Republican candidate in the state currently on the scene has that same capacity to raise political capital. The GOP’s last two candidates — Paladino in 2010 and Astorino in 2014 — were ineffective at raising campaign contributions. Paladino barely spent $2 million and it was almost entirely self funded. Comptroller candidate Harry Wilson only raised $5 million and he is a hedge fund manager.

Porter has a vastly more approachable, intellectual, sophisticated, and affable disposition than that of Paladino or Astorino. He would be more effective than either in fundraising — whether on the Upper East Side, at a Hudson Valley winery, or at a Long Island clambake. Porter has the gravitas, class, and tact expected of the head of a sovereign Nation — the kind of statesmanship and seriousness of stature that Paladino is utterly lacking.

Porter’s unique blend of Upstate regional identity, downstate viability, establishment gravitas, and outsider resume projects the refreshingly atypical leadership that voters are looking for. State Chairman Ed Cox would be wise to recruit him for the office. New York’s Republican Party would be much better for it. 

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