A Conservative’s Run for the United States Senate in New York

This account of my attempt to become a member of the United States Senate from New York in 1974 might interest those wanting to know more about the early history of the New York State Conservative Party.

The only extant public evidence of my ill-fated quest for higher political office is found in an article in the Long Island Press, Monday, June 10, 1974, entitled, “Prof. will bear Conservative banner against Javits”:

The state Conservative party is expected to designate a political neophyte as the candidate for U.S. Senate to take on Sen. Jacob K. Javits. Dennis Bonnette, a 36-year-old philosophy teacher at Niagara University, will be tapped for the Senate race when the Conservative State Committee meets Saturday in Queens, according to informed Conservative sources. Bonnette, a political unknown, is described as a “slim professorial type,” and is the father of five children. He holds a doctorate in philosophy.

(I was actually thirty-five years old at the time, not thirty-six as the article states.)

In 1973 and 1974, I ran for the local Lewiston-Porter School Board in Niagara County, New York, twice, doing quite well on a shoestring campaign. For reasons I can no longer recall, I became interested in running for Congress shortly thereafter. I do recall meeting Dr. Warren Carroll at Kris Popik’s apartment one night, during which we discussed various aspects of running for Congress. Kris had been my graduate student at Niagara University and later became Dr. Kristen Popik Burns, Dean of the Graduate School at Christendom College. Dr. Carroll was then working as Administrative Assistant for Congressman John Schmitz. He later went on to found Christendom College and served as its first President for many years.

I went through the tiresome process of appearing before all the local committees of the Conservative Party, seeking support for the Conservative Party’s congressional nomination. One must recall that the Conservative Party in New York was and still is a minor party, but has always been very influential in New York politics, since conservative politicians, running as Republicans, frequently get their winning margins by being listed on the Conservative ballot line. In a few cases, the Conservative Party has even had its exclusive candidate win the seat sought, including a singular U.S. Senate win by James L. Buckley in 1970.

Soon I received a call from Raymond R. Walker, Chairman of the Niagara County Conservative Party and one of the founders of the NYS Conservative Party. He told me that the Republican candidate running for the same congressional seat had contacted him, wondering why I kept “shadowing” him before all the local Conservative Party committees. Walker told me that he was thinking of something bigger for me, namely, to seek the nomination of the New York State Conservative Party for the U.S. Senate seat then held by liberal Republican Jacob Javits.

Walker arranged a meeting between me and Leo Kesselring, a chief assistant to then U.S. Senator James L. Buckley, brother of the famous founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley. Kesselring and I met subsequently and he apparently then recommended my name to the Conservative Party leaders in New York City.

This effort to secure the Conservative Party nomination was not entirely quixotic, since in 1970, Jim Buckley had won a U.S. Senate seat running on that ballot line alone—splitting the vote between a Democrat and liberal Republican—thereby, winning the statewide race with just 38.75% of the vote.

In fact, the Party was planning on getting a major name to run for the other New York Senate seat in 1974 and intended to make a major campaign aimed at winning. Unfortunately, Senator Buckley was the first senator to call for the resignation of then President Richard Nixon. Since fully half of the NYS Conservative Party’s funding at that time came from outside the state, that funding dried up instantly when Republicans all over the country vented their anger at Senator Buckley! So, the Party decided to select a lesser known candidate and run a less intensive campaign. Still, my Niagara County Chairman, Ray Walker, had hopes of getting the nomination for me and then making the race a realistic prospect through aggressive fundraising and campaigning.

The Party flew me down to New York City to meet with the Party leaders: Serphin R. Maltese and J. Daniel Mahoney ( Party founder and Chairman). Maltese would later go on to become a longtime New York State senator (District 15) and Mahoney later was appointed by President Reagan to become a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

I was to go to the NYS Conservative Party headquarters on Park Avenue. Unfortunately, I found that I had exited my ride on the wrong side of the avenue address, that is, instead of going to South Park Avenue, I got out at the same address on North Park Avenue! I had no choice but to walk some eight city blocks to the correct address. Half way to my destination, I encountered Grand Central Station. I was tempted to walk through it, but having no knowledge of the internal complexities of this grand edifice, I decided it might be more prudent instead to walk around it. So I did.

I think I arrived at the offices before noon and met with Maltese for some time. He had some other work to do and so put me in a room with a huge pile of newspaper clippings and a phone. He told me I could read up on the political issues which the candidates would be debating in the campaign and also invited me to make calls anywhere I wished to from that phone. I did call my brother and his wife, who then lived in New Jersey—resulting in them braving New York City traffic to come see me briefly!

Around noontime, Maltese took me to a restaurant to have lunch with Party Chairman J. Daniel Mahoney. During the lunch, I recall one of them saying that they liked to run college professors for office, since they were less likely to faint before an audience! I expressed some concern as to whether Niagara University would grant me a sabbatical leave for purposes of the campaign. They assured me that it would not be a problem. After lunch, we went back to the headquarters, where they told me that I was set to become the Party’s nominee for the Senate election in the fall. They had to meet with the various county chairmen in the afternoon, but arranged my ride by limousine back to the airport so that I could return home that same day.

I left New York City fully convinced that I would be the nominee of the NYS Conservative Party for the U.S. Senate seat in the fall 1974 election.

After I returned home, I was informed that on that very same afternoon, for the first time in the history of the NYS Conservative Party, the state county chairmen had staged a revolt against the Party leadership. They refused to back my nomination as proposed by the Party leaders and, instead, decided to back the nomination of Barbara Keating, a gold star medal wife with five children, whose husband had been killed fighting in Vietnam. She was also the daughter of Kenneth Keating, who had served in the U.S. Senate from New York from 1959 to 1965.

Nonetheless, it turns out that I had the solid backing of the upstate delegations of the Party, representing fully one third of the entire State of New York. Niagara County Chairman Ray Walker encouraged me to go to the state convention in New York and fight Keating for the nomination, which I did. And so, a second flight to New York City ensued. But, it turned out that I was not the only candidate challenging Keating. When I arrived in New York, I learned that infamous attorney, Roy Marcus Cohn, was also seeking the nomination—and so a three way fight was on.

I recall addressing the convention delegates in one of those then famous smoke-filled rooms—giving a speech ending with a phrase given me by Walker, to the effect that the American Eagle could not fly on two left wings! It was well-applauded. The strategy of the convention came down to this: Keating, Cohn, and I each had the support of roughly one-third of the state. But the fly in the ointment was that, since Keating had the official Party backing, all absent delegates had been told to give their proxy votes to Serphin Maltese, who would then vote them for Keating on the first ballot. The net effect meant that the rough outcome would be that Keating would have about half the votes and Cohn and I would split the remaining half.

As a result, I remember standing in the back of the hall with my campaign manager, Ray Walker, and Cohn and his campaign manager, while the two of us candidates made a handshaking deal (one of those famous backroom deals!) to the effect that whoever of the two of us appeared to be getting fewer votes on the first ballot would withdraw and throw his support to the other. As the balloting got underway, we each were getting about the expected totals. But, at some point, my manager concluded that I was getting fewer votes than Cohn and so signaled me to withdraw and give my support to Cohn, which I did. At that point, I found out that it is easier to obtain support than to shift it to another person. Many delegates did not want to support Cohn, given his intensely bad notoriety.

Roy Cohn was a prosecutor in the Rosenberg atomic bomb spy trials in 1951, claiming later that his personal recommendation convinced Judge Irving Kaufman to give both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg the death penalty for giving atomic secrets to the Soviets. I remember listening to the radio the day they were electrocuted, with it taking five electric shocks before Ethel Rosenberg was pronounced dead. Regarding the specific atomic secrets charge against them, there is evidence now that, while Julius alone had many contacts on other matters with a Soviet spy named Aleksandr Feklisov, Julius “didn’t understand anything about the atomic bomb” and that Ethel “had nothing to do with this” and “was completely innocent.”

In 1953 and 1954, Roy Cohn was the leading assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the infamous Army-McCarthy Senate hearings. From 1959 to 1963, Cohn was president of the Lionel Train Company. Even during the 1974 Conservative Party convention, Cohn was bragging that he’d been acquitted of professional misconduct charges, despite having alleged perjury by five witnesses testifying against him.

(Note that from 1971 to 1978, Cohn became a major mentor to, and lawyer for, a construction businessman named Donald J. Trump, defending Trump against housing discrimination charges in a case settled out of court. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cohn was charged three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering, and eventually disbarred by a New York Appellate Division Court.)

While Cohn failed to defeat Keating in first ballot of the convention, he did get over 25% of the vote, which earned him the right to engage in a primary fight with her. I recall him standing at a pay phone begging some source for an instant $25,000 to get that primary fight going. He told me he would give me a phone call later in the summer, but he never did. He went down in flames in the primary and Barbara Keating went on to garner 16% of the votes in the fall election, which was won by liberal Republican incumbent Senator Jacob Javits who got 45% of the vote. Liberal Democrat Ramsey Clark got the remaining 38%.

Later on convention night, as I was riding in an elevator with my campaign manager, Ray Walker, he let it slip that he may have miscounted the votes and that I actually had more votes than Cohn on that critical first ballot—which would have meant that Cohn should have withdrawn in favor of me!

After I returned home a defeated candidate, I received a phone call from Serphin Maltese, offering to make me the Party’s nominee for NY State Comptroller, an offer which I refused. Democrat incumbent Arthur Levitt, Sr., easily won reelection in 1974.

Thus ended my single attempt at election to the United States Senate.

Postscript: It appears I came much closer to winning the nomination than I initially thought. During the convention, a professor from St. John’s University in Brooklyn, who was a major force in the Party (probably Dr. Henry Paolucci), told me that he had led the revolt against the leadership that ended my pre-selection for the nomination and instead led to the nomination of Barbara Keating. He also told me that had he known me better at that time (perhaps, had he heard my speech earlier), he would not have led that revolt, but rather would instead have backed me for the nomination.

Post postscript: After James L. Buckley left the United States Senate, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. As the oldest living former United States Senator, Buckley is still serving as a senior judge on the DC Circuit, even as he just turned 100-years- old on March 9, 2023.

Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, where he also served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. He is the author of three books, Aquinas’ Proofs for God’s ExistenceOrigin of the Human Species, and Rational Responses to Skepticism: A Catholic Philosopher Defends Intellectual Foundations for Traditional Beliefas well as many scholarly articles.