Arthur Finkelstein, Innovative, Influential Conservative Strategist, Dies at 72

Arthur Finkelstein, right, in 1983 at the Yale Club in Manhattan with Paul Curran, left, a one-time Republican candidate for governor of New York, and Whitney North Seymour, the former United States attorney for the Southern District.Credit...Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Arthur Finkelstein, right, in 1983 at the Yale Club in Manhattan with Paul Curran, left, a one-time Republican candidate for governor of New York, and Whitney North Seymour, the former United States attorney for the Southern District.Credit...Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times


By Sam Roberts

Aug. 19, 2017

Arthur Finkelstein, a reclusive political Svengali who revolutionized campaign polling and financing and helped elect a bevy of conservative candidates, including President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, died on Friday night in Ipswich, Mass., where he lived. He was 72.

His family confirmed the death in a statement. The cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Finkelstein was among the first political strategists in the late 1970s to grasp the potential of a United States Supreme Court ruling that allowed putatively independent political committees to spend money on behalf of individual candidates and causes.

The decision led to a proliferation of fund-raising vehicles that were supposed to be beyond the control of candidates or party officials but that in fact often worked in concert with their campaigns. One such group, the muscular National Conservative Political Action Committee, was established with Mr. Finkelstein’s help.

He also pioneered sophisticated demographic analyses of primary voters and methodical exit polling, and of using a marketing strategy, called microtargeting, to identify specific groups of potential supporters of a candidate regardless of their party affiliation.

He would bombard them with appeals to support a candidate through direct mail and phone calls, coupled with television advertisements that mercilessly exploited a rival’s vulnerabilities

“The numbers spoke to him,” Kieran Mahoney, his frequent campaign collaborator and one of his many protégés, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Finkelstein’s combative campaigns helped elect or re-elect the Republican Senators James L. Buckley and Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Connie Mack III of Florida, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

“Arthur was responsible for electing more people to the United States Senate than any other political consultant,” Mr. D’Amato said in an interview.

In the process, Mr. Finkelstein transformed liberal into a dirty word.

His conservative political action committee was instrumental in the surprise unseatings of liberal Democratic stalwarts in 1980, including Senators Birch Bayh of Indiana, Frank Church of Idaho and George S. McGovern of South Dakota. He also collaborated with fellow Republicans in establishing another fund-raising behemoth, the National Congressional Club

In 1994, Mr. D’Amato and Mr. Finkelstein engineered the defeat of Mario M. Cuomo, New York’s three-term governor, by George E. Pataki, an obscure state senator. Mr. Pataki’s resonant rationale was that Mr. Cuomo was “too liberal for too long.”

A canny Brooklyn-born brawler who made his political debut on a Greenwich Village soapbox, Mr. Finkelstein was adept at aggressively wooing disaffected Democrats to his Republican clients’ camps in statewide campaigns. His strategy was largely to ignore party labels and focus on the basic beliefs that moved these Democrats.

“I have been criticized for 20 years for running ideologically arched campaigns,” he told the National Conservative Political Action Conference in 1991. “I plead guilty. I will continue to run ideologically arched campaigns as long as there are more conservatives than there are liberals, rather than more Democrats than there are Republicans.”

He refused to acknowledge, though, that he engaged in negative campaigning. That phrase connotes false accusations, he said, when “it just means that you speak about the failings of your opponent as opposed to the virtues of your candidate.”

Rather, he called his strategy “rejectionist voting” — a formula built on slogans that disparaged adversaries. (He would often count on a third contender to siphon votes from the rival who posed the most serious threat to a client).

Prime examples of that strategy were Mr. D’Amato’s upset win over Senator Jacob K. Javits, the venerable liberal Republican incumbent, in the 1980 primary, and Mr. D’Amato’s re-election squeaker against the Democratic state attorney general, Robert Abrams (“hopelessly liberal,” Mr. D’Amato said), in 1992, when Bill Clinton swept the state with a 1.2-million-vote margin on his way to winning the presidency.

“I never once put him on television to talk,” Mr. Finkelstein said of Mr. D’Amato. “He was completely irrelevant to the campaigns.”

Those campaigns were “vicious and mean,” he told a college audience in Prague in 2011. “Negative, negative, negative — ′cause you can’t possibly win otherwise.”

The negatives used in the primary — portraying Mr. Javits, at 76, as sick and aging — were tempered in the 1980 general election campaign by an ad that famously featured Mr. D’Amato’s mother, armed with bags of groceries, lamenting the struggles of the middle class and urging, “Vote for my son, Al.”

“That humanized me,” Mr. D’Amato recalled.

Mr. Finkelstein said, “We had to prove Alfonse had a mother.”

Mr. D’Amato narrowly defeated his Democratic rival, Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, in the general election, in which Mr. Javits ran on the Liberal line.

As a gay, Jewish libertarian, Mr. Finkelstein helped elect homophobic candidates, once polled South Carolinians on whether they would support a rival candidate identified as a Jewish immigrant, and supported gay rights and abortion rights as what the political consultant Roger Stone, another of his protégés, called, in a phone interview, “a situational conservative.”

Mr. Finkelstein, left, and his husband, Donald Curiale, in 2013 at an event in which Mr. Finkelstein was given an award by the American Association of Political Consultants.Credit...Gary Maloney
Mr. Finkelstein, left, and his husband, Donald Curiale, in 2013 at an event in which Mr. Finkelstein was given an award by the American Association of Political Consultants.Credit...Gary Maloney

Still, Mr. Finkelstein suggested, he was not a hired gun who would provide his services to just anyone.

It would be very hard for me to work with somebody with whom I have fundamental disagreements, against someone with whom I agree,” he said.

Mr. Finkelstein insisted that he never lied — “I do not slander somebody without proof,” was how he put it — but he acknowledged a generation ago that truth was fungible.

“The most overwhelming fact of politics is what people do not know,” he told the college students in Prague. “In politics, it’s what you perceive to be true that’s true, not truth. If I tell you one thing is true, you will believe the second thing is true. A good politician will tell you a few things that are true before he will tell you a few things that are untrue, because you will then believe all the things he has said, true and untrue.”

Arthur Jay Finkelstein was born on May 18, 1945, in the East New York section of Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Morris, was a cabby. His mother was the former Zella Ordanksi. The family moved to Levittown, on Long Island, when he was 11, then to Queens, where he graduated from Forest Hills High School.

In 1967, Mr. Finkelstein earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Queens College. As a student, he sometimes shared a college radio program with Ayn Rand, the author and philosopher whose laissez-faire capitalism he would fiercely defend in street-corner debates in Greenwich Village.

After he volunteered in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, F. Clifton White, the architect of the Draft Goldwater movement, became his patron and recruited him to James Buckley’s Senate race in 1970 as the candidate of the fledgling Conservative Party.

Invoking Richard M. Nixon’s silent majority, Mr. Finkelstein encapsulated Mr. Buckley’s message in the catchphrase “Isn’t it time we had a senator?”

Mr. Buckley went on to defeat the Republican incumbent, Charles E. Goodell, and the Democratic challenger, Representative Richard L. Ottinger.

In 1972, Mr. Finkelstein founded the Westchester County-based Arthur J. Finkelstein & Associates with his brother Ronald. In the 1976 presidential campaign, he was credited with helping Reagan, in an unsuccessful bid to deny President Gerald R. Ford the nomination, win crucial Republican primaries in North Carolina and Texas.

He later choreographed campaigns by his friend Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir, against Rudolph W. Giuliani in the 1989 Republican mayoral primary; a referendum to impose term limits on New York City elected officials; and races in Eastern Europe and in Israel, where he was recruited by supporters of Mr. Netanyahu and other conservative candidates of the Likud Party.

In his work for Mr. Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, in 1999, Mr. Finkelstein took on the Labor Party challenger, Ehud Barak (who was being advised by the Democratic consultants James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg), with the campaign slogan “Ehud Barak: Too Many Ambitions, Too Few Principles.”

Mr. Netanyahu was defeated in that campaign, but Mr. Finkelstein returned to Israel to help Ariel Sharon oust Mr. Barak and later re-elect Mr. Netanyahu, taking back power for the Likud Party.

“I would always say, ‘Arthur, do you realizes how much we’re changing history?’ ” his colleague George Birnbaum recalled. “He would say, ‘I don’t know how much we’re changing history; we’re touching history.’”

Philip Friedman, another political consultant, told The New York Times in 1994: “Finkelstein is the ultimate sort of Dr. Strangelove, who believes you can largely disregard what the politicians are going to say and do, what the newspapers are going to do, and create a simple and clear and often negative message, which, repeated often enough, can bring you to victory.”

Thanks largely to his brother’s financial discipline, the messenger’s firm prospered, too.

“Early in our friendship,” Craig Shirley recalled last January on nationalreview.com, “I asked him whether it was ‘Finkelsteen’ or ‘Finkelstine’ (with a long i), and Arthur characteristically replied, ‘If I was a poor Jew, it would be Finkelsteen, but since I am a rich Jew, it’s Finkelstine.”

Mr. Finkelstein was openly gay, although his sexual orientation was not common knowledge until it became the subject of an article in Boston Magazine in 1996. He married Donald Curiale, his partner of more than 50 years, in a civil ceremony in 2004.

His survivors include Mr. Curiale; their daughters, Jennifer Elizabeth Delgado and Molly Julia Baird-Kelly; a granddaughter; and his brothers, Ronald and Barry.

Mr. Finkelstein smoked heavily, loved to gamble and was habitually rumpled.

“He’d walk through the door carrying a poll tucked under his arm and take off his shoes and unfasten his tie, leaving the ends dangling, and start pacing up and down in his stocking feet,” Richard Morgan wrote in “The Fourth Witch” (2008), describing a strategy session of the National Congressional Club. “Then Tom Ellis would growl, ‘O.K., you’ve told me about the poll. Now tell me the ad,’ and without blinking Arthur would go into a kind of trance and just dictate a 30-second ad.”

Rarely photographed or interviewed, Mr. Finkelstein was unusually reflective during his 2011 public appearance in Prague, in which he discussed his accomplishments, the goals of negative campaigning and how television and the internet have altered politics since the eras of Goldwater, who remained one of his heroes, and Reagan.

“I went into this as a kid to change the world, because I was an absolute ideologue,” he said. “I would stand outside on soapboxes in Greenwich Village at 3 in the morning and argue with people about the nature of freedom.

“I said I wanted to change the world, I said I did, I made it worse,” he added, without amplifying and, perhaps, with a dollop of self-deprecation. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 21, 2017, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Arthur Finkelstein, Guru Of Conservative Politics And Strategy, Dies at 72.


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