John Faso was just an 8-year-old when John Fitzgerald Kennedy made a stop at the nearby Bellmore train station. He remembers the excitement and the enormous crowd that day on Long Island in 1960, as well as the “Kennedy for President” button he was given. “I still have it,” he told the Echo in an interview.
Faso can’t recall actually seeing the future president, but he does know that his Irish-Catholic mother, who’d brought him to the rally, sat him down a few months later to watch the famous inaugural address.
Now, at 54, Faso is enjoying the excitement of his own campaign in 2006.
“I’m eating my way across the state, at fairs and festivals,” he said. “Most people are very friendly and anxious to talk.”
If this campaign is different from others he’s been involved with, it’s because of the “general sense of unease” he’s detected.
He has listened to concerns about global terrorism, the war in Iraq and the price of gasoline. But it’s a local issue that he’s made the central plank of his campaign.
“In New York State, people have this sense that they are overtaxed and they express it quite vociferously,” Faso said. “School property tax is the single biggest complaint I hear from people.”
Early on in his campaign, Faso ensured that he’d be on ballot in November by winning the Conservative Party nomination, upsetting the best-laid plans of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who wanted to run as a liberal Republican.
Then with a big grassroots mobilization, he soundly defeated Weld at the party’s state convention, obviating the need for a primary contest.
Faso rejected the notion that he’s too rightwing to win center-ground support. “I just think it’s not true. My views are pretty much in the mainstream of political viewpoints in the state,” he said.
“I’ll readily admit that I’m a fiscal conservative and I think New York has more than enough people going to Albany wanting to spend your money,” he said. “It would be appropriate to have someone as the governor more concerned about making sure your money is spent well – and taxes are controlled and lowered.”
Faso’s own family background may help in his pitch to what he’s called “Koch Democrats” and “Giuliani Democrats.” His parents were “your typical Irish-Italian New York City Democrats.”
However the family only became Irish-Italian when John Faso Sr. married Frances Doherty. He was from the most famously Sicilian street in Manhattan. A researcher hired by the candidate recently found that the Fasos were living at 266 Elizabeth St. in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses. The family then moved to Corona in Queens.
The candidate’s mother (whose own mother was an O’Shea before marriage) was from Yorkville in the 80s, between First and Second Avenues, and was a graduate of Julia Richmond High School.
Frances Faso worked as a homemaker for several years after she settled down with her husband. “When the kids were a little older, she went to work as a teller and then as an assistant branch manager of a bank on Long Island,” her son said.
“My dad was a jack of all trades — primarily what he did was electrical work,” he added. For a time, the elder Faso owned a small television repair and tool rental business on Long Island.
“And when I was in the 6th grade, he sold that and became the head custodian of the Catholic parish we lived in, in Seaford,” he recalled.
Faso said he learnt from his father the value of hard work and of never giving up. “They are particularly good attributes for this political campaign,” he said. His mother passed on her passionate interests in history and current events.
By the time of the tumultuous year of 1968, and the presidential bids of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, John Faso Jr. was still a Democratic Party loyalist. Indeed, he recalled going to Archbishop Molloy High School, in Briarwood, Queens, sporting a “Hubert Humphrey for President” button.
The incumbent vice president, however, was defeated narrowly by a former vice president. By 1970, at age 18, Faso had switched his allegiances to the victor, Richard Nixon, and to the Republican administration.
“I had already, through reading and other things, convinced myself that I was more aligned on things like foreign policy and national defense,” he said.
To a great extent he was rejecting what another Republican convert, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, later called the “blame America first crowd,” who were taking over the Democratic Party and did eventually, he believes, outweigh the influence of figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
His parents, who are now both deceased, took a little longer to move camps, but “they increasing looked askance at the trend they saw in the Democratic Party.”
Eventually, the elder Fasos, whom their son called “Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy Democrats,” became Reagan Democrats and finally Reagan Republicans.
If they were concerned about the “principles of national defense,” their son said, there was another reason for the change.
“I think they were much more socially conservative on family issues than where the Democratic Party was headed,” he said.
Faso got his primary degree at Brockport State College, and if elected in November, he said, he will be the first graduate of the SUNY system to serve as governor. Then, he studied for four years at night at Georgetown Law School in Washington D.C., while holding down a full-time job.
Faso, who had been active politically since his youth, began to consider running for elected office.
“I saw people doing a job and thought I could do that or I could do it better,” he said.
He was elected to the State Assembly for Kinderhook, Columbia County, and rapidly moved up the party ranks to become minority leader.
Faso, who told the New York Post that his idea of fun was a family meal with his wife Mary Frances and his children, said trying to balance political and family commitments hasn’t always been easy.
“When I was in the state legislature, I was so fortunate because we live only 22 miles from Albany. Even if I was out at night at events, I was still able to get home and have breakfast there in the morning,” he said. “That was always important to me when our kids were younger.”
His son Nicholas, a recent graduate of Skidmore College, is 22, and his daughter Margaret, a high school senior, is 17.
“They have driver’s licenses now; they’re less in need of the parental attachment, I think,” he said, laughing.
In recent years, Faso has been traveling beyond his Columbia County and Albany bailiwicks. After a decade in the fray as a potential state-wide candidate, he finally got his opportunity in 2002 when he ran for comptroller. He lost to the Democrat, Alan Hevesi.
The margin of defeat that time out, against a seasoned, high-profile New York City politician, was a respectable eight points. But now Faso has a Herculean task against Eliot Spitzer, who won his primary by 60 percentage points and seems set to take the top state job for the Democrats after 12 years out in the cold.
Faso was philosophical about the lack of enthusiastic endorsements from some of the best known GOP figures in the state, such as the party’s last senator, Al D’Amato, who is now a lobbyist and consultant.
“I work hard to win the support that I can win and I recognize that some people like to play the odds,” he said.
“For the first time in 24 years, it’s an open seat for governor. And I’m confident that when the people get a chance to see the two candidates side by side that I will do well,” he added. “I stand a good chance of winning.”
The war, which is particularly unpopular in New York State according to polls, doesn’t make his task any easier. On that issue, Faso said: “The war in Iraq is very difficult. It’s not simple; it’s complex. We have to make sure we leave as soon as we can, but not before we are able to leave. We certainly shouldn’t leave before the Iraqi government is able to maintain reasonable security.”
On the broader issue of terrorism, he said: “I believe this is a global war that we are dealing with against a fanatical, extreme variant of Islam and that these people want to kill Americans and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, and it doesn’t matter if they’re liberals or conservatives.”
Faso added: “They fundamentally stand against what America stands for, which is openness, a pluralistic society, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality for women.”
Second in a series of articles on the New York State gubernatorial race.