Rob Christensen

He was the man behind the curtain in NC politics

Arthur J. Finkelstein at a Gotham Luncheon held in the Yale Club in New York in 1983.
Arthur J. Finkelstein at a Gotham Luncheon held in the Yale Club in New York in 1983. NYT

Arthur Finkelstein was the man behind the curtain in North Carolina politics.

Few people did more to shape 20th century Tar Heel politics than did Finkelstein, who died last month of lung cancer at the age of 72 at his home in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

But little was known about Finkelstein, who rarely gave news interviews, avoided being photographed and reportedly sometimes registered at hotels using fake names. Even though I had covered Tar Heel politics for decades, I had no idea what he looked like.

His story is the stuff of fiction.

Finkelstein was the son of a New York City cab driver – his parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. After graduation from Queens College, he shared a college radio program with Ayn Rand, the libertarian author whose philosophy he would champion the rest of his life.

He cut his teeth in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and that provided him the connections to run Republican Jim Buckley’s New York Senate campaign in 1970.

But his big break came two years later when he became consultant to Republican Jesse Helms’ 1972 campaign against Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Galifianakis.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Finkelstein was part of the Helms organization’s brain trust along with Raleigh attorney Tom Ellis and Carter Wrenn. Together that group built the modern conservative Republican Party that today dominates state politics.

Finkelstein was a key strategist in Helms’ Senate elections in 1972, 1978 and 1984, defeating Democrats Galifianakis, Insurance Commissioner John Ingram and Gov. Jim Hunt. Finkelstein also helped elect Republicans John East and Lauch Faircloth to the Senate in 1980 and 1992, unseating incumbent Democrats Robert Morgan and Terry Sanford.

Another Democratic scalp on his belt was U.S. Rep. Ike Andrews. He helped engineer Republican Bill Cobey’s election in 1984.

Perhaps his most important race in North Carolina was in 1976, when he helped rescue California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s failing presidential campaign. Working with the Helms organization, Finkelstein used national defense and opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty to help Reagan defeat President Gerald Ford in the state.

Although Reagan did not capture the presidency until 1980, many observers think Reagan’s North Carolina victory was a turning point in his quest for the White House.

Although Finkelstein was a pollster, he was more than a numbers guy, helping campaigns devise messages. His calling card was to portray Democratic candidates as too liberal, although Wrenn said he was far more sophisticated than that.

“He was brilliant,” Wrenn said. “I worked with two geniuses – Arthur Finkelstein and Tom Ellis. Arthur is the only one who could look at a poll and see pictures.”

Ellis once said of Finkelstein: “Just knock on his head and he’ll give an idea.”

Others, of course, saw him in less charitable terms. Political scientist Darrell West said in 1996: “He uses a sledgehammer in every race. I’ve detailed five phrases he uses – ultra liberal, super liberal, embarrassingly liberal, foolishly liberal and unbelievably liberal.”

Finkelstein was known as a chain smoker. He was known, too, for his rumpled appearance, his love of betting on horses and his sense of humor.

Before Helms’ 1990 re-election campaign, Finkelstein told the campaign he couldn’t work for Helms any more, Wrenn said. He said Finkelstein was polite about it, didn’t offer a reason and recommended one of his protegees, John McLaughlin, handle his campaign.

At the time, Helms was becoming one of the leading critics of the gay rights movement.

“I took it that Arthur wasn’t comfortable with Jesse’s stand on the social issues,” Wrenn said. Wrenn said he chalked it up to Finkelstein’s libertarian views.

In 1996, Boston Magazine published an article that outed Finkelstein as gay. In 2004, Finkelstein married Donald Curiale, his partner of more than 50 years, in a civil ceremony. They had previously adopted two girls.

Wrenn said that until the Boston Magazine story, Finkelstein’s sexuality was not common knowledge in the Helms camp.

It was certainly understandable that Finkelstein would keep his sexuality private in an era when that would have been a political liability. I can remember being on the campaign trail in 1982 with Andrews when he attacked Finkelstein as a New Yorker, drawing out each syllable of his name to highlight its ethnicity. This was in Chapel Hill, mind you.

Finkelstein’s reach extended to dozens of high-profile races across the country and the world. He worked in Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo and Ukraine.

He helped bring American-style politics to Israel, playing a pivotal role in Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory as prime minister over Shimon Peres. He also helped Ariel Sharon defeat Ehud Barak for Israeli prime minister in 2001.

Wrenn continued to hire Finkelstein for campaigns after the disclosure of his sexuality. In 2000, Finkelstein was a consultant for Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot’s unsuccessful campaign for governor against Democratic Attorney General Mike Easley.

In one of the last campaigns before he became ill, Finkelstein helped George Holding defeat Renee Ellmers in a GOP primary last year, after the two members of Congress were thrown into the same district as a result of redistricting.

Finkelstein was a most unlikely architect of the rise of the North Carolina Republican Party.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, robc@newsobserver.com

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