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Subject: Patrick Cunningham, Leader of Bronx Democrats

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Date Posted: December 05, 2002 3:46:43 EDT

Patrick J. Cunningham, the last of a line of Irish clubhouse politicians to lead the Bronx Democratic Party, until he faced several state and federal investigations, died on Tuesday at St. Vincent's Manhattan Hospital. He was 74 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was complications of heart disease and cancer, his wife, Mary, said.

Mr. Cunningham did not like being called a boss, but he inherited a position once held by Edward J. Flynn, who was almost always called Boss Flynn. As leader of the Democratic Party in both the state and the Bronx, he juggled candidates, raised campaign money and hobnobbed with the nation's most powerful politicians. His political deftness was exemplified by his leading role in persuading the Democrats to hold their national conventions in New York in 1976 and 1980.

But the time-honored horse trading that had defined earlier political eras was fading as Mr. Cunningham was rising. Neither reformers nor prosecutors in the 1970's any longer tolerated the trading of favors he had been taught was basic politics.

In 1976, he was indicted on charges of illegally arranging a judicial nomination, conspiring to conceal a payoff from a bank and illegally using influence. All those charges were later dismissed.

In 1982, he was found guilty of evading $14,000 in federal income taxes and was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison; he served a little more than a year. He was also fined $5,000 and disbarred.

In both cases, Mr. Cunningham argued that prosecutors, particularly Maurice Nadjari, were out to get him unfairly. But the prosecutor in the second case, John S. Martin Jr., the United States attorney, countered that the jury's verdict "conclusively answered Mr. Cunningham's charge that this was an unfounded political prosecution."

Mr. Cunningham, whose contacts included influential business figures like Lewis Rudin, the real estate developer; George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner; and Robert S. Strauss, the former Democratic national chairman, re-established himself as a consultant.

"It's remarkable to see how many people respect the individual," he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1987.

Patrick Joseph Cunningham was born in Harlem on March 12, 1928. His father was a subway repairman and he was the first person in his family to finish high school, his son Stephen said.

Stephen Cunningham said his father learned one important lesson when he was a fourth-grader selling tickets for an event at his parochial school. The prize was a football autographed by the entire Notre Dame team, and he coveted it. But he came in second place when another boy's grandfather took tickets to the Democratic Party club he led and offered the opportunity to buy tickets.

The young man was not bitter, his son said. His reaction was to admire the organization for being so helpful to young people.

Mr. Cunningham graduated from Fordham College and New York University Law School. In World War II, he served in the Navy in the Pacific. He began a private legal practice in 1954, and in 1957 was a block captain for the Democrats in the Bronx, where he lived.

He won the respect of the tough old Bronx leader, Charles A. Buckley, and became a protégé of Henry McDonough, the crusty politician who succeeded Mr. Buckley in 1967. Mr. Cunningham became Bronx County leader in 1969, when Mr. McDonough died.

In 1968, he made his only attempt at winning public office, unsuccessfully trying to unseat Representative Jonathan B. Bingham in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Cunningham did not slap backs and developed the reputation of taciturnity in a field in which that is rare.

In 1974, he was the only county Democratic leader in the city who did not completely back Howard J. Samuels for governor. He hedged his bets by dividing his followers between the camps of Mr. Samuels and Hugh L. Carey in the primary. When Mr. Carey won the governorship, he appointed Mr. Cunningham state Democratic chairman.

Mr. Cunningham resigned from the leadership of both the state and the Bronx party in 1978.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Christine, of Manhattan; his sons Stephen, of Denver, Philip, of Fairfield, Conn., Peter Paul, of Chicago and Patrick Jr., of Chicago; his two sisters, Mary Hurley and Kay Smith, both of Hampton Bays, N.Y., and 11 grandchildren.

Stephen Cunningham said that perhaps the most enjoyable job his father had was as general counsel for the Yankees and then as general partner in 1974, when Mr. Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball because of his conviction for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign.

In 1975, Mr. Cunningham signed the contract, then by far baseball's biggest, to bring the pitcher Catfish Hunter to the Bronx.

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