The Magazine

Pataki Versus the Resume

Can a Republican still win in New York?

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By JAMES HIGGINS
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AMAZINGLY, in a state that Al Gore carried in 2000 by 1.7 million votes, the gubernatorial race in New York this year long looked to be a walkover for the Republican incumbent. Not only did Gov. George Pataki benefit from public unity following 9/11, but the Democratic party started the year ready to nominate Andrew Cuomo, the electorally untested former Clinton housing secretary and son of former three-term governor Mario Cuomo. Since then, the race has taken some unexpected turns.

For one thing, Andrew Cuomo is out of the picture. At first, his strengths had seemed impressive. He knows New York well from his days dispensing HUD pork and from his earlier time as his father's chief political operative. He is an effective fund-raiser and was presumed to enjoy the reflected glamour of his wife, RFK daughter Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. But on the campaign trail, his personal abrasiveness overshadowed any message. Many voters came to share the view of Sol Wachtler, a pro-Mario Cuomo Republican and former chief judge of the state's highest court: "Andrew has many of his father's bad qualities and very few of the good ones."

Favorable through all of 2001 and most of 2002, Cuomo's poll numbers buckled as the September 10 primary neared. The Clintons, who had remained neutral for much of the race, apparently decided late in August that their best bet for victory in November was Cuomo's opponent, Carl McCall. Hillary Clinton gave Cuomo a surprise stick in the eye by appearing publicly with McCall over Labor Day weekend and not appearing with Cuomo. Cuomo quit the race with only a week to go, handing McCall an uncontested win.

McCall is a classic resume candidate: former state senator, U.S. representative at the U.N., board of education president, bank vice president, and now state comptroller--the first African American elected statewide in New York. Sixty-six years old, McCall had waited patiently for his turn to run, then built his support among Democratic organizations club by club and county by county. McCall faces the same question that so many resume candidates face: Why exactly is he running? The ex-divinity student is a charismatic speaker, but the it's-my-turn premise of his bid brings to mind another patient seeker of higher office, Bob Dole.

McCall's running mate, perennial office-seeker Dennis Mehiel, offers comic relief. A businessman and Democratic chairman in the Clintons' adopted county of Westchester, Mehiel made news in August as New York's answer to Democratic sugar daddy Steve Bing. It turned out that Mehiel had fathered at least two children by two different women while married to a third. That this behavior might set a bad example did not disturb Democrats, who instead focused on the quality that Clintonian Democrats most value: money. Mehiel funded most of his own primary campaign.

Together, the McCall-Mehiel team seems a political version of the "Lethal Weapon" buddy-movies: the African-American politician from the inner city grown up careful, responsible, and professional; and his white suburban sidekick, a self-promoting roving inseminator bursting with self-esteem.

Before Cuomo's implosion, Democrats lived with a sense of impending disaster. Many recognized that an Andrew Cuomo primary victory would trigger an exodus of African-American voters. Even Rep. Charles Rangel made early noises about voting for Pataki in a race against Cuomo. Such a racial schism among Democrats had played a major part in defeating Mark Green in the 2001 election for mayor of New York City. Now Democrats' hope is restored, not just because McCall leads a unified party but because a skunk has appeared at Pataki's garden party in the form of Rochester businessman B.Thomas Golisano, the founder of Paychex.

If you have a small number of employees, there's a good chance that Golisano's company draws up your paychecks and prepares your payroll tax returns. Golisano is the nominee of a Felliniesque political organization called the Independence party. The nuances of New York's minor parties could fill an entire issue of this magazine, but the crucial fact to know is that the state's impenetrable election laws make it advantageous to a candidate to be the nominee of as many parties as possible.

Golisano competed in two primaries (Independence and Conservative), considered securing a third line on the ballot by petition, and reportedly negotiated with a fourth party (the Liberals). The outcome of the Conservative primary is still uncertain, but Golisano won the Independence primary, having spent about $3,000 per vote to do so. That isn't a typo. He spent almost $30 million and got slightly more than 9,000 votes. Much of Golisano's advertising touts his business acumen. The balance trashes Pataki.