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.

Golisano is making his third run against Pataki. Each time, he has defined himself by whatever Pataki is not. In 1994, Pataki ran as an undiluted conservative on most issues. Golisano ran to his left. In the 1998 race, Golisano ran as an anti-incumbent reformer. Now, Golisano is trying to run to Pataki's right. Such a citizen-businessman-flake would be of small consequence except that he may spend a total of $100 million on the race.

Golisano's standing among conservatives and Republicans has not been helped by the revelation that his team includes both Roger Stone, the Roy Cohn protege who tried in 2000 to recruit Donald Trump to run against George W. Bush, and Emily Lenzner, a daughter of Terry Lenzner, who headed what Dick Morris calls the Clintons' "secret police."

Golisano seems less like a serious candidate than like the children's-book character Old Sneep: With no real role in a homecoming parade, Old Sneep tries to ruin the day by sucking on lemons in full view of the marching band's brass section, causing them to pucker up and rendering them unable to continue the parade.

Golisano's campaign may set the New York standard not just for spending but for weirdness. Daniel Mahony, Golisano's Conservative party running mate of choice, left the state and took the Fifth Amendment in ballot access hearings after the New York Post published evidence that Mahony had registered and voted twice in several elections.

That contretemps might have ended with the primary, but in the days after the primary, New York's Conservative party suggested that Golisano's campaign committees might have made illegal contributions to the campaigns of Mahony and of William Neild, Golisano's preferred running mate in the Independence primary.

According to Paul Windels, an attorney with years of experience navigating New York's Talmudic election laws, loans to those candidates had to be repaid by primary day or be classified as contributions--potentially subjecting the donor to criminal penalties if the loans exceeded the legal limit for donations. So far Golisano has not said whether he or his committees were repaid.

In almost all normal situations, prosecutors would ignore such "loans" because of the difficulty of proving that the failure to repay resulted from anything but the candidate's excessive optimism about his prospects. But is this a normal situation? The Golisano campaign will almost certainly set a new spending record, and several media outlets have reported that the Manhattan district attorney is scrutinizing Mahony for his alleged double voting.

Amidst the electoral chaos, the man still in the driver's seat is George E. Pataki. With slightly rumpled suits, disorderly hair, and an asymmetrical smile, Pataki appears the un-pol. His informal demeanor is the antithesis of the smug certainty that defined predecessors Nelson Rockefeller and Mario Cuomo. The biggest problem facing both McCall and Golisano may be that few voters anywhere on the spectrum dislike Pataki.

Pataki has never lost an election, and he has won every office he has ever held by defeating the incumbent. With crime and taxes down on his watch, and with a capital punishment statute enacted soon after he entered office, a less-skilled politician would have put himself at risk of obsolescence, having disposed of the issues that got him elected. But Pataki reached out to Hispanics, now the largest minority in New York City. The governor came out early for closing the Navy bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, irritating some conservatives but enraging Democrats, who wanted the issue to themselves. Pataki then got personal credit when his college classmate and friend George W. Bush sided with him and announced that Vieques would be closed.

The loudest screams of Democratic political pain came when Pataki agreed to give the health and hospital workers' union, Service Employees 1199, a generous new contract. The union is 250,000 strong, heavily minority, and in the view of many the best organized political force in the state. Union president Dennis Rivera, a hero with his members for bringing home the contract, delivered the union's endorsement of the governor.

Democrats denounced the contract as a crass giveaway. But it was a political masterstroke by both Pataki and Rivera. And it was no easy thing for Pataki to accomplish. The leadership of many other unions in New York, notably the teachers' union, is so deeply attached to the Democrats' extreme positions on racial quotas, partial-birth abortion, and other social issues that it is inconceivable they could support a Republican no matter what that Republican did for the union's rank and file.

Pataki's lead in the polls has slimmed from an unsustainable 30 points to the mid-teens, with Pataki in the high 40s, McCall in the mid 30s, and Golisano struggling to break into double digits. Pataki had a large edge over McCall in cash on hand, with $20 million on primary day to $2.5 million for McCall. That advantage will narrow now that the Clintons have given McCall their blessing. The wild card is Golisano, with his anti-Pataki fulminations. Even Old Sneep in the end decided the spoiler's role was no fun and gave up being a lone grouch. Will Golisano do the same?

James Higgins is a partner in a private equity firm in New York.