The Magazine

Pataki Versus the Resume

Can a Republican still win in New York?

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By JAMES HIGGINS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.