Gubernatorial politics, N.Y.-style
NEW YORK — Across the street from Moody's Investors Service, which has given New York state bonds the lowest rating (tied with Louisiana's) in the nation, Tom Golisano, addressing a handful of journalists and bemused passers-by, says: The worst is yet to come. He is not a little ray of sunshine.
In his third run for governor on the Independence Party ticket — his third run against the incumbent governor, George Pataki, who is seeking a third term — polls show Golisano at 9 percent. He figures that if he gets to, say, 36 percent, he wins. He knows Jesse Ventura won in Minnesota with 37 percent.
Pataki, who has never lost a general election, is ahead with 48 percent. The Democratic nominee, Carl McCall, the state comptroller who is trying to become the second African-American elected governor of a state (the first was Virginia's Doug Wilder in 1990), is at 32 percent.
Golisano, who is from Rochester, plans to get to 36 percent by spending perhaps $50 million more. He spent about $30 million — a mere crumb from the cake of his personal fortune — before defeating Pataki's attempt to win the Independence Party's primary (about $3,000 for each of his 9,572 votes) and plans to spend much more than that in the closing weeks.
Golisano says: New Yorkers are the second most heavily taxed Americans (second to the people of Maine). But they have been for years; they are gluttons for punishment.
Golisano, a Ross Perot without the weirdness, says: Because I am financing myself, "special interests" will have no hold on me. But "special interests," aka most of the electorate, prefer officials they have a hold on.
And Golisano says: I will stop the creative bookkeeping by which Pataki disguises the state's budget problems. But if such bookkeeping inflamed Americans, Washington would be smoldering ruins.
Golisano, number 185 on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, turned $3,000 into Paychex, which grosses $1 billion annually processing payrolls for more than 350,000 businesses. In 1998 he got 364,056 votes — 8 percent. If he takes, say, twice that many votes from Pataki, that might well be McCall's margin of victory. Unfortunately for Golisano and McCall, Golisano seems to be taking as many votes from McCall as from Pataki.
In 1994, when Republicans gained 52 congressional seats, Pataki, a mild-mannered state legislator, slew a political Goliath, Mario Cuomo, by campaigning as a tax-cutting skinflint. But Pataki has studied New York's election of two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer in 1998 and Hillary Clinton in 2000. These elections showed Democratic strength waxing in the suburbs, especially on Long Island, and in economically stagnant upstate, where Golisano, too, is tapping into resentments. Schumer and Clinton lost upstate by just 8 percent and 4 percent respectively, while carrying the city 74-25.
In response, Pataki has not just "moved to the center," he has sailed so far past it that McCall can hardly get to Pataki's left. Prescription drug subsides for the elderly• Done that. Spending• Pataki has increased it far faster than Cuomo did. A $1.8 billion pay increase for health care workers won Pataki the endorsement of the union, with 260,000 members and retirees.
Do Puerto Ricans object to Navy bombing practice on the island Vieques• Pataki goes there to oppose it as fervently as he favors cheaper airfares to Puerto Rico. And although Pataki has the nomination of the once-spirited but now-tamed Conservative Party, it is down to a single issue — abortion — and he does not really care about that. The National Review tartly says that the only abortion law Pataki would oppose would be "one that threatened the population of gays and lesbians."
After displacing Massachusetts and Virginia as the political heavyweight among states, New York became the mother lode of presidents (Van Buren, Fillmore, Arthur, Cleveland, two Roosevelts), presidential nominees (Horatio Seymour, Horace Greeley, Samuel Tilden, Alton Parker, Charles Evans Hughes, John Davis, Al Smith, and Thomas Dewey twice) and aspirants (Averell Harriman, Robert Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jack Kemp, maybe Cuomo). But no New Yorker has been nominated for president in 54 years (Dewey). The state has about half California's electoral weight, less than Texas, soon less than Florida. However, its gubernatorial election is of more than parochial interest.
Pataki is a congenial, intelligent graduate of Yale and Columbia Law School (where he made law review) who has mastered the art of appearing artless. He has shown an Olympic-class ideological nimbleness in moving leftward as New York's electorate does, and his campaign war chest was 10 times bigger than McCall's entering October. If Pataki nevertheless loses, that will indicate just how inhospitable the Northeast has become to Republicans, regardless of their, shall we say, ideological versatility.