New York Governor George Pataki does nothing–brilliantly. He has turned minimalism into a public relations masterpiece. On 9/11 Pataki was there, standing behind the take-charge Rudy Giuliani, looking sad and grave, glowing in reflected light. Everyone swooned. What a leader, they said, such a strong, silent Gary Cooper type. Such a secure team player to let the Mayor hog the cameras.
This same strategy worked well for him this year in his dealings with the divided New York state legislature. Nothing was accomplished, while Pataki remained amiable and almost invisible. Dozens of bills were buried without even a vote, while the public was barely aware Pataki was in charge. He made no waves. He made no enemies. He made no hard decisions. Pataki’s minimalist approach, combined with his huge money advantage, the benefits of incumbency and mistakes by his Democratic challenger, State Comptroller Carl McCall, add up to what is likely–but not definitely–to be Pataki’s re-election.
Of all the things Pataki didn’t do, one of the most significant involves campaign finance reform. Despite having promised such reform for years, he didn’t let a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Assembly that mandated public financing of elections ever come to a vote in the Republican Senate. As a result, Pataki has been able to outspend McCall by more than 10 to 1. With this immense advantage, the Governor blitzed television with negative commercials at the moment McCall had some momentum from Andrew Cuomo’s withdrawal before the Democratic primary.
Pataki’s commercials blasted McCall–unfairly–for the failures of the New York City school system, which were mostly the fault of Pataki’s chronic underfunding. Another commercial attacked McCall for favoring the restoration of a tax on suburban commuters who work in New York City. This is a progressive tax, but unpopular in the suburbs. Pataki also attacked McCall for writing letters on his official stationery to companies that do business with his office, to solicit jobs for his daughter and a cousin. This was improper and became a running story for two weeks, stopping his mini-surge and sucking the oxygen out of his campaign. When you are being outspent by 11 to 1, there is no margin for error.
The letters put McCall on the defensive and prevented his case against Pataki from penetrating public awareness. There was a compelling case, but it wasn’t being heard. For example, New York State has a gargantuan budget deficit of between $6 billion and $8 billion. Pataki has been spending reserves and postponing decisions until after the election. Conservatives have been more effective in criticizing Pataki’s fiscal gimmickry and ostrich budgeting than the incumbent comptroller. The Manhattan Institute has pointed out that Pataki increased spending at more than twice the rate of inflation during his second term.
The brutal mistreatment of the mentally ill under Pataki has been documented in a New York Times series that also revealed how campaign donations and political influence protected some facilities with wretched conditions. Pataki somehow developed a reputation as an environmentalist through public relations dexterity, but he refused to support legislation this year to refinance the state’s bankrupt Superfund program to clean up toxic waste sites. He also killed a bill that would have restricted power plant emissions of two deadly pollutants, carbon dioxide and mercury. The Sierra Club has endorsed McCall.