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.
McCall’s weak candidacy has confounded many experts, because Democrats have won the last three statewide elections. In 1998 Charles Schumer defeated incumbent Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato even though he was outspent. The same year, Democrat Eliot Spitzer defeated incumbent Attorney General Dennis Vacco. Both Schumer and Spitzer ran much stronger upstate than Democrats usually do. Then, in 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the callow Republican Rick Lazio for the open Senate seat vacated by Pat Moynihan.
So the historical winds favored McCall at the start. But Pataki, a cunning politician, made inroads into McCall’s base. Liberal unions like healthcare workers and teachers endorsed Pataki after receiving favorable contracts. Prominent Democrats like former Governor Hugh Carey, former New York Mayor Ed Koch and Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings also endorsed him. As of October 8 Pataki had $12 million in the bank for the stretch run, while McCall had just $1.1 million. The apparent inevitability of defeat was making fundraising much more difficult for McCall.
But none of Pataki’s campaign successes alter the fact that he has done nothing as governor in many essential areas. Getting back to this year’s legislative session–which defined the word entropy–Pataki killed a bill raising the minimum wage to $6.75 after it had passed the Assembly overwhelmingly. All Pataki did was pass the word to his fellow Republicans in the upper house not to let the bill come to a vote on the floor. The Democrats also passed a bill extending unemployment benefits for thirteen extra weeks. Even fourteen Republicans in the State Senate said they supported this emergency measure, since the upstate economy is almost in a depression, while tens of thousands of New York City residents have exhausted their jobless benefits. Many of these are low-wage workers who lost jobs in restaurants and hotels as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. But Pataki quietly killed this humane relief measure. The AFL-CIO pushed for the first increase in ten years in workers’ compensation benefits. But Pataki did nothing, and the bill died quietly in committee.
Pataki said many times he wanted to reform the rigid and punitive Rockefeller drug laws, but no significant reform has been passed. He said he wanted to pass a law prohibiting discrimination against gays in employment and housing. He did nothing here either. Restrict smoking in restaurants? More than forty of sixty-one state senators favored this public health bill, as did about 70 percent of the public, and it was sponsored in the Senate by a suburban Republican. But it died without coming to a vote. Pataki just passed the word; it expired without fingerprints or autopsy. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry spent more than $600,000 in Albany on lobbyists, campaign contributions and “donations” to the restaurant owners’ association, which fronted the opposition in order to mask the tobacco companies’ involvement. (The Tobacco Institute gave the association more than $400,000 in 1995.)
Pataki did abandon his passivity in one realm, and it may be the single worst thing he has done as governor. He chose to appeal a judge’s ruling in a school equity lawsuit that would have ended years of state shortchanging of New York City schoolchildren on education funding while favoring wealthy white suburban districts. If Pataki had done his usual nothing in this instance, the city’s schools would have gained millions in new funding commensurate with the number of their students.
The trial court decision, by State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse, ruled that New York State had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to give all city students “a sound, basic education.” After Pataki’s appeal, an appellate panel decided that a “sound basic education” meant only an eighth-grade education. In this economy, an eighth-grade education is a one-way ticket to a lifetime of minimum-wage jobs for a 85-percent-minority school population. When this appellate decision was announced in June, Pataki told reporters he was “pleased.”
In somewhat typical fashion, Pataki attempted to create the impression that he was willing to do something about some of these issues late in the campaign. On October 22 the Senate GOP leader announced that the chamber would vote on a gay-rights bill in December, along with other legislation. The McCall campaign dismissed this as a cynical ploy.
The wild card in the election is upstate billionaire Tom Golisano, who plans to spend $70 million in TV ads for his independent candidacy. Golisano is now getting almost 20 percent of the vote. And he has been much more forceful than McCall in attacking Pataki, especially on a scandal that involved trading prison paroles for campaign contributions.
If McCall should lose, the New York Democrats will face some serious but surmountable obstacles. Luckily, they have several years to regroup. Clinton’s Senate seat will be up in 2006, as will the governor’s office. What New York’s Democrats need most is an economic message that unifies the poor and the middle class, which was how Schumer, Spitzer and Clinton got elected. Democrats also have to be more sensitive and creative in addressing the alienation felt by Latino voters as a result of racial attacks directed against Fernando Ferrer that appealed to fear during last year’s New York City mayoral runoff. As a result of the backlash against those attacks, Republican Mike Bloomberg got half the Latino vote against Democrat Mark Green. And some polls have Pataki getting more than 40 percent of the Latino vote against McCall. Polls show McCall getting 90 percent of the black vote, but the question is how big the black turnout will be. Since McCall, who is African-American, has won several statewide contests, it’s hard to gauge the relevance of racism in this election. New York Democrats also need to develop some young thoroughbred candidates for the future. They need to do this quickly, because that counterfeit American idol, Rudy Giuliani, is now a plane without an airport, circling any public office he thinks he can land on.