At Large

The People’s Pataki

You know it's a Republican night when a GOP candidate wins overwhelmingly in New York.

By 11.5.02

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It was all over before it had even begun. Everyone knew George Pataki would be re-elected as New York's governor, and he was. Any number of disparate politicians had hopped on his putatively Republican bandwagon. Indeed they were all around him when he gave his victory speech at the New York Hilton at 11:15 on election night: Hugh Carey, Ed Koch and other prominent Democrats, not to mention many old lefties, as well as Mike Long, the head of the Conservative Party. "Thank you, thank you, New York State," Pataki said when he spoke. "We have had a great victory tonight." Later he broke into Spanish, and thanked his Hispanic supporters. Then he called Carl McCall, his Democratic opponent, "a decent man, who has made a tremendous contribution to this state." Pataki, in fact, turned in a very graceful performance.

Pataki had spent the last weeks of the campaign on a pre-election victory lap around the state, and why not? On the eve of the election the respected Marist College poll showed him leading McCall among likely voters, 47 percent to 27 percent, with 19 percent for Golisano. The equally respected Quinnipiac poll had a similar finding: 45 percent for Pataki, 29 percent for McCall, and 14 percent for Tom Golisano, the whimsical, and wealthy, candidate for the Independence Party.

The burning question last weekend was whether Golisano would pack it in, which the Democrats wanted him to do. It seemed he was siphoning off votes from McCall. Consequently Golisano announced on Saturday that he would tell everyone on Sunday whether he was in or out, and why.

And so he did, at 6:28 P.M., in a two-minute television commercial in which he affirmed his commitment to high principle, and then said, "I have been, and still am, a candidate for governor." Roger Stone, Golisano's chief strategist, solemnly denied that the whole exercise had been a publicity stunt, but no one believed him, and in fact the escapade was perfectly in keeping with the New York gubernatorial campaign. Up was down, black was white, and the pols and their people turned things inside out.

You saw that during the campaign, when Pataki turned up with his new best friend Rudy Giuliani at his side. Giuliani endorsed Mario Cuomo when Pataki first ran for governor, and neither has had much use for the other ever since. But during the campaign Giuliani praised Pataki for his performance after 9/11, even though it was never quite clear what Pataki had done, other than looking solemn in photo ops.

Meanwhile, Pataki, a one-time protégé of Al D'Amato, also was endorsed by the Conservative Party, and indeed when he first ran for governor, and beat Cuomo, Pataki did make conservative noises. But the Conservative Party in New York is conservative now in name only, and in endorsing Pataki this time it did so in company with organized labor, as well as gay rights, environmental and Hispanic groups, and even the New York Times.

Pataki, in fact, has managed to be all things to all men, and often he's done it with taxpayers' money. New York now faces a huge shortfall in revenue -- some $8 or $10 billion -- and Pataki helped bring the shortfall about. The United Federation of Teachers, for example, got $400 million in borrowed money for its new contract, while the Public Employees Federation got three extra sick days and a promise that none of its members would be laid off. The hotel workers got a promise that the proposed state casinos would all be unionized. Other unions, especially Local 1199, the powerful health-care workers, also did well.

And when Dennis Rivera, the health-care workers union chief, asked Pataki to intervene with President Bush and urge him to end the Navy bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, Pataki happily complied. Rivera later held a "Thank You, Governor Pataki" rally at union headquarters.

So McCall never had a chance, and indeed the Democratic National Committee wrote him off weeks ago. At the same time, Golisano was only a sideshow, just another billionaire with time on his hands, and an over-inflated ego. Despite his dreary showing on election day, however, he insisted that he still had things to say. In another four years, he promised, he would run for governor again.

And, for that matter, an excited CBS-TV reporter said that "the big question tonight is whether George Pataki will seek another term." It wasn't the big question at all, of course, and it may be she just wanted to get on the bandwagon.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.