Pataki and Giuliani Fight for New York Dominance in Battle of Alpha Pols

Marcia Kramer, the veteran political reporter for WCBS-TV, was reading from a letter at a press conference in City Hall’s Blue Room on Feb. 8. An upstate Republican leader-an ally of Gov. George Pataki-had fired off a missive to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Ms. Kramer had a copy.

Mr. Mayor, she said, the chairman of the Ulster County Republican Party, Peter Savago, says he’s going to do everything possible to derail your state and national ambitions if you don’t line up behind the Governor.

Mr. Giuliani shrugged. “They’re going to extort me?” the Mayor asked sarcastically. “That always works well …”

Ms. Kramer pressed ahead, reading from the letter.

A tight grin spread across Mr. Giuliani’s face. “It sounds like … somebody who’s sort of lost a little bit of control of themselves. That stuff doesn’t work with me.”

Here, at ground zero of New York’s white-hot political war, Mr. Giuliani was doing his best to play it cool. But for the first time in his five-year tenure, Mr. Giuliani finds himself in direct confrontation with a foe-Mr. Pataki-whose powers are far beyond those of the usual mayoral punching bags: cabbies, wacky protesters, Al Sharpton. Administration officials appear to be on the defensive in the face of a series of assaults from the Governor, who has abruptly shed his image as a genial consensus-builder to launch a series of carefully selected broadsides that seem intended to bruise Mr. Giuliani as he sets out on his quest for higher office.

Some administration officials have tried hard to ignore the bombs falling around City Hall, explaining away the feud as the result of “institutional differences” between the two offices. But allies of both men know what these recent skirmishes are really about: They are the opening forays of a bitter struggle whose outcome will reshape New York’s political landscape and change the ambitious career path of both men.

What’s more, the timing of the fight is no accident-it comes when both men are jockeying to fill the power vacuum left behind by the defeat last November of Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Mr. Pataki is trying to prove that he can control the state Republican Party, which has been wracked by infighting ever since Mr. D’Amato’s loss. Meanwhile, Mr. Giuliani is preparing a run for the Senate-and if he wins, he’ll be in a position to challenge the Governor’s untested dominance.

Mr. Pataki’s response has been to unload on all fronts. His call for a state investigation of the New York City School Construction Authority; his questioning of the city’s financial commitment to the Holocaust museum; his launching of an investigation of the city’s welfare offices-all of these maneuvers, associates of both men whisper, add up to a concerted strategy to contain Mr. Giuliani.

While City Hall in the era of Rudolph Giuliani is a place where back-room plotting wouldn’t seem out of place on Christmas Day, the tea-leaf reading has reached an almost comical level. Aides mutter about the sources of negative stories; anecdotes about who-hates-whom are trotted out to explain the real reason behind arcane policy decisions. And routine visits are parsed for significance: When Mr. D’Amato paid an unexpected call to City Hall one recent morning, insiders wondered whether he had shown up to broker a truce between Mr. Giuliani, his onetime foe, and Mr. Pataki, his onetime protégé.

Many are prepared for, and even relishing, a protracted battle. One close associate of the Mayor let out a guffaw as he told The Observer : “You’re going to see this thing escalate into all-out war. And you’re going to see the Governor lose.”

Pataki administration officials were no less combative. “The attitude emanating from the second floor [the location of the Governor’s office in the State Capitol] is out-and-out warfare,” one official said with an audible snicker. “It’s time to kick butt and take names.”

The Long Factor

Indeed, some of Mr. Pataki’s allies seem to be doing their best to block the Mayor’s ambitions-and his possible threat to the Governor’s control of the state Republican apparatus. For instance, Michael Long, the tough-talking chairman of the small but influential Conservative Party, is said to be shopping around for a senatorial candidate who would run with Conservative endorsement and would challenge Mr. Giuliani in a Republican primary, according to people who have long been involved in Republican and Conservative campaigns.

Mr. Long downplayed that scenario. “We are not putting out a newspaper ad saying we want Senate candidates,” he said. “I’ve made it clear that I haven’t closed the door on anyone.”

Mr. Long conceded, however, that he discussed the Senate race with Representative Rick Lazio of Suffolk County, L.I., a Republican who is regarded as a likely primary challenger to Mr. Giuliani. And he also said that Mr. D’Amato, a longtime foe of Mr. Giuliani, had personally asked him to “keep the door open” for a possible Senate run.

The battle is being played out in public policy as well as in back-room maneuvers. For example, Charles Gargano, Mr. Pataki’s top economic development adviser, opened up a new front in the war, asserting in an interview with The Observer that Mr. Giuliani’s proposal that the city wrest control of Kennedy and La Guardia airports from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has complicated negotiations with the authority’s New Jersey commissioners.

“Whenever we want to get a project built at Kennedy … New Jersey says, ‘Well, why should we spend money at Kennedy if the city wants the airports back?'” Mr. Gargano told The Observer .

Mr. Pataki’s aides have publicly denied that they are searching for primary opponents to run against Mr. Giuliani. But one political associate of Mr. Giuliani insisted that aides to two potential Republican senatorial contenders-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro and Mr. Lazio-told him that close allies of the Governor were urging their respective bosses to run. Top aides to the Mayor are convinced that the Governor’s operatives are actively searching for a candidate to oppose Mr. Giuliani-a development that, if nothing else, speaks to the heightened level of suspicion that has gripped City Hall.

What’s more, the political shrewdness of Mr. Pataki’s attacks has not been lost on Mr. Giuliani’s aides. Mr. Pataki’s hints of Tammany-like corruption in the School Construction Authority seem designed to undercut Mr. Giuliani’s reputation as a reformer and a prosecutor. And it challenges the Mayor on an issue dear to upstate voters: public education.

But Mr. Giuliani is preparing his own challenges to Mr. Pataki. He’s planning a major upstate swing in coming months as part of his unofficial Senate campaign, and he’ll be trying to win over upstate Republican leaders and elected officials who control local get-out-the-vote efforts and also hold the key to Mr. Pataki’s grip on state politics.

“Rudy traveling around [the state] diminishes Pataki,” gloated one political associate of the Mayor. “It takes the limelight away from him.”

Mr. Pataki certainly has the power to demand that party leaders across the state back a primary challenger to Mr. Giuliani. And some leaders clearly would be eager to do so. “[Mr. Giuliani] is a very good Mayor, but he’s a bad Republican,” said one Republican county leader. “He needs Pataki more than he thinks.”

Yet such talk could play into Mr. Giuliani’s hands. Mr. Giuliani has never been much of a party pol-and without the full support of the party apparatus, a primary could shape up into a battle between a maverick (Mr. Giuliani) and a machine (Mr. Pataki’s forces). That’s a comfortable role for Mr. Giuliani, who likes to portray himself as the outsider storming the ramparts of the establishment.

Competing for Donors

Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to broaden his fund-raising base beyond the five boroughs could threaten Mr. Pataki’s efforts to raise money, which he’ll need to buy goodwill from Republicans across the state and the country in his quest for national office. “Rudy will be tapping the same donor base” as Mr. Pataki, said Mr. Giuliani’s political associate.

And if Mr. Giuliani emerges as the front-runner for the Senate next year, it could complicate Mr. Pataki’s national ambitions. With a strong Senatorial candidate in New York next year, Republicans would feel less pressure to nominate a moderate Northeasterner for their national ticket.

“If [Mr. Giuliani] is likely to be Senator, what’s the likelihood of the Republican National Convention, which is run by right-wing Bible-thumpers, going with Pataki [for Vice President]?” scoffed one longtime political operative. “Why would they waste the bottom of their ticket when [Mr. Giuliani] can already pull the votes for New York? They’ll look for someone from the West. So Pataki has to stop Giuliani in a primary.”

Some of Mr. Pataki’s aides clearly agree. In fact, many observers say that the feud between the two is fueled by a political culture clash between members of both men’s inner circle. Top Republicans told the New York Post on Feb. 8 that they believed the anti-Giuliani attacks were the handiwork of Zenia Mucha, the Governor’s powerful communications director.

Ms. Mucha, along with the Governor’s top advisers Arthur Finkelstein and Kieran Mahoney, are all staunch D’Amato loyalists. And they remember well that Mr. Giuliani’s aggressive campaigning against Mr. Pataki in 1994 was a direct challenge to Mr. D’Amato.

And few dedicated tea-leaf readers failed to see the significance of Mr. Giuliani’s recent appointment of Bruce Teitelbaum-who in 1994 worked on Mr. Cuomo’s campaign-to head his political operation.

In the end, the fight between the two Republicans offers a fascinating test of the powers and limitations of their two offices. The city may be a creature of the state, but Mr. Giuliani has nonetheless been masterful at using his power to frustrate state officials, who charge that he has dragged his feet on a number of big projects dear to Mr. Pataki.

But there’s no question that Mr. Pataki could easily use the powers of state government to make life extremely miserable for Mr. Giuliani if their relationship continues to deteriorate.

“George Pataki can investigate every action, every agency, every policy, every function, every act of the Mayor,” noted one seasoned political operative. “And the Mayor can’t do anything to the Governor. The Governor has a tremendous sword of Damocles hanging over Giuliani in the city.