Environmental Elite Squabble Over Pataki; Linda Davidoff Quits

The light from Alex and Marine Zagoreos’ Gramercy Park mansion cascaded over the balustrade and onto the street. Inside, the crème de la environmental crème raised their glasses to toast their electoral success: the ouster of Senator Alfonse D’Amato and the re-election of Gov. George Pataki.

As tables in all three of the house’s parlors groaned under stacks of smoked salmon and boiled shrimp, Linda Stone Davidoff, then-executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, swept from major donor to major donor, her blue eyes sparkling under a cap of salt-and-pepper hair.

She couldn’t have been more gracious. You would have never guessed, on this triumphant night in November, that just a few weeks before Ms. Davidoff had practically come to blows with the League’s board over a proposed advertising campaign. It was supposed to feature Laurance Rockefeller and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., members of the League’s board, urging voters to split their tickets between Mr. Pataki and then-Senate candidate Charles Schumer, who was challenging Mr. Pataki’s Republican running mate, Mr. D’Amato. But after frantic Pataki campaign officials intervened, the ads never ran.

Now, the blue-chip environmental organization is looking to replace Ms. Davidoff, who resigned as executive director after the aborted ad campaign. Three staff members followed suit. And questions linger about the propriety of communications between Pataki aide Bradford Race and League board members about the contents of an ostensibly independent advertising campaign.

Ms. Davidoff would not discuss the reasons for her departure, which took effect several weeks ago. “I am not able to discuss anything about how or why I left,” she said. Paul Elston, the League’s chairman, conceded that “Linda and I had some differences,” adding that “our desire is to be respectful, not to air them publicly. She was a board member before she was executive director. She did a good job for us.” Ms. Davidoff lasted barely a year. The previous director, Tensie Whelan, had remained for five years.

Publicly, board members put on a brave face. “It’s all resolved,” Mr. Rockefeller told The Observer . Privately, though, tensions linger. “I feel bad,” said one board member. “I think it is very bad institutionally. We would like to have a long institutional life, not a one-man-show-type thing. This is not a good way to run an organization.”

Mr. Pataki’s relations with the League, one of the most prestigious environmental organizations in the country, have been exceptionally cordial since he supported a huge environmental bond referendum in 1996, and tapped Mr. Elston to serve as a co-chair of a committee organized to help win voter approval.

“Pataki came and reached out to us,” recalled one board member. “That led to a very close relationship that didn’t exist previously.” Millions of dollars were spent to promote the bond act. And on Election Night, 1996, Pataki aide Michael Finnegan and Mr. Elston monitored the election results at a restaurant on West 48th Street. Mr. Rockefeller was there. Mr. Kennedy brought his wife and twin daughters. All nervously hovered around the buffet. Bond acts often lose. But this one turned out to be a big winner.

In the next two years, to the delight of environmentalists, the Governor barnstormed the state, announcing new spending programs with the borrowed money. Mr. Elston was appointed to several Pataki committees on the environment. So it was no surprise that the League endorsed the Governor for re-election last year–even before the identity of his Democratic challenger was known.

Ms. Davidoff was hired early last year, having earned a reputation as a die-hard Democrat. Ms. Davidoff ran Elizabeth Holtzman’s U.S. Senate campaign against Mr. D’Amato in 1980. She served variously at the Planned Parent Federation of America and the Parks Council before quitting in 1996 to run Ruth Messinger’s campaign for Mayor. But the campaign was hardly under way when the two parted ways, and Ms. Davidoff went to hike 1,200 miles of the Appalachian trail with a 47-pound pack on her back.

A Political Lovefest

Last Sept. 11, dozens of environmentalists gathered at a lower Manhattan pier on the Hudson River to sing Mr. Pataki’s praises. They singled out the bond act, land acquisition and the Governor’s commitment to cleaning up the Hudson. When he finally spoke–45 minutes into the event–the Governor said little of substance.

But after the press conference, The Observer tapped the Governor’s elbow.

“Governor,” he was asked, “the group that so warmly endorsed you today has set its sights on your running mate, Al D’Amato. Is that going to be a problem for you?”

Mr. Pataki shrugged it off. “I’m just very pleased to have the endorsement of the League,” he said. “I’ve made protection of the environment one of my priorities not just in government but since I was a little kid. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’m very proud and thankful for the endorsement, and look forward to having the opportunity to continue to work with the League on environmental issues.”

A month later, the Governor’s aides were no longer shrugging. Ms. Davidoff had come up with an idea to have Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Kennedy deliver a joint message extolling Mr. Pataki and comparing him favorably to his Republican running mate and onetime mentor, Mr. D’Amato.

“The League likes to show that it is bipartisan,” said a board member. “This was a perfect opportunity.”

The League’s board approved the ad campaign by a comfortable majority on Oct. 20. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Rockefeller taped advertisements, made by media man Marc Breslav of upstate Cold Spring. Ads were booked with

radio stations.

Around this time, the Pataki campaign was planning a final swing through the state with Mr. D’Amato, who was badly sagging. So when Mr. Race, Governor Pataki’s secretary (a position roughly equivalent to chief of staff), got wind of the ad campaign, he began making calls.

“The argument was, the Governor did not like being linked in this commercial to Schumer,” said Mr. Rockefeller, one of the board members who got a call. “I can understand the Governor’s feeling about it at the time. He was trying to be loyal to D’Amato, and I was trying to be loyal to the Republican Party and to the environment.”

“They said to us, as a friendly statement, that the Governor would prefer his name not be used as a stick in D’Amato’s eye,” Mr. Elston added. That the Pataki campaign would worry about a radio ad campaign that cost tens of thousands of dollars in a race where spending hit $40 million shows how worried the campaign was about Mr. D’Amato. Under Federal election rules, campaigns are not supposed to have contact with independent advocacy groups about expenditures, said Ian Stern, spokesman for the Federal Election Commission. “They may not then be considered independent expenditures.”

Mr. Race did not respond to an Observer query. Mike McKeon, Mr. Pataki’s press secretary, would say only: “What’s the point? It’s all ancient history at this point.”

Eventually, Mr. Elston succumbed. As several board members recall it, he pulled the ad. “That’s overly dramatizing things,” Mr. Elston protested. “I talked to the Governor’s campaign people about every other day … I didn’t view it as a Pataki ad, I viewed it as a Schumer ad.”

Idealist vs. Pragmatist

On Oct. 26, the board met again. Ms. Davidoff argued passionately for the ad campaign. Mr. Elston argued against it. While some raised concerns about the League’s independence, the chief battle was between Ms. Davidoff and Mr. Elston. “He’s a pragmatist,” said one board member. “She’s an idealist.”

Tempers ran hot. At the end of the meeting, the board again voted, this time by just one vote, to run the ads. But then Mr. Rockefeller decided to withdraw from the campaign. He said he would spend $95,000 of his own money to run his own ads, and so the League decided to run ads that featured Mr. Kennedy’s endorsement of Mr. Schumer. The League spent $12,400 on the Kennedy ads.

After the Oct. 26 board meeting, Mr. Rockefeller’s media man, John Deardourff, cut new commercials that had Mr. Rockefeller not only endorsing Mr. Pataki but paying homage to the Governor’s hero and to Mr. Rockefeller’s uncle: “Not since Teddy Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller have New Yorkers had a Governor who has worked so hard to protect the environment,” he said. “What a contrast with Senator D’Amato, who has one of the worst voting records on the environment in the entire Senate.” The tag: “Paid for independently by Larry Rockefeller and not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee.”

Several other board members told The Observer that they were satisfied with the outcome. But Ms. Davidoff clearly wasn’t. She left just as Mr. Pataki and Mr. Schumer were being sworn in.