Pataki Pulled Back From Senate Race, Say G.O.P. Sources

Hillary Clinton, meet the man you nearly had to face in next year’s New York Senate race: Gov. George Pataki.

Just when you thought that nothing more could be said about the Governor’s “major political announcement” on May 24-when he became the 17th governor among Republicans to endorse George W. Bush for President-comes word that Mr. Pataki was indeed considering a run for the U.S. Senate up to the very last minute.

The Observer has learned that the Governor was sounding out associates about the possibility of a Senate campaign as late as May 21, three days before the Bush endorsement announcement. “It is safe to assume [Mr. Pataki] gave it very serious consideration,” said a source familiar with the Governor’s thinking. “Instead of futzing around with [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver, he could go to Washington and be thinking about global issues.”

It turns out that a well-circulated story about balloons being ordered and then canceled for the event wasn’t just a rumor meant to enrage Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Governor’s nemesis who is considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination to face Mrs. Clinton next year. Apparently, it was the subject of top-level discussions in the week leading up to the endorsement of Mr. Bush.

But Michael McKeon, a spokesman for the Governor, called suggestions that Mr. Pataki was considering a Senate announcement “way, way, way off base.” He added, “The Governor had a clear idea of what he was going to announce, and [the Senate option] was not something he was going to announce.”

One of Mr. Pataki’s law-school confidants, Michael Kramer, editor of the Daily News ‘ Sunday Op-Ed page, wrote about the possibility of a Pataki-for-Senate campaign on May 23, the day before the announcement. As it turns out, the column did not come out of thin air. Mr. Kramer said he spoke with the Governor “just briefly” about a possible Senate campaign just days before writing the column, and “people around [the Governor]” indicated it was a genuine possibility. Another source said the Governor mentioned the Senate race to him on May 21, but seemed to be leaning against it because it would require him to spend too much time away from his four children.

When politicians announce that they wish to spend more time with their families, it’s generally a sign that they’re just one step ahead of law enforcement authorities. But in Mr. Pataki’s case, it rings true. The Governor does like to spend time with his family. In four and half years, he has spent barely a night in the Governor’s mansion in Albany, preferring instead to return home to his mansion in upstate Garrison under whose eaves are housed wife Libby, sons Teddy and Owen and daughter Allison. A fourth child, Emily, attends Mr. Pataki’s alma mater, Yale University.

Mr. Pataki’s uncertainty explains why even high-level aides to Mr. Bush weren’t sure what Mr. Pataki was going to say in the days leading to the announcement. Mr. Pataki’s aides, said one Bush campaign aide, “were careful about not revealing much.”

That’s a peculiar way of doing business if all you’re discussing is a mere endorsement. During Mr. Pataki’s re-election campaign last year, for example, top-level operatives set up endorsement announcements months in advance, and scheduled them to coincide with the campaign’s trajectory and its message of the moment.

Why Would He Leave?

Unanswered in all of this is a simple question: Why? Why would the Governor want to leave his job for the Senate? Doesn’t he have a better job now? Isn’t he in control of a vast patronage empire, with literally billions in contracts to hand out? Right now, he’s one of one. Why would he want to be one of 100, the junior Senator of New York? And unlike his cohort across the Hudson, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, he isn’t bound by term limits.

Well, the opportunity to run for an open Senate seat comes once in a political lifetime, said another well-placed source, who noted that a Senate campaign would have allowed Mr. Pataki to expound on topics far and wide and, no doubt, a bit more interesting than the standard legislative fare in Albany. The Governor, in fact, attempted to broaden his horizons on April 28, when he traveled to Georgetown University to deliver a tepidly received “major foreign policy address.” Was it a test run for a possible Senate campaign? Apparently, it might have been.

There were other indications that something was up besides a standard endorsement press conference. William Powers, the chairman of the state Republican Party, and former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato, said Mr. Pataki had “wrestled” with the decision. Why would a politician “wrestle” with a decision to be the 17th in line to endorse the putative front-runner for President? The answer: You don’t. You “wrestle” when you’re closing off options for yourself.

But there was more than internal wrestling going on. There was considerable sparring within Mr. Pataki’s inner circle over discussions of Mr. Pataki’s future, with much of the tension surrounding Kieran Mahoney, the Pataki adviser who strayed to work for Republican Presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole. The decision caused consternation in the Pataki camp; political consultant Arthur Finkelstein reportedly expressed concern to Pataki advisers that Mr. Mahoney would have a potential conflict of interest in advising both Mr. Pataki and Mrs. Dole. That conflict did emerge, according to three national Republican Party sources, when Mr. Mahoney argued in a meeting before the “major political announcement” that Mr. Pataki should run for President as New York’s “favorite son.” Two additional sources familiar with New York politics said Mr. Mahoney argued against the Senate scenario.

In fact, Mr. Mahoney had bragged inside the Dole campaign that he could “deliver” Mr. Pataki as the favorite son, sources familiar with that campaign told The Observer . By essentially keeping the New York Republican delegation neutral, Mr. Pataki would be helping Mrs. Dole slow down the momentum that Mr. Bush has gathered in recent months. But Mr. Mahoney’s inability to keep Mr. Pataki neutral reportedly led to his departure from the Dole campaign May 21.

Officially, of course, the Pataki favorite-son scenario “was never talked about in [Dole] campaign headquarters,” said Mrs. Dole’s spokesman Ari Fleischer. “[Mr. Mahoney] left for family reasons. He is a good man and we’re going to miss him.”

Still, Mr. Mahoney did get his wish, sort of: Mr. Pataki did not announce a run for Senate. Another reported opponent of the Senate scenario, Joseph Mondello, the Republican Party’s leader in Nassau County, confirmed he attended an inner circle meeting before the “major political announcement,” but he said through a spokesman, “It was a private meeting. He wishes what was discussed there to remain private.”

So in the end, despite Mr. Kramer’s published warnings that Mr. Pataki’s next chance to run for President might be in 2008-and it’s hard to believe Mr. Pataki will still be Governor then-Mr. Pataki decided to stay in his current job, close to Garrison, hoping for the Vice President-to-President scenario.

So it was that Mr. Pataki appeared on the stage at the Sheraton New York on May 24, surrounded by wife and supporters. The cheers, the hoopla, the political reporters from across the Empire State, gave the event the feel of a major political announcement.

Except, of course, there were no balloons.