Governor Gets His Boy In Giuliani’s Wake

Back in August, not long after Governor George Pataki said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani “had earned the right” to run for Senate and asked Representative Rick Lazio to put his own ambitions aside, friends of the Governor ruminated darkly on the scenario.

“He had to do it, he just had to,” said one of those friends. “But he knows if Rudy wins, it’s very bad news for him.” Because if Mr. Giuliani won the Senate seat, the thinking went, he would create a new center of power within the state G.O.P., beyond Mr. Pataki’s control. “It could be his ruination, and he’s helpless to stop it,” the friend sighed.

The Governor was said to be having sleepless nights, stuffing his lean frame with cookies and watching the History Channel into the wee hours. Another adviser put it more prosaically. “He’s screwed if [Mr. Giuliani] wins, and he’s screwed if [Hillary Clinton] wins.”

Suddenly, there is no need for expletives, for post-midnight brooding, for cookies. Quite the opposite.

“He’s king of the hill, once again,” said Republican strategist Roger Stone. “The Governor’s authority in the party is unchallenged. He was forced to take on a nominee he didn’t want because Mr. Giuliani was so strong. Now he has a candidate he’s much more comfortable with.”

“Governor Pataki is clearly in control,” agreed political scientist Gerald Benjamin, a dean at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “He kept a candidate out when he wanted him out and embraced him and brought him in when he wanted him in. Now, if Mr. Lazio wins the seat, it will be quite a demonstration.”

Mr. Lazio has always been the preferred candidate of Mr. Pataki and former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato. “They’ve been very helpful,” Mr. Lazio said early last August of their role-before Governor Pataki asked him to step aside.

Indeed. As a member of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, Mr. Lazio has no trouble raising money from the kind of banking interests that had once supported Mr. D’Amato when he was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And the overlap between Mr. D’Amato’s financial backers and Mr. Lazio’s financial backers is substantial.

More than $650,000 of Mr. Lazio’s $3.5 million war chest comes from the real estate and financial sector, the very sector that kept Mr. D’Amato flush with funds, according to a recent analysis by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Mr. D’Amato clearly was interested in keeping Mr. Lazio’s Senate candidacy alive last summer, even when it became clear that the better known Mr. Giuliani was preparing for the race. Mr. D’Amato “could have put the kibosh on that money going over to Lazio,” one Republican fund-raiser asserted. But he didn’t.

Then came Black Friday, the sultry August afternoon when Mr. Pataki abruptly threw his support behind Mr. Giuliani. An agonized Mr. Lazio suspended his race. But every few months or so, Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, a close Pataki ally, would blow a bubble of attention around Mr. Lazio.

Mr. Lazio continued to agonize. Here was a man who clearly felt his time was passing him by. Referring to Mr. Pataki, state Republican chairman William Powers and State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, Mr. Lazio said, somewhat bitterly, in mid-March: “I could do it if just one of them supported me.” Mr. Pataki was publicly for Mr. Giuliani, but he wouldn’t kill Mr. Lazio outright.

Meanwhile, a faction close to the Governor continued to doubt that Mr. Giuliani would stay in the race, even before Mr. Giuliani’s health and marital troubles surfaced. They didn’t trust the Mayor, going back to 1994, when Mr. Giuliani endorsed Mario Cuomo over Mr. Pataki in that year’s gubernatorial election. “He just stabs you in the back every time,” moaned one Pataki adviser.

Preparing For Change

By early May, when a Giuliani withdrawal seemed a real possibility, Mr. Pataki gathered a sampling of opinion from his brain trust. Over the weekend of May 13 and 14, Mr. Pataki and Mr. Powers both placed calls to Mr. Giuliani and urged him to stay in the race. And the Governor said publicly: “I’m not running, and I hope Mr. Giuliani will be the candidate.”

If, however, Mr. Giuliani dropped out, Mr. Pataki and his aides agreed that Mr. Lazio would be their chosen candidate. As early as May 14, five days before Mr. Giuliani withdrew, Mr. D’Amato was talking up Mr. Lazio’s candidacy in The Washington Post.

As the week went on, and Mr. Giuliani stayed in the race, G.O.P. operatives began to believe the Mayor would be the candidate after all. Aides flown in from Washington to help out the supposedly nonexistent Lazio campaign began to make plans to go home. Still, contingency measures were in place.

Late in the morning on May 19, Mr. Pataki got a call from Mr. Giuliani. The Mayor told the Governor he was withdrawing from the race. The Governor’s office remained quiet all afternoon. But within an hour of the Mayor’s announcement, Mr. Pataki put out a statement of support tinged with regret.

Out of respect, perhaps, the Governor still wasn’t talking up Mr. Lazio’s campaign. But the decision already had been made.

“Lazio’s going to be the candidate,” Kieran Mahoney, the Governor’s political strategist, told The Observer within hours of Mr. Giuliani’s announcement. Was there any possibility it could be someone else? “Nope. Zero. None. Everybody who is anybody in the state Republican Party is behind him,” Mr. Mahoney said.

At 8 p.m. on that busy Friday, Mr. Pataki told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer exactly what would happen next. “My view is Rick Lazio has earned the nomination and earned the right to be our next Senator,” the state’s top Republican said. “He’s got an outstanding record in Washington. He’s been a fine Congressman. And he did the right thing in stepping aside for Mayor Giuliani.”

An hour later, Mr. Pataki was on Larry King Live saying much the same thing-that Mr. Lazio would be the candidate, not him. “You have to not just want the contest,” he told Mr. King, tellingly. “You have to want the job. And I prefer to be Governor.” All told, the Governor did five national talk shows supporting Mr. Lazio’s candidacy over the weekend, more, it seemed, than he’d done for Mr. Giuliani in the last six months.

And that wasn’t all. Mr. Lazio’s quickly organized kickoff tour was orchestrated with the Governor’s assistance. “Those guys know the state better than any of us,” said Lazio campaign spokesman Bryan Flood of Governor Pataki and his staff. “They were very helpful in providing advice on where to go, who to call.” The help started at the top, Mr. Flood said, though he wouldn’t name any names, and went down to the level of the Governor’s advance staff-the people who figure out prosaic but critical things like room capacity, site lines and how to get from point A to point B without falling on one’s face or being late for a key interview.

Riding the News Cycle

“Pataki was able to rally the party overnight and help Lazio get off to a stunning start,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “What Pataki and Powers did so brilliantly is they moved within one news cycle. They didn’t let the candidate void linger.”

By the afternoon of May 20, less than 24 hours after Mr. Giuliani’s withdrawal, Mr. Lazio was announcing his candidacy at a West Islip High School. Representative Peter King, who also had said he would be a candidate, saw the writing on the wall and changed his mind. Members of the state Conservative Party, particularly Mr. Long, quickly rallied behind the Republicans.

“They just did all the right things,” marveled one Republican strategist. “They even went to Elmira, which is an often overlooked media market.”

There is, of course, one cloud on the horizon for Mr. Pataki-the possibility of a Giuliani gubernatorial race in 2002, when the Governor would be eligible to run for a third term. Many Republicans, stung by Mr. Giuliani’s actions in the last month, believe the Mayor has his eyes on Albany.

But there couldn’t have been a happier, more optimistic man than Governor Pataki at an airport rally in Albany on May 22. He told a roaring crowd that he needed Mr. Lazio in the Senate to further his agenda in Albany. “We want Rick Lazio in the Senate because we want a senator of the people of New York, by the people of New York, and for the people of New York,” he said, promising to work his heart out for the Long Islander.

A victory, of course, would make his stunning consolidation of power complete.