The Pataki Perplex: Why Did Governor Float a Third Term?

There was Governor George Pataki, on the CBS show Face the Nation , coming to the defense

of George W. Bush. And there Mr. Pataki was again, on The Early Show . And again, mixing it up with Senator Barbara Boxer

of California, on CNN’s Larry King Live .

Surely our Governor

was in Florida angling for something in case Mr. Bush prevails. Commerce

Secretary? Interior Secretary? Head of the Environmental Protection Agency?

After all, everyone knows he’s bored with his job, and in the wake of Hillary

Clinton’s romp over Rick Lazio, he’s looking for a graceful way out .

Not so fast! On Nov. 30, Mr. Pataki’s senior advisor Zenia

Mucha picked up the phone and called the Associated Press’ Marc Humbert, the

dean of the New York State political press corps.

“The Governor is intending to seek a third term,” Ms. Mucha

said. “The Democrats would love for him not to, because they would love to

recapture the Governor’s mansion. They’re not going to.”

Shortly after the story hit the wires early that afternoon,

Ms. Mucha confirmed its contents for The

Observer , though in considerably saltier language that she asked not be

used. (“Crapola” was one of the milder expressions she employed.)

Ms. Mucha’s comments moved on the wire in plenty of time for

radio and television evening drive time, and for the papers the next day to

give it prominence. New Yorkers, if they’d given it any thought at all, were

reassured that Mr. Pataki was, indeed, running for re-election in 2002.

All of this could mean any of the following things:

1) The Governor is definitely running for re-election;

2) The Governor is definitely not running for re-election,

but doesn’t want anyone to think he’s out of play;

3) The Governor is definitely angling for a cabinet post.

Now let’s take a look at these possibilities, in reverse

order.

The Governor is definitely angling for a cabinet

post . “The Governor’s office is

a much more logical place to seek the Presidency from,” said SUNY New Paltz

political scientist Gerald Benjamin. “But in the past, second-term Governors

have gotten into trouble in New York, and there’s an uncertain national

economic environment which is sure to affect New York State. There’s a good

argument for going out on top.”

And so it was, Ms. Mucha insisted, that Mr. Pataki found

himself on a long-planned family vacation in Florida-curiously for a family

man, this came a week after the Thanksgiving break. As long as he was in the

neighborhood, Mr. Pataki volunteered to help Mr. Bush as a talk-show surrogate.

By acquitting himself well, the argument goes, Mr. Pataki raised his profile as

a possible appointee.

Well, maybe. It’s not at all clear that Mr. Pataki had to go

to Florida to get himself on any cabinet lists.

Though Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush did attend Yale University at

roughly the same time, they didn’t know each other there, as both have

confirmed to The Observer . But they

have become increasingly friendly since both were elected governor of their respective

states in 1994 and were so close by July that Mr. Pataki made Mr. Bush’s short

list for Vice President. Afterward, Mr. Pataki proved a loyal campaigner,

stumping in Florida and California and attending some of the debates as a

post-debate spinner.

“They’ve become good friends,” said a Pataki confidant.

“George Pataki is an incredibly dedicated friend. If you ask him to do

something, he will. Simple as that.”

All right, then, let’s agree that Mr. Pataki was just being

a good friend. But doesn’t he want a cabinet post? What about all the stories

that he’s bored with his job as Governor? Though that’s become conventional

wisdom, it’s generally not supported by evidence. Aides insist he’s just a

“normal person” who likes to return home to his wife and family after a day’s

work.

And if he did leave, what then? The lieutenant governor, in

case you’ve forgotten, is Mary Donohue. The former judge-the anti–Betsy

McCaughey Ross-is so studiously un-flamboyant that for her first appearance at

a State of the State address, she wore a gray frock that perfectly matched the

uniforms of the New York State troopers guarding the Governor. Her Web site

shows a sparse list of press releases, and her public schedule (if it exists)

tends toward events like Christmas-tree lightings.

Plucked from obscurity,

Ms. Donohue has worked hard to remain obscure, aside from the occasional

political appearance where, you are reminded, Ms. Donohue is a woman.

Though an extremely

loyal Republican-Ms. Donohue’s first political job was as an aide to State

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and she is close to state G.O.P. chairman

William Powers-she has never had an opportunity to build a political base.

So is there a scenario in which Mr. Pataki vacates his seat,

goes to Washington and is succeeded by his little-known lieutenant?

“I would be stunned,” a top Pataki advisor said.

The Governor is

definitely not running for re-election, but doesn’t want anyone to think he’s

out of play .

This is the Democratic spin on Ms. Mucha’s statement.

“Were I he, I would probably say the same thing now

regardless,” said David Axelrod, media man for State Comptroller H. Carl

McCall, a likely 2002 gubernatorial candidate. “I don’t think you want to

relegate yourself to lame-duck status any earlier than you need to. And on the

assumption that [New York City Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani is waiting in the wings,

they want to give him as little time as possible to prepare.” For those of you

who haven’t been keeping score at home, Mr. Pataki is not a great fan of the Mayor.

An adviser to the other

Democrat who wants Mr. Pataki’s job, U.S. Housing and Urban Development

Secretary Andrew Cuomo, agreed with Mr. Axelrod’s statement-and the Cuomo and

McCall camps agree about as often these days as the Montagues and the Capulets.

Said John Marino, the former state Democratic Party chair, “If somebody says

‘I’m going to do this for two terms'”-as Mr. Pataki did when he was running in

1994-“and then says early in the second term ‘I’ll probably run again,’ there’s

a reason. The reason is lame-duck status.”

“It was a non-denial denial,” insisted another top

Democratic consultant of Ms. Mucha’s statement. “If you parse Zenia’s words-and

she understands wording as well as anyone-‘the Governor is intending’ means he

can do anything and not be accused of changing his mind.”

Added an Albany lobbyist: “She was trying to do a really

tricky thing-putting out the story that he’s running, but blaming it on the

Democrats. It was her trying to make sure everyone understood the Democrats are

so afraid of Pataki they were spinning he’d get out of the race.”

There are reasons the Governor might want a better-paying

job-and their names are Emily, Teddy, Allison and George Owen, his four

children. Emily’s in college; the other three are presumably college-bound. And

Mr. Pataki has five mortgages.

Still, in just about a

month the Governor will be delivering his State of the State address, laying

out his legislative agenda for 2001. In it, Ms. Mucha insisted to The Observer ,

“he’ll be announcing sweeping reforms in a number of areas that are critical to

New York State.” If Albany’s legislative leaders think he’s not running, they

could be in for a surprise.

The Governor is

definitely running for re-election.

The numbers do look good for Mr. Pataki. A Marist poll

released Nov. 30-not coincidentally, the day of Ms. Mucha’s remarks-found Mr.

Pataki beating Mr. Cuomo 50 to 39, and Mr. McCall 52 to 37: not bad for a

Democratic-majority state that just sent a Democratic Senator to Washington

with 55 percent of the vote. Better yet for the Governor, the poll showed Mr.

Pataki with a 69 percent favorable rating.

But there’s another fact that speaks louder than all Ms.

Mucha’s spinning. While the nation’s attention remained fixed on Florida,

Governor Pataki’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued a

little-noticed statement recommending that General Electric dredge the Hudson

for the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) it dumped there beginning decades

ago. Those PCB’s prevent commercial fishing in the Hudson to this day and have

led to restrictions on personal consumption. It might seem logical enough, but

G.E.-one of the state’s largest employers-has stared down many governors before

Pataki. Argued one lobbyist, “Why would he take on G.E. if he’s not running again?”

There is, the lobbyist said, one way to gauge accurately

whether Mr. Pataki is really running for re-election. “Watch him the next

[legislative] session,” the lobbyist said. “What we learned from [Rick] Lazio

and [Senator] D’Amato is this: Pataki cannot win re-election unless he can pass

the laugh test as a real moderate Republican, not one of those phonies.”