Eighteen inches of snow fell in Albany in the days before
Governor George Pataki’s State of the State address in mid-January. That’s a
lot, even for the gray, chilly city that inspired William Kennedy’s dark,
textured fiction. But while the hero of Mr. Kennedy’s latest Albany novel,
Roscoe Conway, is a man on his way out, the city’s reigning boss, George
Pataki, is doing his sunny best to convince voters that the best is yet to
As he prepares to release what very likely will be the most
austere state budget in years, Mr. Pataki is projecting a relentless optimism.
There have been no calls for shared sacrifice, no warnings of drastic cuts to
Instead, in a 65-minute address with an unusually high number of
stumbles, there was this: “We will rebuild, we will succeed, we will meet
tomorrow as we meet today, with the same confidence, the same optimism and the
same belief in the unlimited potential of our future that we had on Sept. 10.”
As he prepares for what could be a volatile re-election campaign,
Mr. Pataki is sticking to his pre–Sept. 11 political playbook: throw a few
bones to conservatives, do whatever he can to win over the moderates, even if it means enraging those very
conservatives (Who else would they vote for? Andrew Cuomo?), and neutralize the
In his State of the State address, the Governor revealed that
whatever else has changed, his strategy hasn’t. True, he acknowledged the
events of Sept. 11 by saluting the heroism of firefighters, police officers,
health-care workers and E.M.T.’s. But then he proceeded to:
· Throw a few bones to conservatives:
“Unlike in 1989, 1990, ’91, ’92, ’93 and ’94, we will not delay tax cuts,” the
Governor said, to whoops and sustained applause from the Republican side of the
aisle. Seven years after Mario Cuomo left Albany, conservatives still despise
him for, among other things, his delay in implementing tax cuts.
· Do whatever he can to win over the moderates:
“Let’s make the nation’s best health-care system even better,” he said. “With
prompt, nonpartisan action, we can increase staffing in our health-care
facilities, make our hospitals and nursing homes stronger, and protect the
quality of care our loved ones receive.”
· Neutralize the lefties: In a speech
devoid of broad new initiatives, Mr. Pataki proposed passage of a gay-rights
law, the purchase of a million new acres of open space and a reform of the
Rockefeller drug laws.
Of all of these proposals,
the second-the health-care initiative-is the most audacious, even by Albany
standards. Mr. Pataki has been cobbling together a deal that would take $1
billion in one-time revenue from the conversion of Empire Blue Cross/Blue
Shield to a for-profit agency, revenues from a proposed new cigarette tax, and
a federal infusion for Medicaid, and funnel that into higher pay for
The editorialists are howling-the New York Post and even The
New York Times, which called it “the largest fiscal gimmick in New York
State history.” Even so, at a noon rally in Albany on Jan. 15, Mr. Pataki and
legislative leaders announced that a deal had been struck. Under a cold gray
drizzle, the Governor said, “Now it’s our turn to do the right thing for our children,
the right thing for our parents, the right thing for our hospitals, the right
thing for our workers.” After his speech he plunged into the crowd to chants of
In a year when few people expect to get what they want,
health-care workers may get everything they want. More than this, the Governor
is pushing to finalize the deal-which isn’t part of the regular state budget,
where widespread cuts are expected-in advance of the announcement of the rest
of the state budget. That way, the needs of health-care workers don’t get
pitted against housing, or schools, or everything else that is likely to suffer
All of this is driven by political imperatives, with Dennis
Rivera, the president of 1199/S.E.I.U., New York’s Health and Human Service
Union, emerging as the most powerful person in Albany, more powerful than the
Governor, either of the two Democrats who want his job, the Democratic party or
the leaders of either legislative body.
Much has been made of Mr. Pataki’s desire not to inspire the kind
of advertising campaign (colloquially known as the “throw granny out of the
nursing home” ads) that drove down Mr. Pataki’s political ratings in his first
term. Now there is open talk of Mr. Pataki’s winning Mr. Rivera’s endorsement
this year, or at least preventing the endorsement-which comes with the most
sophisticated phone-banking operation in the state and the most dedicated corps
of street volunteers-from going to a Democrat.
But there is much more. Beyond Mr. Rivera’s political muscle,
there is the issue of health care, which happens to be a good one for a
Republican Governor in a majority Democrat state, Mr. Pataki’s supporters note.
Older people tend to be concerned about health care, and older people vote. But
the issue is a potent one statewide.
And so Mr. Pataki has been courting Mr. Rivera. In December of
1999, for example, Mr. Rivera stood by his side as the Governor announced a new
cigarette tax would pay for expanded health insurance for poor children.
“Socialism!” muttered conservative critics at the time.
In early 2001, Mr. Pataki called President George W. Bush on Mr.
Rivera’s behalf to ask the President to halt the Navy’s bombing on the Puerto
Rican island of Vieques, a call that led to a review and then a promised halt
in two years. Mr. Rivera held a pro-Pataki rally at 1199′s Midtown
headquarters, where he pointedly noted that this was something then–senatorial
candidate Hillary Clinton was unable
Mr. Pataki is now perfectly poised to win the health-care workers
union endorsement if Andrew Cuomo is the Democratic nominee, and at least hold
the union neutral if H. Carl McCall is the nominee. Since most of Mr. Rivera’s
members are African-American or Latino, and Mr. McCall would be the first
African-American Governor if elected, choosing Mr. Pataki over Mr. McCall would
be the heaviest lift for Mr. Rivera.
So now, after all this work, it is no surprise that Mr. Pataki
should be loath to throw it all away. What is surprising is how both of the
other Albany decision-makers, State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, showed little resistance.
“Dennis Rivera has skillfully cultivated both the Republican and
Democratic leadership of state government, so they’re all on his side,”
lobbyist Norman Adler said.
Still, Mr. Bruno, like Mr. Pataki a Republican, has been engaged
in a series of escalating turf wars. And he is the most ideologically
conservative of Albany’s power elite. But he has to think about a special
election on the Upper East Side next month, when Democrat Liz Krueger will face
Republican John Ravitz to decide who will succeed G.O.P. legend Roy Goodman,
who went to work for Mayor Bloomberg. Local 1199 has endorsed Mr. Ravitz. And
Mr. Bruno has endorsed the health-care deal with this rather tortured
formulation: “I’m not going to worry about two or three years out,” he said in
a brief news conference after the State of the State. “I’m going to worry about
this year, 2002, and then we’re going to be hopeful that we’re going to be in
an upbeat economy based on all the good things we’re going to do together this
year, and that a recovery will take place and that the money will be there.”
As for Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall, both have criticized the deal’s
process-that it was worked out in secret, and that it is being rushed
through-but at the same time applaud the goal of higher salaries for
health-care workers. But the prospect of the 1199 endorsement going to Mr.
Pataki-or even the idea that Mr. Rivera, who played a key role in the victories
of Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, might not be on their
side-might fairly be said to make them apoplectic. Were they pressuring Mr.
Silver to block the deal? “And what, go against Dennis?” asked one top New York
Democratic strategist. They are not.
Would Mr. Silver block it on his own? When he blocked a coup
against his leadership two years ago, it was largely with the support of the
Black and Latino Caucus, whose constituents tend to be health-care workers. It
doesn’t hurt that his former top aide, Jennifer Cunningham, is now executive
director of 1199.
When Governor Pataki unveils his budget on Jan. 22, widespread
carnage is expected. The lobbyists who represent social services and education
are bracing for the worst. The Governor himself has projected a $6 to $9
billion budget gap, and has ruled out not only raising taxes, but delaying any
previously approved tax cuts. That leaves one way to cut the budget-through
service cuts. “It is as if a storm is on the way, and the state hasn’t battened
down the hatches to prepare for it,” says Susan Douha, who analyzes state
budgets for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “This is the worst situation we have seen
in more than a quarter century, and maybe ever.”
There are many wild cards this year. The economy could sour
further. The upstate economy proved a particularly potent issue in the two
recent U.S. Senate elections, and upstaters could be ready to defect to
Democrats en masse.
But with the health-care deal, all the outcry over the expected
cuts becomes muted, moot, even. The bad news budget is blunted. Governor Pataki
gets to continue with his 2002 playbook.