SEDUCING ALL SIDES, PATAKI KICKING OFF HIS THREE-PEAT BID

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

come.

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

popular programs.

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

lefties.

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

health-care workers.

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

“Pataki! Pataki!”

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

this year.

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

to deliver.

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.

Little Resistance

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.