Pataki’s Channel: Governor Gloms on Free TV Ads

If you were a Republican governor seeking re-election in a state with five million registered Democrats and only three million registered Republicans, you’d be well advised to find a good crossover issue that would appeal to moderate Democrats. In your search, you could examine some recent state-wide elections where Democrats did well-say, for example, Hillary Clinton’s defeat of Rick Lazio in 2000. And you might ask yourself: What issue supplies a feel-good theme that will especially resonate with seniors-a voting bloc that turns out on Election Day in greater numbers than any other group?

Bingo! You’ve found your issue: Health care.

Now, how to exploit this winner? Well, you could do worse than to cozy up to the president of the health-care workers’ union, Dennis Rivera. You could also speak at rallies with thousands of cheering health-care workers. But best of all, you could run some gauzy commercials touting the wonders of your state’s health-care programs, which benefit both seniors and children. A two-fer!

As luck would have it, that’s exactly how Governor George Pataki plans to capture wayward Democrats as his re-election campaign moves into high gear. Campaign advisers have acknowledged to The Observer that health care will be a central part of their message. And television ads are part of that message-although they’re being paid for by taxpayers. At least $3 million in health-care ads have been budgeted for the first half of this year in New York City alone, three media-industry sources told The Observer. This means the commercials are running more often than they did in the previous two years, when state records show that a total of $9 million was spent on ads designed to increase public awareness of the state’s Child Health Plus program, which offers health insurance to poor children who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

The commercials are running everywhere-during the Today show, during the evening news and on top-rated entertainment programs like ER (an appropriate choice). The ads ran four times during the Academy Awards telecast in the Albany market, at an average of $5,000 a pop. And they ran at least once in Albany during the highly rated telecast of the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

Few politicians can resist putting themselves in promotional materials paid for by someone else-and that includes two of Mr. Pataki’s would-be opponents, H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo. But what makes the Governor’s health-care ad buy unusual is its scope and size during an election year, and the way its message dovetails precisely with a major theme of the Pataki campaign.

After a loud outcry from Democrats and editorial boards, a Pataki spokesman said the Governor would stop appearing in the ads next month-which, the spokesman said, had been the plan all along. Curiously, though, the Governor never mentioned that plan in several discussions he’s had with reporters about the ads. If the past is any measure, taxpayer-paid ads will stop just before the Governor’s own campaign ads begin to appear. In 1998, with a weak field opposing him, Mr. Pataki started running campaign ads at the beginning of June. This year, he has more money in the bank and more formidable opponents. Campaigns generally start running commercials as soon as they can afford to.

Moreover, media consultants say the Governor already has reaped enormous benefits. “The value of these kinds of ads cannot be underestimated,” said one Republican, who asked not to be identified. “They have even more credibility than campaign ads, because they don’t end with the tagline ‘Vote for Pataki.’” Mr. Pataki himself seems to know this-in 1994, he bitterly attacked rival Mario Cuomo for appearing in state-funded ads.

Even while finally agreeing to take himself out of these ads, the Governor has insisted there is a difference between these and the Cuomo ads. “We’re enrolling people” in the health-care program, the Governor said at a news conference at his campaign headquarters on April 4, nervously fingering the microphone. “We’re not just promoting things-we’re actively encouraging people to sign up” for state benefits. But nowhere in the ads are the words “enroll” or “sign up” pronounced, by the Governor or anyone else. The closest the ad comes to providing sign-up information is a few seconds of small print at the end of the ad, when toll-free numbers flash briefly across the screen.

Sources familiar with the Governor’s campaign told The Observer their research tells them that health care sells well in New York-and selling it they are. Moreover, the Governor’s allies will say that the emphasis on health care is nothing new for Mr. Pataki. Since at least the end of his first term, he has worked with health-care leaders, including Mr. Rivera, on launching Child Health Plus.

In 1999, he pushed through a $1.50-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help fund the program. More recently, he obtained a federal waiver to ramp up Family Health Plus. And then, of course, there was the $3 billion deal to raise health-care workers’ salaries and improve poor people’s access to health care.

After each of these measures, the Governor has held rallies or campaign-like events complete with health-care consumers, cute multi-racial groups of children, officials of all stripes-sometimes even a gospel choir. Each piece of the deal gets an event; for example, new nursing-home staffing requirements got its own press conference on April 2.

And then there are the ads. “Only a few years ago, parents in neighborhoods across New York worried what they’d do if their children got sick,” says a relaxed-looking Governor Pataki on a brownstone-lined street that could be East Harlem, the Upper West Side or Fort Greene. “They had no health insurance and couldn’t afford checkups or hospitalization. That’s why I signed legislation expanding Child Health Plus, giving all kids comprehensive health care right in their neighborhoods.”

Next comes a lightly accented Latina, sitting with a group of children on a stoop, who says, “Thanks to Child Health Plus, we can get our kids health care at our local doctor. That means all our families are healthier and happier.” Then the Governor returns with the closer: “Child Health Plus-building stronger families and stronger communities.” And, in small white letters, a toll-free number flashes across the bottom of the screen for all of two seconds. Looks Like, Sounds Like

The spot has all the earmarks of a political ad: the warm tones, the upbeat music, a political figure speaking of an accomplishment, then getting an endorsement from a “real person.” “It just makes you feel that the state is taking great care of its children,” said Barbara Lippert, ad critic for Adweek magazine. “And the Governor looks great-less awkward than he usually does. He actually seems kind of graceful.”

Even though the Governor has agreed to bow out of the ads eventually, Team Pataki has been unapologetic about his presence in the spots. John Signor, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, did not respond to several telephone and e-mail inquires about the size and scope of the ad buy. He did insist that the ads were all about enrollment: There are only 20,000 people in Family Health Plus now, he said, compared to an estimated 700,000 eligible New Yorkers.

Still, the state has never been able to provide any evidence that the Governor can sell the programs better than anyone else. Indeed, an audit conducted by Mr. McCall of state advertisements run from April 2000 to June 2001 found that the state had no marketing plan at all for its Child Health Plus ads.

The ad barrage doesn’t stop with Child and Family Health Plus. The Governor is also running radio ads touting his work on EPIC-the program that helps seniors afford prescription drugs. They’re running on expensive radio stations, like 1010 WINS.

Mr. Pataki has been criticized in the past for his lavish use of state-funded ads, most recently by Mr. McCall, a potential opponent in the fall. Mr. McCall’s auditors found that, between April 1, 2000, and June 30, 2001, the state spent $19 million on ads featuring public officials, with most of them starring George Pataki.

But the Pataki administration took the unusual step of releasing the draft audit on New Year’s Eve 2001, thereby blunting the impact of the formal announcement, which came months later. And Mr. McCall is a flawed critic: In late 2000, he participated in a series of ads-with Mr. Pataki-promoting the state’s college savings program. The ads were funded by the state retirement funds. And just last month, Mr. McCall flew to Israel on the state’s tab. All of this has just served to turn the discussion on the ads into a tit-for-tat debate over who is the worst abuser of the public trust.

The New York Public Interest Research Group has been pushing for a ban on this type of advertising in election years, similar to the one that applies to New York City officials. But even Democrats in the Assembly, who presumably have an interest in keeping the Republican Governor off the airwaves, have been unwilling to take up this cause. “It just goes to show,” NYPIRG’s Blair Horner told The Observer , “that Governor Pataki does support public financing of campaigns-but only his own.