Forgotten Lady: Pataki’s Partner is No McCaughey

Mary Donohue, the Lieutenant Governor of New York, is delivering a speech and looking a bit too clean for the grittiness of downtown Brooklyn, what with her white pantsuit and ethereal light blond hair. Her voice, soft in ordinary circumstances, begins to trail off. “Can everyone hear me in the back? Can everyone hear me?” she asks. There are loud cries of “No!”

Almost no one in New York can hear Ms. Donohue. The number of people who can actually tell you the name of the Lieutenant Governor probably totals in the four figures; fewer still can tell you anything about her. There was serious talk in Governor George Pataki’s camp about replacing her on the ticket this year. But Ms. Donohue stared them down.

It’s an awkward thing, being No. 2. You need to be known but unknown, seen but not heard-but no one will admit this exactly. “She certainly brightens up a stage,” President George W. Bush said at a fund-raiser last February, fumbling for words, before quickly adding:” She’s smarter than all of us, too.” Indeed. There’s hardly a major Republican rally or fund-raiser that Ms. Donohue has skipped. Often, she is the only female politician on the stage. And she believes that work will one day pay off in a gubernatorial campaign of her own.

“Every administration has its uniqueness, and I’m sure mine would, too,” she says when asked how a Donohue administration would differ from the Pataki administration. But she quickly adds, “I’m comfortable with the team I’m on.”

Once, Mary Donohue’s near-total obscurity was by design. She was picked to replace Betsy McCaughey Ross, the mercurial former Lieutenant Governor who was neither silent nor loyal. Ms. McCaughey Ross switched parties and ran against her former boss in 1998. Mary Donohue is everything Ms. McCaughey was not-faithful, steady and, most of all, retiring. But despite her loyalty, Ms. Donohue’s future seemed uncertain as recently as a few months ago. With the Governor’s work on health care, Republicans are less concerned about the women’s vote than they were four years ago. And so there were discussions, several sources familiar with the Pataki campaign confirm, about finding a different Lieutenant Governor this year. Ms. Donohue’s chief of staff, Eileen Long, left to become deputy secretary to the Governor, a position analogous to deputy chief of staff. When the power people leave you, other power people notice.

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was convinced that the Republicans were preparing to run Ms. Donohue against him this fall. There were whispers about a high-level judicial appointment. Filling her place as Lieutenant Governor, the talk went, would be Randy Daniels, Mr. Pataki’s Secretary of State, or Joel Giambra, the county executive for upstate Erie County. Both happen to be erstwhile Democrats, at a time when Pataki advisers are trying to make inroads on the Democrats’ base.

Adding to the intrigue is talk that Mr. Pataki might be Vice Presidential material in 2004 if Dick Cheney decides not to run. That would mean a Pataki resignation, and Ms. Donohue-this unknown, unheralded figure-would become Governor. Mr. Pataki pointedly won’t pledge to serve out a third term, fueling talk that he’s looking for a spot with Team Bush. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom-conservative Republicans aren’t exactly overjoyed by Mr. Pataki these days. Still, even idle chatter about Mr. Pataki’s future requires that people think about the possibility of a Donohue administration.

When word first leaked of the efforts to jettison Ms. Donohue, she did something she almost never does: She spoke at length to a reporter-the New York Post ‘s Frederic Dicker. “The Governor should have the best running mate with him, and I believe that’s me,” she told him. “I believe the Governor and I are an excellent working team …. And he’s given me every indication to believe that he agrees with that.” The Pataki people backed down.

Ms. Donohue becomes icy when the talk turns to the possibility of a judicial nomination, which would allow Mr. Pataki to replace her. “What’s in store for me is the job I have now,” she told The Observer . Apparently, Mr. Pataki’s advisers now agree. “I can’t think of a stronger running mate for Governor Pataki,” said Kieran Mahoney, the Governor’s strategist.

And she certainly has impressed members of the opposition party. “She looks sweet and nice,” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a Democrat, said of Ms. Donohue as they shared a podium during a press conference in the borough’s East New York section. (Lieutenant Governors get to travel to drab community centers in the far reaches of Brooklyn on hot summer afternoons to hold press conferences that attract virtually no reporters.)

“But there is another part of her that I know,” added Mr. Markowitz, who was a State Senator until last year. “I knew her to take a [legislative] house that was unwieldy and bend it to her dictates, that’s for sure. She has a will of steel.”

Perhaps. But-Governor Donohue? “It’s pretty sexist to think she couldn’t be,” said Republican consultant Joseph Mercurio. “There’s no reason to think someone with her experience couldn’t be.”

Back in the auditorium in downtown Brooklyn, Ms. Donohue slipped away, rushing off to another “event.” The next day, her audience-a group of pre-schoolers, in all their shiny, royal-blue polyester cap-and-gown glory-appeared on the front page of The New York Times . Ms. Donohue’s presence was unrecorded.

Terry Golway will return to this space shortly.