In Weird Primary, Golisano Struts as Pataki Vamps

While most New Yorkers were preparing to observe the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a relative handful of voters showed up at the polls to decide a minor-party primary election that could have a profound impact on the 2002 Governor’s race. The contest pitted Governor George Pataki, who is heavily favored to win re-election to a third term, against Tom Golisano, an eccentric billionaire from Rochester, for the nomination of the quirky Independence Party.

The party has no real ideology and a small number of registered members. (Because of the tiny number of voters who participated in the primary, it was impossible to predict a result by press time on Sept. 10.) But the stakes are potentially huge. For the Governor, who has long sought the support of the Independence Party, a victory would effectively shut down Mr. Golisano’s candidacy, removing an opponent who has already spent some $30 million attacking him in television ads and in mailings. Recent polls have suggested that Mr. Golisano’s attacks have taken a toll on the Governor’s popularity.

For Mr. Golisano, victory would give him a platform from which to continue his campaign until November, when he will in all likelihood finish a distant third to Mr. Pataki and Comptroller Carl McCall, the Democratic nominee. He is likely to drop out of the race if he loses the Independence primary-he is also running against Mr. Pataki for the Conservative Party nomination, which he has little chance of winning. There has been speculation, however, that he might seek a deal to run on either the Liberal Party line, which is currently stuck with dropout Democrat Andrew Cuomo, or on another minor-party line.

If Mr. Golisano winds up winning the Independence Party nomination (which he has had twice before), the Governor’s race will be more complicated for Mr. Pataki, for a number of reasons. Mr. Golisano is running as a fiscal and social conservative, and he could, of course, attract voters who might otherwise have supported Mr. Pataki. But this would not be the most significant impact of his candidacy, because he would also attract voters who would have cast anti-incumbent votes for the Democrat, Mr. McCall. Mostly, he would continue to cause many of the same problems for Mr. Pataki that have already been in evidence: His incessant ads casting Mr. Pataki as an unethical closet leftist would not only sap the Governor’s popularity, but force him simultaneously to commit time and resources to holding onto his conservative supporters rather than battling with Mr. McCall for moderate Democrats.

“If Golisano somehow wins the Independence nomination, it will be huge,” said consultant Evan Stavisky. “You’ll have a guy spending tens of millions to beat the hell out of the front-runner. It’s like McCall won’t even have to worry about doing negative advertising, because Pataki will already be damaged goods.”

Financial Edge

If Mr. Pataki wins, he will find himself in an extremely good position to do combat with Mr. McCall, who would be his last remaining challenger. The Governor has an enormous financial edge-more than $20 million on hand, as opposed to Mr. McCall’s $2.5 million-and he still has a substantial, though somewhat shrunken, double-digit lead in the latest public polls. Without Mr. Golisano to criticize him for appealing to “Al Sharpton and the radical left-wing fringe of New York politics,” Mr. Pataki will be free to continue his courtship of unions, environmentalists and minority voters without fear of alienating such longtime allies as the Conservative Party. His campaign will also be in a better position to respond to attacks from Mr. McCall, whose pre-primary criticisms often went unanswered as the Governor’s surrogates trained their ire on Mr. Golisano (and, early on, on Mr. Cuomo).

“I think he’ll certainly be able to run a more dynamic campaign after this,” said one top supporter. “He’ll definitely be better able to respond to attacks.”

The Independence Party, which was founded by Mr. Golisano in 1994, when he made the first of his three runs for Governor, is now split into two deeply antagonistic camps. The party’s leaders, many of whom supported Mr. Golisano in the past, now back Mr. Pataki, thanks to the Governor’s attentive courtship and promises of support on their key issues, most of which have to do with amending election laws to make it easier to run for office and to put referendums on the ballot. These supporters, a disparate group based in the city, Westchester and Long Island that includes neo-Marxist Lenora Fulani, feel that Mr. Golisano no longer represents their interests. “Golisano just wants to buy this party’s support,” said party spokesperson Jacqueline Salit. “This party is supposed to challenge that kind of politics.”

To bolster the Governor’s support, his campaign spent heavily in a recent attempt to register thousands of new members of the party, an effort that could have paid dividends in a party that has never attracted more than 6,000 voters for a statewide primary. (Actually, many of the party’s registered members are unaware that they are, in fact, members of the party. They believe they are registered as “independent,” as in unaffiliated with a party.)

Mr. Golisano’s support is concentrated upstate near his hometown of Rochester, and he has been campaigning heavily in the area in an attempt to turn out his own vote. “I feel we’re in very good shape to win,” he told The Observer in early September. “I didn’t come this far to get discouraged or waylaid or anything like that. When we win this primary, we’re really going to go after this thing.”

Both sides said they thought they were slightly ahead, but said that there was no accurate way to predict what the turnout would be.

Whatever happens, the race is likely to get more interesting. With the primaries (and Sept. 11) out of the way, Mr. Pataki can no longer remain above the battle while his would-be challengers engage in the unseemly business of campaigning. Public polls are now showing Mr. Pataki’s seemingly insurmountable lead narrowing, with Mr. McCall’s numbers buoyed by Mr. Cuomo’s last-minute departure from the race and a series of well-funded anti-Pataki ads from the Golisano campaign.

Although many of Mr. Pataki’s political opponents still consider him to be nearly unbeatable, others are sounding increasingly confident. “It’s only going to get more exciting from here,” said Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, which is supporting Mr. McCall. “The polls are going to continue to tighten, and in a couple of weeks, we’re going to be talking about an eight- or nine- point lead. This is no blowout-it’s going to be very close election.”

Judging by recent experience, it would seem to be the case that the polls-the most recent Marist College poll shows Mr. McCall 15 points behind Mr. Pataki-are, if anything, overestimating the Governor’s lead. Public polls have consistently underestimated minority turnout, which will work in Mr. McCall’s favor, and they also show Mr. McCall getting a smaller chunk of the black vote than he is likely to get in November.

Mr. Cantor also believes that the importance of Mr. Golisano to Mr. McCall’s chances is inflated. “Tom Golisano is a buffoon,” said Mr. Cantor. “All that will happen when he’s out of the race is that there will be less clutter. There will be more clarity on the issues, which is good for McCall.”

For the moment, the Pataki campaign hardly seems concerned. “We’re confident that the Governor’s support within the Independence Party will resonate with those voters,” said spokeswoman Mollie Fullington, “and we’re generally confident that New Yorkers will overwhelmingly support Governor Pataki and his policies in November.