Hevesi Returns In Comeback Run For Comptroller

A year ago, Alan Hevesi’s career was over. A year ago, he was the man who came in a distant fourth in the Democratic Mayoral race-after being the early favorite. A year ago, he was supposed to do what losing political candidates do, which is take a lucrative private-sector job that traded on his 30 years of experience as an Assembly member and City Comptroller.

But Mr. Hevesi’s career, it turns out, is not over. He did not take a private-sector job. And now, a year after political insiders wrote him off, he is poised to be the next State Comptroller. Having won an overwhelming victory in September’s primary, Mr. Hevesi is running ahead of his Republican opponent, former Assembly minority leader John Faso. If he wins, Mr. Hevesi will be one of the most powerful Democrats in New York State.

“It’s Lazarus plus,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “You not only have a resurrection, but you resurrect as something bigger and better.”

Of course, with a not-insurmountable eight-point lead in the polls, he could lose, too. “The ending could be that a well-respected Comptroller blows two races in a row,” Mr. Muzzio added.

Mr. Hevesi is not counting on that outcome. Instead, he believes the polls that show him ahead. “The voters are making a judgment on the merits, because they know of [Mr. Faso’s] inexperience and lack of capacity to do this job, and know that I’m perfect for it,” Mr. Hevesi crowed in a wide-ranging interview with The Observer. Then he added, laughing, “Wasn’t that an arrogant statement? I was modest when I ran for Mayor, and it didn’t work.”

There are many mistakes Alan Hevesi is trying not to repeat. There was the game of expectations, played so poorly in the Mayor’s race. In the beginning of the 2001 campaign, Alan Hevesi was the man to watch. He’d raised the most money, and he’d surely have the support of the city’s Democratic and civic establishment. It didn’t work out that way.

“The only thing that is predictable in politics is the unpredictable,” Mr. Hevesi allowed. “Who would have predicted at the beginning of the Mayoral campaign that I would come in fourth?” The polls certainly showed early on that his campaign was in trouble. Those low numbers set in motion a series of events that led to disaster: To get his poll numbers up, the campaign took out ads earlier than expected, meaning that it spent precious funds when many people weren’t paying attentions. So to keep other expenses low, Mr. Hevesi’s campaign was run out of his consultant Hank Morris’ offices. That raised the ire of the city Campaign Finance Board, leading to a rather unfortunate televised confrontation between Mr. Morris and the board’s chair, the Reverend Joseph O’Hare, president of Fordham University.

“I’ve completely forgotten it-what happened?” Mr. Hevesi joked. “I’ve blotted it from my memory. We made some mistakes; I’m not going to parse the mistakes. We could make mistakes in this campaign, too-one of which would be to review the mistakes we made in that campaign. Hank Morris is a friend of mine and he’s brilliant, and if we win this one, he deserves all the credit.” (Mr. Morris chose not to comment for this story.)

“It wasn’t meant to be,” Mr. Hevesi said of the Mayoral race. Was he upset that his long years of work had come to so little? “Yeah,” he said, “I did have some pangs. But the day after 9/11, I was at Ground Zero. After seeing five firefighters who couldn’t find their sons, who were also firefighters-that put a different perspective on grieving. That I wasn’t Mayor of New York paled in comparison to the calamity that had hit New York.”

There were lucrative job offers, he said, including one from an out-of-state real-estate company, which he would not name, that offered a salary of $500,000 a year plus a percentage of the company. He turned it down.

The decision to run for State Comptroller, he said, was made in early January. “In September, October, November, I was still the City Comptroller in the context of 9/11. And then we had the big responsibility of the transition. And then, on Jan. 1, I went to sleep, and when I woke up a few days later I decided, ‘I want to run for State Comptroller.'”

His Republican opponent, Mr. Faso, has been running for Comptroller for years. In fact, he was poised to run in 1994, but fell on his sword after a chat with then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Mr. D’Amato wanted to give the slot to Herb London to get him out of the Governor’s race, so George Pataki wouldn’t have a primary. The telegenic Republican from Kinderhook has been quietly running ever since.

Mr. Faso’s campaign is well-funded, and he’s getting a big boost from an ad featuring former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Mr. Faso’s campaign consultant, George Arzt, is confident that his candidate will prevail in two weeks. “If you look at the polls, you’ll see he’s doing better and better. Upstate, the margins are growing,” Mr. Arzt said.

But there’s another problem for Mr. Faso. He is arguably the most conservative Republican to try for statewide office in years, and his candidacy has energized groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League, which is sitting out the Governor’s race. NARAL is spending $50,000 on anti-Faso phone calls.

“Conservative politics helps him upstate,” Mr. Arzt said. “I don’t think when it comes to the issues-abortion, his votes on guns-that it affects the Comptroller’s race.”

Then there’s the split-ticket phenomenon. For as long as anyone can remember, New York voters have picked the Comptroller and the Governor from opposing parties. Democrat Arthur Levitt was Comptroller during the Republican Rockefeller years; Republican Edward V. Regan served as Comptroller when Democrats Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo occupied the Governor’s office. And, of course, outgoing State Comptroller H. Carl McCall has held his office during the administration of Republican George Pataki. These kinds of factors tend to be important in the kind of race where voters don’t know much about a candidate or the office.

Low-Key Race

Mr. Hevesi is running a low-key race. Days go by when he doesn’t greet large groups of voters. His ads tout his experience, but he’s acting like a man who plans on strolling to the finish line. The most dramatic thing that’s happened so far is the endorsement he received from Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano. Mr. Faso called the endorsement “opportunism.” In his ads, Mr. Faso is trying to use Mr. Hevesi’s experience against him-a tactic that failed miserably in the Democratic primary, where Democrat Bill Mulrow tried to pierce the Hevesi veneer.

The race is so low-profile that even people who pay attention to these things, like Mulrow supporter Maureen Connolly, aren’t sure what’s going on. “Is there a race?” she asked when phoned by The Observer .

The anonymity of the campaign works in Mr. Hevesi’s favor. On the campaign trail-such as it is in the Comptroller’s race-voters seem confused about the campaign and the issues, but they know Mr. Hevesi’s name. In a Bronx senior center, Petra Alvarez knew about Alan Hevesi but couldn’t say why, other than that “he ran last year, too.” In Queens, Jean Monsanto knew she’d voted for Mr. Hevesi for Comptroller in the past. It took prompting from a reporter before she could remember that he’d run for Mayor last year.

“This race is pure name recognition from wire to wire,” Baruch’s Mr. Muzzio observed.

Last year, at the press conference at which he announced his candidacy for Mayor, Mr. Hevesi’s supporters showed up wearing green and blue buttons that read “MEBQ.” The acronym stood for “Most Experienced, Best Qualified.” As a campaign slogan, it bombed, and was a source of ridicule by the other campaigns. Now Mr. Hevesi is making the argument again-perhaps to better effect.

Mr. Hevesi insisted that this job won’t be a consolation prize. “It is a hugely important job,” he said. If he wins, he’ll have come from a seemingly career-ending defeat last year to winning a race statewide with millions of votes.

As Mr. Hevesi himself says, “Who knew?”