Inhaling Deep, Golisano Backs Legal Marijuana

Just days after making news by calling for the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, billionaire Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano will begin a massive new advertising blitz to call for the legalization of medical marijuana.

The 30-second spot, produced by Golisano media consultant Erick Mullen, opens with images of a doctor caring for a sick patient. “Many of us know people suffering from painful, serious illness,” says Mr. Golisano’s voice. “In 1980,” he continues, now talking directly to the viewer, “New York was the first state in the country to make medical marijuana legal. But it has never been implemented, so thousands of people continue to suffer. Can George Pataki or Carl McCall really change this? They have taken thousands from the giant drug companies who want to protect their monopoly. I will fix this because I am not obligated to these companies. It’s time to help those who are suffering.”

The new ad is part of a larger bid by Mr. Golisano, who bills himself as “the only conservative in the race,” for progressive votes downstate. It will be airing at the same time as one that criticizes Governor Pataki for failing to oversee a reform of the controversial Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate lengthy sentences for even minor and nonviolent drug offenses. And it follows an expensive campaign to advertise Mr. Golisano’s recent proposal to use proceeds from the state lottery to cover tuition costs at state universities for any student with at least a B average.

The Golisano campaign already has spent $40 million on the campaign, eclipsing the amounts spent by Mr. Pataki and the Democratic candidate, Mr. McCall. Mr. Golisano’s aides say that they’ll be spending “about $3.5 million” on the medical-marijuana ads-it will run almost exclusively in the city-and they are pledging to increase the already enormous rate of spending for the final stretch of the campaign. “We’ve got a chance at winning this thing,” said Golisano campaign consultant Roger Stone. “I can guarantee you right now that we’re going to beat Carl McCall-not that we’re in this to finish in second. We might have to spend $100 million to win, but hey-it’s only money.”

Mr. Golisano’s recent espousal of traditionally progressive positions is seemingly at odds with the conservative reputation he staked out for himself in the early stages of the race, when he was competing with Mr. Pataki for the nomination of both the Independence and Conservative parties. He repeatedly admonished Mr. Pataki for not being a “real conservative,” and his campaign painted him as a liberal acolyte of the Reverend Al Sharpton for his position on the military’s use of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a bombing range and for the generous contract deals he awarded to various unions, among other issues.

The Reagan Model

In a recent interview with The Observer , Mr. Golisano made it clear that he still considers himself a conservative at heart. Asked to identify his political role model, Mr. Golisano said that if he “had to pick one,” it would be former President Ronald Reagan. “Reagan did a great job of bringing the country together, and he did it during tough economic times,” said Mr. Golisano. “I would hope that I’d do the same thing for the state.”

He also sounded classically conservative themes on other subjects. On the economy, for example, he said his guiding belief is that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” and his critiques of his major-party opponents focused on what he characterized as government handouts.

That conscience of a conservative was less apparent during Mr. Golisano’s first two runs for Governor-in 1994, when he garnered 4 percent in the vote, and in 1998, when he got 7 percent. The 2002 conservative-libertarian-progressive version of Tom Golisano is likely to improve vastly upon those past performances: Recent public polls have shown him in the teens, and the Daily News reported on Oct. 12 that a survey of 1,000 likely voters by the firm Penn, Schoen and Berland showed him receiving 20 percent of the vote-10 points fewer than Mr. McCall, and about 20 behind Mr. Pataki.

Mr. Golisano’s improved standing cannot accurately be attributed to any rightward shift in his campaign platform. The voters to whom he hoped to appeal with his hard-right rhetoric hardly responded well: He was crushed by Mr. Pataki in the Conservative Party primary. Not that he can be categorized in any meaningful way as a traditional conservative, especially given his recent pronouncements on drugs and education. His main rationale, a consistently pronounced opposition to a set of undefined but highly sinister “special interests,” can be described as neither left nor right. In reality, Mr. Golisano’s current campaign is every bit as ideologically unfettered-critics would say themeless-as his last two, which brings up the question: Why the sudden interest in him?

One key difference is money. As was illustrated during the primary season, Mr. Golisano has the means to run two campaigns at once: Although he lost badly among Conservatives, he won the Independence Party primary, handing Mr. Pataki his first-ever electoral defeat. In the general election, he appears to be doing the same thing, sort of, by building a base upstate with promises of tax cuts and economic improvement, and now by attempting to carve into major-party support downstate with his distinctive positions on drug laws, medical marijuana and SUNY tuition. Whether he’s sounding like Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale, it’s all backed up by commercials. And with nothing to lose but $100 million, there’s no end in sight.

In response to the marijuana ad, entitled ‘Mercy,’ a spokesman for the Governor said, “The [state] Department of Health is not convinced that this is an appropriate medical response.” A McCall spokesman said that the Comptroller supports medical marijuana, “as long as it is prescribed by a doctor or medical professional.”

On a recent afternoon outside the Church of the Living Hope in East Harlem, Mr. Golisano strode up to the front of the congregation to join a group of black and Hispanic family members of inmates and former prisoners. One by one, the people assembled onstage gave emotional denunciations of the Rockefeller drug laws and praised Mr. Golisano for taking a position that they said went beyond that of either of the major-party candidates. Mr. Golisano, who speaks with a heavy upstate accent and has a florid complexion, seemed almost surprised at his reception. During his own speech, he had to stop repeatedly in mid-sentence to allow for applause from his small but impassioned audience, many of whom were holding placards bearing photos of “missing” relatives.

“Sending people away for this length of time is illogical,” he said, trailing off once again to allow for reaction from the crowd.

Outside, a reporter asked Mr. Golisano’s campaign manager, Charles Halloran, what his next surprise policy pronouncement might be.

“We’ve got some more stuff up our sleeves,” assured Mr. Halloran, grinning widely. “Fasten your seat belts.