Pataki Camp Gets Stoned

A happy paradox of politics is that cynical motives can advance idealistic purposes. In New York’s gubernatorial election, a political consultant’s festering urge to punish George Pataki is forcing everyone to reconsider the state’s-and, by extension, the nation’s-inhumane, idiotic drug policies.

Roger Stone, mastermind of Tom Golisano’s campaign on the Independence Party line, has long nurtured a personal grudge against the Governor that has nothing to do with medical marijuana or mandatory minimums. Mr. Stone’s most important client before he started spending Mr. Golisano’s fortune was Donald Trump. Their dispute with the Pataki administration is about casinos and lobbying, not human rights.

Two years ago, the flamboyant consultant cost his client, the flamboyant developer, $250,000 when the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying found that Mr. Stone had unlawfully set up an “anti-casino” front group to attack Mr. Pataki and the Mohawk tribe. (Mr. Trump didn’t appreciate the tribe’s plans to compete for slot-feeding suckers with help from the state.) It was a crafty scheme that won Mr. Trump the biggest fine ever inflicted by the commission – whose chairman happens to be appointed by the Governor-and a severe embarrassment to Mr. Stone.

So when Mr. Trump introduced his seasoned consultant to Mr. Golisano, revenge was in the air. And now, with tens of millions of dollars from the Independence candidate’s bottomless bank account, revenge is on the airwaves. Having failed to damage Mr. Pataki by running to his right, the Golisano campaign has turned sharply to the left.

The uplifting part of this story is Mr. Stone’s endgame strategy-a direct challenge to the Governor over his failure to reform the state’s draconian drug-sentencing statutes, as he has promised to do ever since his first inauguration in 1995. Year after year, Mr. Pataki has proclaimed his intention to reduce or eliminate prison sentences for nonviolent, minor narcotics offenders, and to offer treatment as an alternative. Every year, he has either done nothing or done the opposite, by cutting treatment funding and building more prison cells. Having finally proposed some statutory changes to the Legislature, he has scarcely made the case even for those inadequate revisions.

Until now, however, the heaviest price Mr. Pataki has paid for betraying his promise is an occasional scolding editorial in The New York Times. The organizations that defend prisoners and their families are small and poorly funded, and they receive little attention from a government dominated by special interests with fat checkbooks. The difference in this election is Mr. Stone, who has his own candidate’s fat checkbook and a will to torment Mr. Pataki. His clever insight was that the Governor has helped to make drug reform acceptable, while leaving himself open to attack for his inaction.

Mr. Stone has also realized that demanding repeal of mandatory-minimum drug sentences allows his man to flank Mr. Pataki on the left-a tactic that the Governor has employed with great success against New York’s liberal Democrats. If it is startling to hear a staunch conservative like Mr. Golisano articulate the grievances of minority people in Spanish-language ads, it is amazing to hear Mr. Stone take up their cause.

“Even people who are conservatives recognize that these laws are ineffective and expensive,” the former Reagan consultant told Salon , “not to mention being racist and unfair.” Mr. Stone’s progressive ranting may even be sincere, although he has rarely evinced much concern for the burdens borne by black and Hispanic Americans. His right-wing politics always included a strong libertarian streak, which propelled him and his former wife, Ann Stone, to lead pro-choice Republicans against the party’s anti-abortion zealots.

But whatever the true motivations of Mr. Golisano and his Machiavelli may be, they are suddenly turning up the volume for the voices of people who usually go unheard. They have fashioned a broader critique of Mr. Pataki’s policies and ethics that ranges from full legalization of medical marijuana to the corrupt sale of parole to violent felons by the Governor’s appointees. In

a dull campaign whose most electrifying moment was Andrew Cuomo’s decision to drop out of the primary, they have performed a public service. While Carl McCall echoes their call for sweeping reforms, the cautious Democrat has neither the money nor the inclination to make drug reform a central issue.

The drug war is a bipartisan disaster that ruins families, wastes resources, destroys human lives, corrupts the police, endangers children, distorts foreign policy and engenders disrespect for the law in every community. This generation of baby-boom politicians knows from personal experience that marijuana is harmless, and that justice requires treatment, not prison, for the poor as well as the affluent. Democrats and Republicans alike have insisted on harsher sentences, resisted reform and allowed the suffering to continue. It shames all of these politicians, of both parties, that they lie or stand mute while Roger Stone tells the truth.