George’s Lap: Pataki Ready, Sauntering In

On the first day of the last full week of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had nothing but praise for Governor George Pataki. “In seven years of serving when I was the Mayor and he was the Governor, he was the person that you could go to that would understand the problems of the city and the state,” Mr. Giuliani told students at Christ the King High School in Queens. “He was always there to provide help and assistance.”

There it was: seven years of antagonism between Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Pataki, cleansed from New York’s history books. An amazing feat, perhaps, although no more impressive than Mr. Pataki’s endorsements from Democratic-leaning unions, Hispanic groups and environmentalists, who talk as if the once-conservative Governor has been a friend to them all along. Or Mr. Pataki’s improbably strong showing in political polls in a state where there are two million more Democrats than Republicans.

Mr. Pataki has already dominated the gubernatorial race to such an extent that he is changing reality, creating an alternate political universe where his enemies are his friends, his detractors are his supporters, and his opponents don’t exist.

It is perhaps fitting, then, that Mr. Pataki’s last week of campaigning in what could be the most expensive gubernatorial contest in American history doesn’t really feel like campaigning at all. Instead of massive get-out-the-vote rallies, his schedule will be full of picturesque but low-key events targeted at people who wouldn’t dream of casting their ballots for anyone else. “The last thing George Pataki is going to do is acknowledge that he’s in a race and act like a candidate, which would give his opponents the attention they’re desperate for,” said consultant Norman Adler. “No one’s going to force him into any debates. He knows he’s in the lead, and from now on, he’s just going to act like the Queen of England: visit the subjects and sign autographs.”

Mr. Pataki’s opponents have stepped up their efforts in recent days to force the Governor to engage them on some level-any level-by keeping up a steady stream of attacks. Democrat Carl McCall is airing a television ad suggesting that the Governor stands for “mediocrity, failure and even corruption,” and his Comptroller’s office has released a series of well-timed audits which conclude that the Pataki administration has failed to uphold the public trust, including one on Oct. 29 citing a state agency for abusing funds. The other challenger, Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano, will spend the last week of the campaign making a bid for uninspired Democrats: A new set of commercials portrays Democratic voters-on-the-street pledging to vote for the billionaire maverick. One of the commercials, viewed by The Observer, features a surprise appearance by comic Professor Irwin Corey. But Mr. Golisano isn’t giving up his attacks on Mr. Pataki. He will continue to spend millions on ads assailing the Governor for everything from alleged influence-peddling to mishandling negotiations with major unions. A new one also accuses the Pataki camp of mudslinging.

Instead of arguing with them, the Governor simply plans to drown them out with a week’s worth of feel-good events, starting with the day of mutual admiration with Mr. Giuliani. The Mayor and the Governor, who introduced each other, respectively, as “the world’s mayor” and “our great governor,” spent the day talking to adoring crowds in Queens, Staten Island and Nassau County. The rest of the week will look much the same.

Throughout his day with Mr. Giuliani, the Governor was engaged in a running contest of wills with reporters desperate to get him to respond to the charges being hurled by his opponents. Mr. Pataki, as usual, allowed neither his opponents nor the press to intrude upon his day. He called the new McCall attack ad accusing him of corruption “unfortunate.” Responding late in the day to an accusation from the Golisano campaign that he had not properly reimbursed the state for airplane flights he has taken for campaign purposes, Mr. Pataki came about as close as he gets these days to a biting retort. “It’s not true,” he said. “We have reimbursed.”

But, Governor, they say they’ve gone through the filings and ….

“I’m sure that’s what he said,” Mr. Pataki jumped in. “We have made sure that we have reimbursed.”

Surrogate Battle

The Governor’s stubbornly noncombative demeanor belies what has in fact been a fairly negative campaign, with most of the attacks coming through Mr. Pataki’s staff, surrogates or paid advertising. This campaign, like Mr. Pataki’s previous runs, has shown ample evidence of the philosophy of politicalmastermindArthur Finkelstein, who engineered Mr. Pataki’s stunning defeat of Mario Cuomo in 1994. Mr. Finkelstein’s, and the Pataki campaign’s, dictate is simple: “The operating philosophy is that when you get someone down, you keep them down,” said one of the Governor’s top supporters. “You hit them hard and then just keep hitting them.”

Accordingly, the Governor’s operatives have shown little pity for his challengers, running attack ads against a wounded Mr. McCall that are reminiscent of their assaults in 1998 on Peter Vallone, another graying and inoffensive Democratic figure. Mr. Golisano, a minor-party candidate who never gained more than 7 percent of the vote in his previous two runs for Governor, hasn’t been spared, either. A recent Pataki television ad closed with the tagline: “Tom Golisano is lying. What’s worse, he knows it.”

While Mr. Pataki’s aggressive campaigns no doubt have helped drive down his opponents’ numbers (and morale), his comfortable lead in the polls is more profoundly the result of a long-term strategy. He has spent two terms on shrewd appeals to disparate and seemingly incompatible constituencies. Early in his administration, for example, he angered environmentalists with his choice of environmental commissioner. So in the late spring of 1996, Pataki aides met quietly behind closed doors with the annoyed greens, resulting in the Clean Air/Clean Water Bond Act-backed by a multimillion-dollar privately funded campaign. Mr. Pataki also earned the bitter enmity in his first years in office of heath-care workers’ union head Dennis Rivera, after a series of drastic cuts to health-care institutions and hospitals. In 1997, those cuts started to turn into modest boosts.

When the 1998 election came around, the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Mr. Pataki-they gave former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato a zero-and Mr. Rivera stood by the Governor to praise the “whole body of work we have done together.” And after the 2000 Senate race, Mr. Pataki stepped up the pace of his coalition-building, telephoning President George Bush, at Mr. Rivera’s behest, to ask for an end to the naval bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. In March 2001, Mr. Rivera staged a “Thank You, Governor Pataki” rally at his headquarters. In January, they forged the massive billion-dollar health-care workers’ deal, which preceded a groundbreaking endorsement of the Governor. But that was only the beginning.

Other alliances with labor quickly blossomed: The teachers’ union got $400 million in borrowed funds for a new contract. The Public Employees Federation got three sick days and a no-layoff promise. The hotel workers got a promise of unionization at planned state casinos. The ultra-liberal garment-workers’ union got a bill forcing the state to purchase uniforms from union shops. The sanitation workers got new rules to apply to injuries suffered on the job. All these unions endorsed Mr. Pataki.

Mr. Pataki has now leveraged all of his new friendships-as well as the all-important good will he accrued for his leadership after Sept. 11-into a sizable lead in the polls and probable reelection to a third term. And even as his campaign goes through the daily routine of combating assaults from Mr. McCall and Mr. Golisano, the Governor clearly believes that he’ll have the luxury of maintaining a dignified distance from the whole thing.

This dynamic was best illustrated by the recent televised gubernatorial debate on WCBS, which featured Mr. McCall, Mr. Golisano and an empty chair.

The participants spent the balance of the time talking about why Mr. Pataki was a terrible Governor. Mr. Pataki was upstate at the time, riding on an antique train.