It’s George III: Pataki Sweeps, McCall Creeps

After a colorless, by-the-book campaign that offered little hint of the fiscal perils awaiting the state, Governor George Pataki won election to a third term on Nov. 5, easily swatting aside Democrat Carl McCall and Independence Party candidate Thomas Golisano. At press time, Mr. Pataki had 49 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. McCall’s 32 percent and Mr. Golisano’s 15 percent. By winning a third term, Mr. Pataki, 57, joins some exclusive company: Among New York Governors who served more than two terms are Mario Cuomo, Nelson Rockefeller and Thomas E. Dewey. Two of them ran for President; the other, Mr. Cuomo, famously turned down a chance to launch a national campaign in 1992.

While Mr. Pataki’s victory was easy and painless, it was not overly impressive. In fact, it seemed destined to be worse than his lackluster showing four years ago, when, faced with the perennial Mr. Golisano and another charisma-challenged Democrat, Peter Vallone, he barely won 54 percent of the vote. Some New York Republican insiders have been whispering for months that Mr. Pataki would emerge from Election Day as a favorite to replace Vice President Dick Cheney on the 2004 Republican ticket. Whether or not such talk had any basis in fact, Mr. Pataki’s showing will not mark him as an impressive vote-getter.

“We will move New York forward,” a hoarse Mr. Pataki said to cheering supporters at the New York Hilton. He said that “all of us can be proud” of the way New York has “come together,” a clear reference to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. In a neat summation of his election-year themes, he promised to emphasize better schools and health care, and made a point of acknowledging support from “non-traditional groups,” a reference to his broad support from organized labor.

Mr. Pataki saluted his vanquished Democratic foe, saying that “Carl McCall is a decent and good man, and I want to thank Carl for his graciousness throughout this campaign.”

For his part Mr. McCall referred to “the sweet dance of democracy. Well, after dancing across the state for two years, I have some advice for you–you need comfortable shoes.”

In other statewide contests, former City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, left for dead when he finished last in the 2001 Democratic Mayoral primary, was locked in a surprisingly close contest with upstate Republican John Faso in the race to succeed Mr. McCall as State Comptroller. And as expected, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer piled up gigantic numbers in winning a second term, with more than 65 percent of the vote at press time. He defeated Dora Irizarry, who conceded just after 10 p.m. Young, ambitious and blessed with a knack for choosing high-profile issues, Mr. Spitzer emerges from Election 2002 as a politician to watch. He is expected to run for Governor in 2006, regardless of whether Mr. Pataki tries to defy the odds by running for a fourth term.

In the bitter battle for control of the U.S. Senate, New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg capped his improbable return to Capitol Hill by defeating Republican Douglas Forrester. Mr. Lautenberg, who served three terms in the Senate before retiring in 1996, unretired when the embattled incumbent, Robert Torricelli, dropped out the race.

In other closely watched contests, First Brother Jeb Bush managed to hold on for another term as Governor of Florida, while Katherine Harris, who won fame during the Presidential recount in the Sunshine State, won a Congressional seat. And Elizabeth Dole was elected to the Senate from North Carolina, keeping Strom Thurmond’s seat in Republican hands.

Locally, the bitter contest for the Upper East Side State Senate seat had incumbent Democrat Liz Krueger with a strong lead over Republican Andrew Eristoff. With just under 60 percent of precincts reporting, Ms. Krueger had about 60 percent, a surprisingly strong showing in a race where she was vastly outspent.

Meanwhile, the jubilation at Pataki headquarters in midtown masked the dreary reality that confronts the Governor and his top aides: They are staring at a huge fiscal crisis next year. As he campaigned on friendly turf in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, during the New York Marathon on Nov. 3, Mr. Pataki shrugged off a question about how much pain New Yorkers should expect from inevitable cuts in state spending. “Everyone knows these are tough times,” the Governor said. “But New Yorkers have faced tough times before, and we know we’ll pull through.” Still, even State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who usually can be counted on for an optimistic view of fiscal matters, has predicted a $10 billion budget deficit next year. That prospect certainly takes the fun out of governing.

While the gubernatorial campaign offered few surprises, political insiders spent the late hours of Election Night in at least some suspense. The fate of the venerable Liberal Party, founded during the New Deal days as an anti-communist leftist party but more recently associated with deal-making and patronage-grabbing, was uncertain as of midnight. The party was stuck with a gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Cuomo, who withdrew from the race in September and then endorsed his Democratic rival, Mr. McCall. If the party receives fewer than 50,000 votes for Mr. Cuomo, it will no longer qualify for an automatic ballot position in the next cycle of elections leading to the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Party leaders would face the humiliating prospect of circulating petitions to get its candidates on ballots from Buffalo to Staten Island and all points in between. At press time, with about 70 percent of the votes counted, the Liberals had fewer than 12,000 votes-well short of the threshold.

Of course, the Golisano-led Independence Party retained its position as the state’s third-biggest vote-getter, once again out-polling the Conservative Party. The Conservatives had held the third position for years, supplanting the Liberals, until the real emergence of Mr. Golisano and the Independence Party in 1998.

Democratic Chagrin

For the Democrats, the result is another crushing disappointment, regardless of the undercard victories in the Comptroller and Attorney General races. The number that will stick out is the sub-40 percent of the vote that Mr. McCall seemed bound to receive, which would be one of the worst showings by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and the third consecutive gubernatorial disaster for the Democrats.

“It’s the end of a political era for a certain type of machine politician,” said Democratic consultant Richard Schrader of the McCall effort. “This was their last test, and they failed. They’re getting older, their political capital is drying up, and they are out of touch with the changing nature of New York City voters, who no longer take their marching orders from political bosses.”

Robbed of many traditional Democratic issues and constituencies by an ideologically pliant incumbent, the 66-year-old Mr. McCall ran a campaign that failed from the start to articulate any clear policy differences between himself and the Governor. The lack of excitement for the state’s first black gubernatorial nominee was evident in all the pre–Election Day polls.

The worry must now be that Republicans will be able to leverage Mr. Pataki’s impressive showing among minority and progressive voters into a permanent shift of loyalties. Given Mr. Pataki’s showing in three consecutive elections, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s shocking victory in the 2001 Mayoral race, Republicans clearly have made inroads with Latinos, some labor unions and other traditionally Democratic blocs.

By the campaign’s final days, support for Mr. McCall became almost a badge of defiance for top Democrats, who continued to stump for their candidate in miserable conditions even after hope had long faded. Former President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Charles Schumer and Mr. Spitzer, to name a few, insisted right until the end that it was “time for Carl McCall.”

Recriminations among Democrats began even before the campaign ended, with Mr. McCall’s surrogates, and the candidate himself, criticizing the national Democratic Party leadership for failing to provide enough financial help. With no major elections scheduled for next year, it seems certain that Democrats will continue to argue among themselves as they regroup for the 2004 elections.

Mr. Golisano started out the campaign looking as if he, too, wanted to elect Mr. McCall. He spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money on ads attacking Mr. Pataki for being everything from a closet socialist to a terrorist sympathizer. He succeeded in damaging the Governor’s reputation and dragging him down in the polls, and inflicted a minor humiliation on Mr. Pataki by beating him in the Independence Party primary election, Mr. Pataki’s first-ever electoral defeat. But in the end, Mr. Golisano also attracted much of the attention that might have gone to Mr. McCall. He called much of that publicity to himself late in the race by fanning speculation that he would drop out of the race and endorse Mr. McCall, only to announce at the last minute that he had no intention of doing anything of the sort.

– Additional reporting by Andrea Bernstein