In Third Term, Pataki Facing A Chilly Siege

When Governor George Pataki is sworn in for a third term on Jan. 1, it will be inside, underground, in the Empire State Plaza convention center-part of the vast warren of subterranean marble hallways that connect state office buildings to a collection of restaurants and other commercial establishments. It’s what makes it possible for residents and lawmakers to avoid the unpleasant elements of an Albany winter, and this year’s winter is expected in every way to be long, cold and biting.

The Governor will place his hand on a Bible held by wife Libby, and daughter Emily will lead the Pledge of Allegiance. The Empire State King Interdenominational Mass Choir will lead the assembled entourage of officials, politicians and operatives in song, and then the Arturo O’Farrell Latin Jazz trio will perform.

The theme of the inaugural address is “Forward Together.” As one aide described it: “You’re going to hear the Governor say there are challenges to be faced, and the surest way to get things done is to not be divisive and to put the parochial themes aside.” Journalists have been advised not to expect many specifics from the inaugural address; those will be saved for the State of the State address, to be delivered Jan. 8. Indeed, the inaugural address-except for the part about acknowledging there are challenges ahead-will sound very much like almost every speech Mr. Pataki delivered during his campaign. And that campaign was almost anachronistically buoyant.

After the inaugural address, the Governor and his guests will adjourn to the Crowne Plaza hotel for a post-inaugural brunch. There will be the back-slapping and congratulatory salutations and the smiles that there always are at these events. And then everyone will go home. They should savor the glow: It may be the last happy party in Albany for a while.

“Oh, please-why did he even want a third term?” mused Baruch College professor Douglas Muzzio. “In the third term, the elected official wears out his welcome. You’ve made enough enemies, so people are carping at you. This sounds like a lot of conflict and agita for the Governor.”

Forget the enemies-even Mr. Pataki’s friends are anticipating bad news. Dennis Rivera, the health-care workers’ union leader whose early and enthusiastic endorsement had so much to do with Mr. Pataki’s cascade of union and Latino support, has been told to expect very bad news in the upcoming budget, sources familiar with the union say. They’ve been warned that they’ll have to fight for their share, and that there will be a compromise, the sources say. But it will be bruising.

Already, the Governor has made the first move, calling for “tobacco bonds”: selling the right to collect $550 million in annual settlement payments from Big Tobacco for 25 years to Wall Street, in exchange for a one-time infusion of $3 billion to $4 billion. The tobacco securitization, as it’s known, has the advantage of solving some current problems, but it jeopardizes the funding for Child Health Plus, a health-care program that won Mr. Pataki so much favor with the health-care workers and Latinos.

With deficits next year projected to reach a frightening $10 billion, lots of bad budget news is ahead. All this anxiety comes after an election-year budget that was “not only pain-free, it was euphoric,” Mr. Muzzio said. “The public will be disappointed to learn that the [state] government didn’t react to 9/11 on 9/11-it will be reacting this year,” warned incoming State Senate Minority Leader David Paterson. And in that context, almost no one expects Mr. Pataki to keep the promises he made during the campaign. “He just cannot guarantee them all packages in the midst of a budget crisis,” said Phillip Thompson, an associate professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is also a close watcher of New York union politics.

“He’s caught between the constituency that brought him to power”-that is, the anti-tax conservatives-“and the constituency that kept him in power”: unions, moderate Democrats and Latinos, said Gerald Benjamin, the dean of the State University of New York at New Paltz. “How does he square the circle?” Mr. Benjamin, it should be noted, isn’t questioning whether promises will be broken, only by how much.

“I would hope that his third term looks more like his first term,” said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party. “I’m not asking him to punish the unions. I’m asking the leaders of state government to be realistic, to get state spending in control, to protect the working class and the taxpayers. Otherwise, there will be a time when people will jump in their cars and in planes and buses and turn the lights out on New York for good.”

Good-Will Bank

Mr. Pataki does have the advantage of having created some good will in the union movement. “We are at a point where we know each other,” said Denis Hughes, president of the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. “The Governor doesn’t have an animus towards us. If he had all the resources and said, ‘We know we made promises to you, but we’re just not doing it,’ that would be a problem.”

Close watchers of the state budget say there just aren’t many more places to turn for new sources of revenue. “Unlike the New York City Mayor, who has to balance his budget as a matter of law to within one-tenth of one percentage point, the Governor doesn’t,” Mr. Thompson said. “The state budget has historically been a mess, and [Mr. Pataki] has been able to coast because of the overall strength of the national economy. Well, the coasting’s over.”

All of this naysaying doesn’t appear to have disturbed Mr. Pataki and his allies-outwardly, at least. “It’s not going to be easy,” allowed Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon. “There will be enormous challenges. But he knew what he was getting into when he ran for a third term-and he ran very hard for it.”

True. Exactly why isn’t known-but there are certain theories. Democrats who snickered at Mr. Pataki’s political abilities now admire his canniness. “George Pataki is a very able and popular public official,” Mr. Paterson said, expressing the view of many Democrats who, for a variety of reasons, chose not to say so publicly.

Mr. Paterson is a subscriber to the national-office theory. Under that theory, Mr. Pataki’s aim this term is to get a high-level cabinet post or to run with President George W. Bush as his Vice President in 2004. “Mind you, I think he’d be a good candidate,” Mr. Paterson said. “He does a lot of out-of-the-box thinking that I really respect. Most Republicans symbolically approach minorities. I wouldn’t say the Governor’s done a great job, but he’s moved more than others have.”

There are problems with this theory, of course. First of all, Mr. Bush already has declared that incumbent Dick Cheney will be his running mate in 2004. And the Bush administration has tended to nurture and nuzzle its conservatives-its Cheneys, its John Ashcrofts, its Paul Wolfowitzes, while poking its moderates-the Christine Todd Whitmans-in the eye.

But some sources can still see a scenario in which Mr. Pataki gets on the ticket in 2004. They see the possibility that a continued weak economy and a prolonged war will leave the nation disillusioned with Mr. Bush. To win a second term, the President will need to swivel to the center, where he’ll find George Pataki-a moderate, tax-cutting governor of a large state with the ability to pull in huge amounts of cash.

Mr. Pataki has always been extremely loyal to Mr. Bush, almost never criticizing him, even though a few well-placed jabs could produce cheers in a state like New York. The Bushes, George W. chief among them, tend to value friendships and loyalty more than most political families.

“The Governor has this amazing ability to be in the right place at the right time, and he had faith that he might be again in 2004,” said one Pataki watcher. History suggests that the Governor has a good sense of timing: He was an obscure State Senator from the Hudson Valley who carefully positioned himself as a fiscal conservative-so when Alfonse D’Amato came looking for a candidate to face Mario Cuomo in 1994, George Pataki was the obvious choice.

Of course, this prediction provokes derision among some national Republicans, who see a pro-choice, union-loving, big-spending Republican as the longest of long shots if Mr. Bush does look for a new Vice President. Those Republicans say that Mr. Pataki’s allies are floating their Vice-Presidential theory so he doesn’t become an instant lame duck as he begins his third term. One early clue may be whether the national party chooses New York City for its convention in 2004. A decision is expected soon.

Albany had its ninth-worst winter storm over the Christmas holiday, with 20 inches of snow falling on the state’s capital. “We dug out! We dug out!” officials exclaimed afterward. But that very feat won’t be so easy for George Elmer Pataki in what promises to be a long and bitter winter.