Axes and Taxes Putting Pataki Into a Free Fall

April is turning out to be cruel indeed for Governor George Pataki.

The first day of the new month-the day on which the budget is due, but never arrives-brought snow and tens of thousands of angry health-care workers to Albany. The Governor’s erstwhile best friend in the labor movement, Dennis Rivera, denounced state cuts in health-care spending.

Two days later came unflattering front-page stories (followed by nasty editorials in the usually Pataki-friendly tabloids) about a public spat between Mr. Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg over homeland-security funding. The fight caught the public’s attention and embarrassed the Governor.

Making matters even worse, a legal judgment against the Phillip Morris Companies put in jeopardy $4 billion in tobacco bonding that the Governor has been counting on to bridge about a third of the state’s massive $12 billion budget gap. Meanwhile, political insiders stood up and noticed when the Governor’s onetime labor commissioner and faithful aide, U.S. Representative John Sweeney, publicly took sides against Mr. Pataki in the fight over federal security funds.

Even the weather refused to cooperate-and as John Lindsay once learned, cranky voters are happy to blame politicians for, say, the occasional snowstorm. In upstate Onondaga county, home of Syracuse University, snow and ice knocked out the power on April 5, which meant that fans of the university’s basketball team couldn’t see Syracuse beat Texas to advance to the national championship. And the Yankees’ home opener-always a happy, good-news day-was snowed out.

No wonder the Governor is acting a bit strange these days. For eight years, he has managed to spin straw into gold. Now, with a sort of anti-Midas touch, everything he touches is turning back into straw. And unlike gold, straw can’t educate kids or keep the hospitals fully functioning.

In the middle of all this bad news, Mr. Pataki took an uncharacteristic swipe at Mr. Bloomberg, whom he likes to call “a friend,” by telling the Associated Press that he “didn’t understand” why the Mayor was “disparaging” the state. This may seem like a mild criticism, but coming as it does from a man who never seems to dislike anyone, it caught the attention of Pataki watchers from Washington Street in Albany to K Street in Washington, D.C.

By April 7, the Governor and the Mayor were chatting on the phone; later that day, the two issued an unusual joint statement saying their rare public battle was over. But if both had good reasons for putting the dispute behind them-the Governor because he was going to lose, the Mayor because he needs other favors from the Governor-the tiff was a sign of just how isolated Mr. Pataki has become.

“He’s flailing,” said one Bloomberg supporter. “He’s boxed himself in, and he’s flailing and acting irrationally-and doing it in public.” The fact that Mr. Pataki would take on the Mayor over what amounted to a few tens of millions shows just how tight the budget has become. Still, as another supporter of both the Mayor and the Governor points out, homeland security has become Mr. Pataki’s mantra in the last few months. “He’s assumed the mantle of the Tom Ridge of New York,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s the card he was going to play. If he doesn’t get the money, there are no ribbons to cut; there go the photo-ops.”

Indeed, Mr. Pataki has been most vocal in his criticism of the Democratic-controlled Assembly for failing to pass anti-terror measures. He has been at his most animated while holding press conferences on homeland-security issues. The day the war in Iraq started, for example, he basked in the reflected glow of 11 television cameras with the governors of Connecticut and New Jersey, talking about enhanced security measures. Mr. Bloomberg did not attend.

Though the two are publicly friends again, the private rifts run deep. Top Bloomberg aides absolutely and adamantly believe they are going to get a renewed commuter tax. Pataki supporters think the Bloomberg people are smoking crack. In public, the Governor has been thoroughly consistent in opposing the tax. The last thing he wants is a prolonged recession, like the early 1990’s, and he thinks tax hikes will stall the state’s economy even as other areas begin to recover.

Unfortunately for him, however, not many people agree, save for a few suburban legislators.

“He’s besieged, and I kind of think he didn’t expect it,” said consultant Norman Adler, who works for both Republicans and Democrats. “I think he thought that a lot of people would be on his side who don’t want to see taxes raised-people who kind of like him.” But the anti-taxers are not jumping to the barricades to defend him; instead, they’re writing op-eds in The New York Times attacking him. George Marlin, a prominent Conservative Party member and former Port Authority executive director, accused Mr. Pataki on March 30 of being “an incumbocrat.”

Even “friends” like Congressman Sweeney are willing to say that Mr. Pataki was wrong on homeland security “on the merits.” Mr. Sweeney has his own juice with Congress and the White House. But his willingness to take on Mr. Pataki may have to do with his own political ambitions: Mr. Sweeney is widely believed to be considering a run for statewide office-possibly Governor-while Mr. Pataki has been encouraging the ambitions of his Secretary of State, Randy Daniels.

Plunging Numbers

Meanwhile, Mr. Pataki’s poll numbers are sinking again. A Marist poll released on April 7 shows his job approval at 49 percent, as low as it was during the rent-control battles of 1997.

Part of the problem is that nobody-including, perhaps, Mr. Pataki himself-seems to know exactly where the Governor wants to go from here. A fourth term? A Bush cabinet seat? A run for the Presidency in 2008? The private sector? The uncertainty has left Albany more confused than ever. In the corridors of the capitol, on the Amtrak trains through the Hudson Valley, legislators and staff speculate about whether-or when-Mr. Pataki will concede the need to raise taxes to solve the budget crisis. No one seems to know what his endgame is. Democratic and Republican legislators alike, who are up for re-election next year, believe the Governor eventually will go along with some form of tax hike. But the Governor is giving no sign of doing so, and with every public statement takes a firmer anti-tax position.

Granted, there are some bright spots for the Governor. Mr. Rivera lapses into tortured syntax to avoid blaming Mr. Pataki for the proposed budget cuts. “We believe the decision that has been advanced to cut health care is the wrong one,” Mr. Rivera told health-care workers at the April 1 protest. Mr. Rivera’s entire seven-minute speech avoided the words “George Pataki.” His ad campaign urges people to “call Albany” about the proposed health-care cuts.

Mr. Rivera is trying hard not to repeat the personal attacks he made on Mr. Pataki a few years ago, when he accused the Governor of arrogance and said he was trying to “destroy our health-care system and the health and well-being of our families.

Even so, high-level officials in Local 1199, Mr. Rivera’s union, have said they’re stunned by the intensity of Mr. Pataki’s opposition to income-tax hikes, which leads to an equally intense fervor for health-care cuts. Publicly, Mr. Rivera told The Observer , “We know for a fact, in our union, the best allies and the best friends that we have are our own membership, and we are prepared to defend the interests of our members and our patients regardless of who are friends and our allies are.”

There’s a huge debate raging in 1199-and in the labor movement generally-about whether endorsing Mr. Pataki last year was the right thing to do. The leadership is still disciplined in defending the move, and nobody in 1199’s leadership wanted to go on the record expressing a contrary view-though plenty articulated that view privately. Bob Master, the political director of the Communications Workers of America, said what many people inside 1199 are feeling: “My big objection with this kind of short-term deal-making is that it helps elect candidates who make the very existence of the labor movement pretty precarious. One would have thought that was a long-run problem, but it turned out to be a very short-run problem.”

Just how quickly everything has come unraveled has surprised almost everyone-even those few who were willing to say during the election that the Governor and the Legislature, by refusing to acknowledge budget problems last year, were making this year’s problems even worse. The word “rent” has become the political byword du jour . “Governor Pataki ‘rented’ the unions for the election,” one insider said. “Governor Pataki is only ‘rentable’ for the election season,” said another.

Mr. Pataki’s supporters certainly believe he will survive this crisis. He’s been through unpleasant times before, they say, and he’s taking a principled stand that will ultimately benefit the state.

Others aren’t so sure. “The left cannot believe how quickly the Governor abandoned them,” said one political consultant, who didn’t want to be identified. “And the right has become disenchanted because he embraced the enemy too happily. He just doesn’t have many friends left.”