Furious George: Punch Drunk Gov Seething

Whatever happened to the George Pataki who made unlikely allies, won over opponents with quiet charm and made the status quo in Albany seem downright reasonable?

The last few weeks have been among the most difficult of the Governor’s tenure. He engaged the State Legislature-or rather, the Legislature’s all-powerful leaders-in a steel-cage match over the budget, and emerged bloody and defeated. He alienated allies, stuck to positions that seemed to belie his genial image, and baffled friends and foes alike with his uncompromising rhetoric.

And, even worse, the more he spoke to the public, the less they liked him-or his positions, anyway. Very suddenly, his smashing re-election victory in November seems a long, long time ago.

And the strain is showing, in ways both big and small. Many of his best and most loyal aides have moved on after two terms. Political insiders are preparing for the day when Mr. Pataki will leave office-which is to say that they’re already trying to figure out which horse they’ll support in 2006, assuming the Governor doesn’t run for a fourth term.

Even minor glitches are being taken as signs that all is not right in Albany.

For example, a few weeks ago, after the State Senate unanimously overrode every one of his 119 budget vetoes-the first time such a thing had happened in 21 years-Mr. Pataki called a press conference in the Red Room, on the second floor of the State Capitol.

Mr. Pataki hoped to seize the headlines by announcing that he would issue one more veto-a $1.8 billion package of financial assistance for the city. But the event didn’t quite go as planned. The normally perfectly disciplined gubernatorial staff couldn’t get the sound system to work, which left the Governor standing uncomfortably at the podium, parrying questions about his tie (“Actually,” he revealed, “this is an old tie”) as a frustrated aide yanked wires in and out of a sound box.

The Governor didn’t fare much better when the questioning began. When a reporter asked whether businesses should prepare to charge the new increased sales tax on June 1, the Governor answered: “In fact, the legislation provides for the regulations to be adopted by July 1 and implemented by July 15.”

In fact, the new taxes go into effect June 1. An aide to Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quickly paged reporters to inform them of the Governor’s error. A budget spokesman conceded the point, saying the Governor had “misspoke.”

It has been that kind of spring for the usually sure-footed Mr. Pataki. He and his staff have been stunned by the ferocious criticism of his role in the now-concluded budget negotiations. The Governor himself nearly conceded that point during the press conference. “You know,” he said, pausing to choose his words, “I knew that was going to be difficult, to have my vetoes of these tax increases … sustained.”

Difficult? No, it became impossible.

It was a low public moment for the Governor: He’d been whipped by the generally tame State Legislature. He went on the hustings to make his case directly to the voters, but found his poll numbers steadily decreasing. As the battle with the Legislature reached its climax, he was getting a 37 percent favorable rating for his job performance, as low as any point during his eight-plus years as Governor.

Part of the problem for Mr. Pataki is that his staff is out of whack. Most of the people left in his inner circle are the true believers-those who are committed to carrying out his core anti-tax agenda. The barkers and the yellers are gone. People like his first communications director, Zenia Mucha, and his second, Michael McKeon, have moved on to more lucrative and presumably calmer jobs in the private sector. They kept an unruly press and an often hostile Legislature in line so the Governor could smile through it all. But they’re gone, and so is the Governor’s smile.

Mr. Pataki’s political advisers, like the Governor himself, seem to have no clear goal in mind. When they speak, they lay out an array of options for Mr. Pataki-running for re-election in 2006, passing up a fourth term to run for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in ’06, or running for President in 2008. All of these possibilities would require Mr. Pataki to act in different ways in the coming years. But which one will it be? Nobody seems to know.

Meanwhile, the dynamics within the state Republican Party are changing. Yes, the Governor is still at the top, but beneath him, people are already beginning to think about a post-Pataki party. Already, two Republicans, Secretary of State Randy Daniels and upstate Congressman John Sweeney, are making soft noises about running for Governor and are quietly raising funds. Mr. Daniels is the Governor’s choice, but many party stalwarts-like Bill Powers, the former chairman of the state party, who is now a lobbyist-are siding with the Congressman. And Mr. Sweeney has tangled with Mr. Pataki in some battles.

The unbelievably coordinated machine that put Mr. Pataki in office and got him re-elected twice is drifting apart, and the Governor’s conduct so far this year shows it.

First came his third inaugural speech in January. Anticipating a clash with the Legislature over possible tax hikes, Mr. Pataki began using the phrase that he would repeat over and over again, saying that he would oppose what he called “job-killing taxes.” Then came Mr. Pataki’s annual State of the State address, in which he vowed not only to oppose tax hikes, but actually to cut some taxes.

He unveiled his budget in late January, and Mr. Silver immediately condemned it as “an arrow aimed straight at New York City.” Particularly galling for Mr. Silver were the Governor’s proposed cuts in education spending, especially to pre-K programs that are a favorite of the Speaker’s.

Still, a newly re-elected Governor with high poll ratings should have been able to fight and win that battle, at least in normal times. But it quickly became apparently that these aren’t normal times. The Pataki people underestimated Mr. Silver’s fury-or, more accurately, didn’t anticipate that he would find an ally in Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, an upstate Republican.

Mr. Bruno, whose members were hearing from angry constituents fearful of education cuts and property-tax hikes, did the unexpected: He joined forces with Mr. Silver to support an income-tax hike on the wealthy.

The Battle Is Joined

And so the two sides waged political war with each other. Mr. Pataki figured to emerge victorious; he’d won his third term easily in November and had managed, over the years, to alienate very few constituencies. Besides, he was preaching the gospel of no new taxes, which is a proven winner.

And yet, by April 14, it was pretty much over-and it was the Governor, not the legislators, who was in retreat. Mr. Bruno recently recalled that, on that day, he and Mr. Silver met with the Governor in the Red Room. He was surprised to discover that Mr. Pataki had invited the press to the meeting. “When we walked in, the Speaker and I said, ‘What’s the press doing in the Red Room?’ And [the Governor] said, ‘Well, I’m going to go and blow this up. It’s not getting anywhere, and we’re not going anywhere.’” In other words, Mr. Pataki decided (in Mr. Bruno’s telling) that there would be no more discussions. “He was not going to participate further in the budget process,” Mr. Bruno said. “He basically said, ‘Legislature, go do a budget.’ And we did.”

A day later, the Legislature had its own agreement, although some negotiations were still underway. Mr. Silver says the Governor tried to get the two legislative leaders to accept a 1.25 percent hike in the sales tax, instead of the Legislature’s plan to increase the sales tax by a 0.25 percent and raise income taxes on the wealthy. Mr. Pataki denied that such an offer took place; all Mr. Bruno will say is that “the idea was out there, and I didn’t put it out there.”

On May 2, the two houses began to pass their own budgets, much to Mr. Pataki’s chagrin. The battle was over.

If you ask almost anyone around the Capitol why Governor Pataki clung so fiercely to his position, they’ll tell you that he did so in order to curry favor with the Bush administration. Whether or not that’s true, there’s no doubt that the Pataki administration was surprisingly confrontational during the budget talks. The Governor built up enormous good will leading to last year’s re-election bid by building coalitions and unlikely alliances. Why the change?

“It’s simple,” he said. “In good times, it’s easy for everybody to avoid making tough decisions, but we haven’t done that. We made the tough decisions in 1995, we made the tough decisions in 1996. We made the tough decisions over the past eight years.”

The question for the Governor’s future is whether or not he’s made one tough decision too many.