Pataki Lets Daniels Pick Up W. at Airport

When President George W. Bush arrived in New York on June 23, Governor George Pataki dispatched one of his closest advisers to meet him at the airport: Secretary of State Randy Daniels. These sorts of arrangements are almost invisible and surely meaningless to the public. But on the inside, they carry great weight. They confer favor and status; they are complicated transactions that indicate who is in favor and who is in the doghouse, who is hot and who is not.

For Mr. Pataki, promoting someone like Mr. Daniels, who is African-American, goes to the core of his self-image as an inclusive Republican-he sees himself as someone who is expanding the party. Not coincidentally, the President sees himself fulfilling that very role, too.

Mr. Daniels simply described his date with the President as “a great honor.” And it was also a huge favor, because Mr. Daniels wants to run for office in New York, so the exposure certainly helped.

“I’m basically exploring my options,” Mr. Daniels said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan offices. “Those options are shaped by what the Governor does. If the Governor runs [for re-election in 2006], I will support him. If Rudy Giuliani runs, I will support him. If neither of them run, I would hope they support me.”

It’s pretty clear, if Mr. Daniels does run for Governor, he would get that support from Mr. Pataki. “We are very proud of Secretary Daniels, and he’s done a great job as Secretary of State,” said Mr. Pataki’s spokeswoman, Lisa DeWald Stoll. “He has a key role in our administration, and we’re confident he’ll do well in any endeavor he chooses. But it’s way too early to speculate, since the Governor hasn’t ruled out running again.”

Mr. Pataki’s advisers are indeed working overtime these days to suggest he very well may run for a fourth term, but it’s a scenario even some of his closest friends discount. Mr. Pataki has raised more than $2 million in campaign funds so far this year, but a fourth term is a bad bet in New York. Just ask Mario Cuomo, whose bid for a fourth term in 1994 was foiled by … George Pataki.

Still, if you were the incumbent Governor and you had three and a half more years in your term, and the State Legislature had just decided you were irrelevant and had passed its own budget, you’d probably start telling people that you were considering another term. Why become an instant lame duck?

As for Mr. Giuliani, the Post reported on July 18 that the former Mayor “had told friends” that he will run for Governor in 2006. It’s certainly possible, but other friends expressed shock. “I know nothing about that” said one longtime adviser, speaking of the Post ‘s report. Others say there are only two jobs Mr. Giuliani wants in public life-President, of course, and maybe, just maybe, a return engagement as Mayor.

So why would he want to be Governor? He is already a national star, and if he ran for Governor, he could lose against Attorney General Eliot Spitzer or another Democrat and find himself relegated to the political recycling bin. And if he won, he would have to be the Governor-now there’s a dubious prospect. He would have to deal with 212 unruly legislators, all with large egos. Finessing those kinds of relations is not, of course, Mr. Giuliani’s favorite role in life.

Assuming Mr. Pataki and Mr. Giuliani do not run, many Republicans are chatting up Mr. Daniels, who has begun to build a treasury for a possible statewide campaign. He has raised $140,000 so far, with the help of Mr. Pataki’s fund-raiser, Cathy Blaney.

Mr. Daniels, however, is not alone: John Sweeney, a member of Congress from Rensselaer County-home to State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and former party chairman Bill Powers-also gets lots of mention. He isn’t on the fund-raising or campaign circuit, but there are plenty of people who think he should make a run for statewide office. Among them is Adam Goodman, the media man who worked on Mr. Sweeney’s last two Congressional campaigns (and who also worked for Mr. Giuliani on his last two campaigns).

“John represents the next great generation of Republican officeholders in New York,” Mr. Goodman told The Observer from his Florida offices. “His achievements in Washington certainly making him a top-shelf player.”

Those achievements include siding against Governor Pataki and with Mayor Bloomberg in getting security aid for New York City, and otherwise throwing his influence around on the House Appropriations Committee-as well as spearheading an effort to bar scandal-scarred WorldCom from getting government contracts.

One thing’s for certain: The Congressman doesn’t need Mr. Pataki to get him on a chopper with the President. He has his own relationship with Mr. Bush, thanks in part to the role he played during the Florida re-count in 2000. His work earned him the moniker of “Congressman Kick-Ass” from Mr. Bush himself. And Mr. Sweeney’s former chief of staff, lobbyist Brad Card, is the brother of White House chief of staff Andrew Card.

Mr. Sweeney didn’t want to talk to The Observer for this article. “He hasn’t looked past the 2004 re-election to the House of Representatives,” his spokesman, Kevin Madden, insisted.

Mr. Sweeney’s willingness to challenge Mr. Pataki probably would cost him the Governor’s support if the Congressman and Mr. Daniels face each other in a primary for the 2006 gubernatorial nomination. “People like George Pataki are not sure what to do about Sweeney,” said one Republican strategist. “They’re used to red meat, and they expect Republicans to order steak. But when they sit at the table with the Congressman, they’re worried that when the entrée is ordered, he’s going to order fish.”

One Pataki adviser conceded that “this is not an administration that tolerates freelancers.” Dissenting from the party line is about the worst thing you can do in the Pataki administration-the loyalists will hate you forever and thwart you at every turn.

Mr. Daniels, on the other hand, is nothing if not loyal. And though there is palpable, genuine warmth when Mr. Pataki and Mr. Daniels get together-they like to talk over breakfast, they speak softly, they stand near each other-their relationship has been mutually beneficial.

For Mr. Daniels, working for Mr. Pataki has provided more than opportunity-it has provided redemption. In the 1990′s, after a stint with former City Council President Andrew Stein, Mr. Daniels worked briefly for Mayor David Dinkins, but resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. His accuser later recanted.

Mr. Daniels went back to private life as a public-relations executive, but not for long. Mr. Pataki hired him to be a top deputy in Charles Gargano’s Empire State Development Corporation, where among his assignments was the redevelopment of 125th Street in Harlem. It was on that very street, on a gorgeous May day in 2001, that Mr. Pataki swore in Mr. Daniels as Secretary of State with complete honors, a choir, and a dais full of both Democrats and Republicans.

“I have long valued and trusted Randy’s advice and counsel,” the Governor said that afternoon as the sun slanted down through the plaza in front of the Adam Clayton Powell state office building. “His skills, vision and commitment will help us continue to ensure every New Yorker can pursue their version of the American Dream.”

Mr. Daniels still is sounding that theme today. “I believe I can unite New Yorkers across the broadest possible spectrum,” he has been telling the party faithful across the state. “The Republican Party must expand its base if it wants to remain viable against the Democratic Party. I have a vision and the ability to articulate it.”

All of this is very good for Mr. Pataki. If he doesn’t run for a fourth term, Mr. Daniels could be his legacy, and legacy is the kind of thing Mr. Pataki is very concerned about these days. He wants to have a hand in electing his successor, whenever that might happen. And he has made clear his deep interest in the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan. Long-term achievements, he hopes, will be remembered, and short-term defeats-like this year’s budget-will be forgotten.

But then there’s the question of Mr. Daniels’ chances. No African-American, never mind an African-American Republican, has ever been elected Governor of New York. Former Comptroller H. Carl McCall was the first and thus far only African-American to win statewide office in New York. The fact that Mr. Daniels, a former Democrat, is even considering a gubernatorial campaign prompts some Republicans to gag, others to scoff. Skeptics point out that he has never run for office before (his current post is appointed, and it is also highly obscure). Roger Stone, who ran the third-party gubernatorial campaign of Thomas Golisano last year, accused Mr. Daniels of supporting a “David Dinkins–style economic agenda.” Others point out that Mr. Daniels has no natural base in the party, a severe handicap in a statewide primary.

But Mr. Daniels is trying. He is talking to consultants like Arthur Finkelstein and Kieran Mahoney, who, it is believed, would also be interested in working for Mr. Sweeney. (Mr. Mahoney refused to discuss any contacts with the two men or their camps.) Mr. Daniels points out that Brad Race, the former Secretary to the Governor, attended his East Side fund-raiser this spring.

A lot can happen between now and 2006. Although it’s unlikely, Mr. Pataki still could run, or Mr. Giuliani might. Two other Republicans, State Senator Michael Balboni of Nassau County and Erie County Executive Joel Giambra of Buffalo, might get into the race. Mr. Sweeney could run for Governor, or he could run for Senator against Hillary Clinton-or he could stay put in his powerful Congressional seat.

But in the meantime, Mr. Daniels is out there running, with the full faith and credit of Governor Pataki. Expect more airport greetings.