Pataki Secretary May Be Mobilizing to Succeed Boss

Just when it seemed the succession saga swirling around Governor George Pataki couldn’t get any more fraught or contorted, the story has taken another twist. An old loyalist, Randy Daniels, is making moves to take his place, raising eyebrows among the state political establishment and adding another level of intrigue to the state Republican Party’s malaise.

In the wake of the G.O.P.’s surprising defeats in this year’s legislative races, some party leaders have been publicly criticizing Mr. Pataki’s leadership, while others had begun fretting noisily about possible successors if Mr. Pataki declines to run for a fourth term in 2006. With Eliot Spitzer coming on strong from the Democratic side, desperate Republicans began suggesting everyone from Rochester businessman and political maverick Thomas Golisano to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That chatter stopped, at least temporarily, when the Governor said that he might seek a fourth term after all.

But now another wrinkle seems to be developing in the succession story. Mr. Daniels, the Pataki administration’s Secretary of State, has been quietly ramping up a campaign that many suspect is aimed at the Governor’s office.

Throughout the fall, Mr. Daniels, 53, has been traveling around the state, looking an awful lot like a candidate for Governor, albeit unofficially. He has actively courted leaders in his own party and in the Conservative Party, and has made a strong effort to cultivate constituents like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. More recently, he has begun revving up his fund-raising operation, which was dormant during much of the Presidential election. “Now that the general election is over, Randy is certainly beginning to focus on raising some money,” said Leo Kayser, a prominent lawyer who represents Mr. Daniels’ exploratory committee. “So, yes, if you heard he’s been making calls to raise some money, that’s accurate. A fund-raiser is also in the formative stages for sometime next month.”

Mr. Daniels declined to be interviewed for this article. But the news that he has begun to ramp up his campaign has not gone unnoticed in top Republican circles, in part because it’s unclear whether he has Mr. Pataki’s blessing.

Once, not long ago, Mr. Daniels was considered to be Mr. Pataki’s personal pick for heir apparent. A rising star within both the Republican and African-American communities, he was the man Mr. Pataki often turned to as a surrogate to speak on his behalf. And when Mr. Daniels began setting up his exploratory committee in May 2003, no one was surprised to see members of Mr. Pataki’s own campaign team-including fund-raisers Patrick Donahue and Cathy Blaney-helping in the effort.

More recently, however, some insiders have suggested that Mr. Daniels could be in danger of spoiling some of the Governor’s good will. With Mr. Pataki still flirting with a fourth run for Governor, it would be bad form for Mr. Daniels to campaign too visibly for his boss’ job, sources said.

“I think Randy knows that it would be crazy to short-circuit the Governor’s process,” said one Republican insider. “He knows that to try to force a decision from George Pataki on this issue is to put a blindfold on and walk in front of a firing squad.”

As this insider described it, Mr. Daniels has not yet crossed the campaign Rubicon. But another party loyalist painted a more critical picture, suggesting that Mr. Daniels has, in fact, overstepped some kind of invisible line.

“I think a lot of people have been disappointed in the actions Randy has taken in gearing up,” said this Republican loyalist. “Randy is someone who has a lot of potential, but when he calls people who are close to George Pataki and tells them how he is going to go about [his campaign], he causes damage to himself by jumping the gun.”

Nor is this the only concern, according to the insider. Mr. Donahue, who ran Mr. Pataki’s campaign-finance committee and now runs Mr. Daniels’ operation, was questioned in 2000 as part of an investigation into accusations that Pataki administration officials sold early paroles for campaign contributions. Mr. Donahue was never charged with any crime, but he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. (One of his lawyers was Mr. Kayser.) Three state Parole Board officials eventually were found guilty of lying to federal investigators, while a Pataki fund-raiser was convicted for obstructing justice. The taint has lingered.

While some Republicans are concerned about Mr. Donohue’s role with Mr. Daniels’ prospective campaign, many more say they have no problem with Mr. Daniels’ campaign tactics and that Mr. Pataki doesn’t, either. “There’s nothing to my knowledge that Randy is doing that creates any friction with George Pataki,” said Mr. Kayser, who attended Yale with Mr. Pataki and is a close friend of the Governor as well as Mr. Daniels. “In fact, I’m sure Randy would be very careful not to. You don’t really bite the hand that feeds you. There’s no question that Randy is a Pataki loyalist.”

Still, this seems to be the minority concern at this point, and for each person who would take offense, there seem to be several more who insist they have no problem with Mr. Daniels’ campaign tactics and that Mr. Pataki doesn’t, either. “There’s nothing to my knowledge that Randy is doing that creates any friction with George Pataki,” said Mr. Kayser, who attended Yale with Mr. Pataki and is a close friend of the Governor as well as Mr. Daniels. “In fact, I’m sure Randy would be very careful not to. You don’t really bite the hand that feeds you. There’s no question that Randy is a Pataki loyalist.”

Mr. Pataki’s people seem to agree, at least publicly. “Randy Daniels is an outstanding public servant and Secretary of State, and obviously we’re glad that he’s a part of the administration,” said David Catalfamo, a spokesman for the Governor. “But on the political end, I guess we’ll leave that for other folks.”

Mr. Daniels earned his way into the Governor’s inner circle in 1994 when, as a disgruntled Democrat, he publicly supported Mr. Pataki’s long-shot bid to unseat Governor Mario Cuomo. His endorsement was rewarded with an appointment to the Empire State Development Corporation, where he served for five years as deputy to longtime Pataki insider Charles Gargano. In 2001, Mr. Daniels was rewarded yet again when he was appointed Secretary of State, presiding over a low-profile agency best known as the repository of state records.

A decade of loyal service to Mr. Pataki has in many ways been a kind of political resurrection for Mr. Daniels, whose earlier career in the Democratic Party fizzled amid bitter feelings. In the 1980’s, Mr. Daniels worked for an assortment of Democrats associated with the party’s liberal wing: former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Mark Green and former City Council President Andrew Stein. (He also served as spokesman for a Bahamian prime minister and worked briefly for eccentric real-estate tycoon Abe Hirschfeld.)

However, it was Mr. Daniels’ short-lived 1992 appointment as deputy mayor in the Dinkins administration that ended his ties with the Democratic Party. Before he formally took office, a former aide to Mr. Stein accused Mr. Daniels of sexual harassment years earlier. His accuser ultimately withdrew the charges, but not before Mr. Daniels was forced to resign. Two years later, while nursing his political wounds at a public-relations firm, he added his name to the list of Pataki endorsers and began his ascension to the Governor’s cabinet.

Still, if Mr. Daniels has found political redemption in the Republican Party, it is less clear that the party will be willing to stake its redemption on him in 2006.

Big Obstacles

Mr. Daniels’ supporters argue that he would bring a grab-bag of talents to the gubernatorial race, from charisma and experience to strong crossover appeal. “Randy is someone who has a lot of electoral potential,” said Mr. Kayser. “Were he to run for a statewide office, he would have the ability as a Republican hopefully to hold onto the traditional Republican vote, especially with his strong free-market economic policies. At the same time, he ought to have some draw on the traditional Democratic electorate, in the city and around the New York suburbs.”

But Mr. Daniels faces some significant obstacles. Only one African-American, Democrat Carl McCall, has ever won a statewide race in New York. And African-Americans are the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituency. Moreover, Mr. Daniels has never run for elected office and, as a recent convert to the G.O.P, does not have a natural base within the party. To be sure, he has worked hard to try to build a base, courting the party faithful and cozying up to party conservatives. But some skeptics have argued that he still has a way to go.

“Do I think ultra-liberal-turned-Republican Randy Daniels can win [the party’s nomination]?” asked Roger Stone, a Republican operative who ran Mr. Golisano’s third-party gubernatorial bid in 2002. “Good luck!”

Of course, the biggest problem Mr. Daniels may face is the specter of Mr. Spitzer’s candidacy. With his marquee name and $9 million campaign war chest, Mr. Spitzer is a formidable opponent who is fast gaining momentum. One recent Quinnipiac University poll showed him trouncing even Mr. Pataki. In order to fend off a candidate of this magnitude, Republicans know they need an A-list name on the ticket. But while Mr. Daniels may be a rising star, he’s no one’s idea of a superstar, at least not yet.

The star-power deficit is clearly troubling some Republican leaders, and it may explain why they have not come out more forcefully for Mr. Daniels. It also may be a factor behind recent whispering campaigns for potential candidates with greater name recognition and, not coincidentally, much deeper pockets. (Mr. Daniels had only $240,000 in his campaign chest as of his July 2004 filing.)

In early December, Stephen Minarik, the new Republican Party chairman, caused an uproar when he said he would consider supporting Mr. Golisano, the wealthy founder of New York’s Independence Party, for the Republican nomination. Mr. Bloomberg also has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial contender-assuming, of course, that he wins re-election to City Hall next year.

Still, Mr. Daniels shows all the signs of launching a campaign. “He’s the only one knocking on Conservative Party doors right now,” said Conservative Party chairman Michael Long. “He clearly has become a very visible player statewide.”

And no doubt hopes to become even more visible.