Is Pataki Toast? Polls and Press Whack Governor

“Looks like we’re going to be raising federal money,” Governor George Pataki began telling supporters late last year, his signal to them that he would be running for President.

Less than two months later, however, the only people still putting Mr. Pataki’s name in the same sentence as “2008″ are on the Governor’s payroll. Mr. Pataki hasn’t directly addressed the growing questions about his family’s personal finances. And where analysts were recently considering a revival, now they’re planning an autopsy.

“I don’t think it’s premature for an obituary,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “Forget it. The guy is not going to be President.”

Even Mr. Pataki’s close advisors realized that since his re-election in 2002, the Governor had been battered politically. The legislature overrode his budget vetoes in 2003, “Albany” has become a dirty word in New York politics, and even his speech at the Republican National Convention-where he was expected to introduce the President-was upstaged by Rudy Giuliani’s stem-winder and bumped out of its prime slot by a Peggy Noonan–scripted voice-over.

But this was going to be the year when Mr. Pataki shrugged aside the speculation over his uncertain future and regained the initiative. He has been flying around the state campaign-style, pushing a favored initiative, Medicaid reform. In January, he made his pitch to New York conservatives, using a set of charts (and some rather old Mario Cuomo jokes) to defend his fiscal stewardship despite the state’s exploding budgets.

“The Governor is making aggressive moves right now that I expect to pay off governmentally and politically,” said Kieran Mahoney, a longtime advisor to Mr. Pataki, at the time.

“He was back on the horse and he was charging,” said another Pataki advisor, adding that “2003 and ’04 were not great years, but he’s fighting back, and he was having a good early run of 2005.”

What looked for a moment like a comeback, however, is beginning to appear like a last gasp. His state has been battered by a series of policy setbacks, and his reputation tarnished by an increasingly public need to live better than a public servant can afford.

The bad news is taking its political toll. A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month found that Mr. Pataki would lose to Senator Hillary Clinton in next year’s Senate race by 61 to 30 percent, and to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the Governor’s race 54 to 30 percent. A larger New York Times poll found that Mr. Pataki’s approval rating had dropped 19 percentage points, to 43 percent, since 2002.

“It’s a public implosion,” said Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant and old antagonist of Mr. Pataki who worked for billionaire Tom Golisano in the last Governor’s race. “Once he could no longer defend his administration from a policy point of view, it was only a matter of time until they started picking him apart on the corruption stuff.”

That’s not an unfamiliar pattern. New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s long-rumored gay affair brought him down only after his administration had already begun to collapse. And Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s policy successes overshadowed his rumored philandering and his own first lady’s private-sector profits.

Now Mr. Pataki is facing dual meltdowns on funding for schools and for Medicaid, which-if the courts continue to hold against him-could force a tax increase. He saw his vetoes of a tax-heavy budget overridden by the State Legislature in 2003. And scandals over the management of the public authorities are taking their toll.

The Governor’s staff contends that these are just momentary hurdles. “Our point of view is that polls go up and go down, but what matters most is his leadership,” said spokeswoman Molly Fullington. “And through crisis after crisis, New Yorkers can still trust Governor Pataki. He’s made the difficult choices that have allowed the state to move forward.”

Mr. Mahoney blames Sept. 11 for the state’s grim budget picture-more debt than any other, save the far larger California.

“He’s had a couple of tough cycles where he’s had to be anything but the guy dispensing the goodies, because there were no goodies to dispense,” said Mr. Mahoney. “He’s making the tough decisions he needs to make in ’05 so that he can have the choices he needs to have in ’06.”

But some of Mr. Pataki’s old allies in the conservative movement, of which he was once an acolyte, are less generous. E.J. McMahon, an influential analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a former Pataki administration official, now regularly blasts the Governor’s budgets.

And some of Mr. Pataki’s old friends in the movement no longer see him as one of their own.

“He has made major mistakes that have infuriated conservatives,” said Steve Moore, the former head of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group. “He really has a big shoring-up job to do with conservatives inside the state and around the country.”

Mr. Pataki’s old upstate base has also abandoned him. The Quinnipiac poll found him losing to Mr. Spitzer upstate by virtually the same margin as inside New York City.

Policy woes, moreover, seem to have opened the floodgates to a more personal set of damaging revelations. At first, it was just a matter of old friends helping a public servant keep his family in comfortable style. A college classmate, Richard Hayden, brought the Patakis in on sweet investment deals-including an industrial park in Georgia. Mrs. Pataki reportedly earned $8,000 in her share of rental income in three months during 2003-when the state’s first family releases its tax returns in two months, that share should prove to be much higher. And some of the tenants paying rent in the complex, named Chastain Meadows, are firms with millions of dollars in contracts with New York State. One such tenant, Clayton Group Services, which bills itself as the nation’s largest health and safety firm, was awarded a $3.8 million contract by the state Department of Environmental Conservation last November for cleaning up part of the Brooklyn-Queens Aquifer. The contract was awarded to the firm even though they were the second-lowest bidder, because the low bidder’s proposal was “unsatisfactory.” A spokesman for the agency said that the contract was awarded purely on the merits and that the losing bidder never challenged the decision.

Yet Mr. Hayden doesn’t appear to have wanted any favors from the Governor in return. And at first, Mr. Pataki hewed to a rule that George W. Bush was quoted as citing recently: “Laura and I are smart enough to know that when you’re President of the United States, you don’t make new friends.”

But Mr. Pataki seemed to have new friends who wanted to help out, too. Henry Silverman, the chief of the Cendant Corporation-a huge conglomerate with major lobbying interests before the state-found a way indirectly to put Mrs. Pataki on the payroll as a trustee of a company linked to Cendant.

The donors to the State Republican Party-a list full of corporations with state contracts-have also done their part. The New York Post-which gave big play to damaging stories about Mr. Pataki’s Democratic opponent in 2002-unleashed its fierce Albany correspondent, Fred Dicker, on Mrs. Pataki’s domestic arrangements, putting a picture of a woman described as her “servant”-and paid for by the State Republican Party-on page 1. Mr. Dicker followed up with a report that Mrs. Pataki had been personally pushing New York business leaders to buy hundreds of copies of her children’s book, with the pitch that the family “really need[ed]” the money.

In a world where supporters can cut checks half the size of Mr. Pataki’s take-home salary, it’s easy to see the temptation of money in politics.

“You are constantly around people who have more money than you,” said one prominent Republican.

The combination of policy woes and personal humiliations have left a consensus among Mr. Pataki’s friends-not to mention his critics-that his Presidential ambitions are an increasingly painful joke. “Stillborn,” said one prominent conservative. “He was done before this, and I don’t know if he knew it,” said an aide to another Presidential contender.

But the Governor, head down, is soldiering on.

“Writing his political obituary right now is absurd,” said Mr. Mahoney.