Is John Faso Fighting An Unbeatable Foe?

On a summer evening in 1999, Republican stalwart and then–State Assembly Minority Leader John Faso broke with character: He let his hair down and sang.

Lifting his libretto from Man of La Mancha, Mr. Faso cast himself as Don Quixote and crooned a parody of “The Impossible Dream” at an annual dinner sponsored by the Albany press corps. His song was a paean to the unreachable Speaker’s seat, rendered somewhat unintelligible when he bungled parts of the script. The next day, Mr. Faso’s performance was panned by reporters—they’d been more impressed by a Star Wars skit that featured the Governor as Obi-Wan Pataki.

Now that he’s campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial nod, Mr. Faso, 53, is still trying to edge his way into the spotlight. But men with bigger names and fatter wallets have cast a shadow across his candidacy. Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld basks in the attention of his biggest backer, Republican State Committee chairman Stephen Minarik, and is also believed to be George Pataki’s tacit pick. Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire and perennial Independence Party candidate, is the favorite of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and is expected to enter the Republican race in January.

On Dec. 12, the state’s 62 Republican county chairmen are scheduled to convene in Albany and vote on consensus nominees for statewide office. Mr. Bruno has asked Mr. Minarik to postpone the vote but, as of press time, it was still on the calendar. Meanwhile, the very public spat between Mr. Bruno and Mr. Minarik over nominees has disgusted rank-and-file Republicans, who believe that their leaders are bowling for dollars while the party burns.

Keeping a respectful distance from the fray, Mr. Faso has so far refused to hit back, even after Mr. Minarik said that he “lives in la-la land.” Talking to The Observer on Dec. 5, Mr. Faso reiterated an earlier response: He has never been to la-la land but might consider a visit. “If there were any voters there, I’d be making a trip very soon,” he said with a laugh.

Indeed, Mr. Faso been making a lot of trips lately, tirelessly canvassing the state and trying to build a grass-roots base that money can’t buy.

“No one gets these things handed to them,” he said of the Republican nod. “You have to earn them.” But what about Mr. Weld and Mr. Golisano, both of whom, some would argue, are getting the silver-platter treatment?

“I don’t want to be the pundit or the prognosticator,” Mr. Faso replied. “I’m just out there talking about what my vision is for the state.”

Glitterati notwithstanding, Mr. Faso is in some ways the most qualified candidate in the Republican field, which also includes former Secretary of State Randy Daniels and Assemblyman Pat Manning. Only Mr. Faso has come within a whisker of winning statewide office in New York. In 2002, when he ran for State Comptroller with meager party support, little was expected of him. But Mr. Faso raised $7.5 million and lost with dignity to the overwhelming favorite, Democrat Alan Hevesi, by just 3 percent.

For the sake of party unity, Mr. Faso has also made the ultimate chivalrous sacrifice. In 1994, at the behest of Republican officials, he fell on his sword and gave up a vigorous campaign for State Comptroller so that Herb London, who had been jousting with gubernatorial candidate George Pataki for the Conservative Party line, could run for Comptroller instead.

“It’s water over the dam. I’m not resentful about that,” he said of Mr. London’s candidacy, which ended in defeat to H. Carl McCall. “The only regret is that, in ’94, I probably would have been elected; ’94 was a year when Republicans did very well in New York State and across the country. But I have no regrets.”

With martyrdom on his résumé, Mr. Faso should have earned some chits with state Republicans that he could cash in 2006. But cash, suggest party officials, is exactly Mr. Faso’s problem. On Nov. 30, Mr. Weld’s kickoff fund-raiser—a $1,000-per-head affair in the rooftop ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel—generated a reported $1.5 million in donations. Mr. Faso’s first fund-raiser, scheduled for Dec. 12 after the state committee vote, will be a more modest affair, with tickets starting at $150 apiece, at Jack’s Oyster House in downtown Albany. Still, Mr. Faso said he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with his opponents, and he’s prepared to raise $40 million to $50 million to run for Governor. He added that, since mid-September, he has already banked around $1 million.

Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, argued that the wealth gap isn’t everything. “I think he’d be an articulate spokesman for conservative Republican values,” he said of Mr. Faso. “I don’t believe that elections are totally about money. It’s about principles.”

So, four years after his dignified defeat at the hands of Mr. Hevesi, Mr. Faso is running again. He hasn’t officially announced his candidacy yet, but he has hired a staff and is campaigning wholeheartedly. He says he expects to win the Republican vote on Dec. 12 and also expects to be the Conservative nominee; in all his dogged glory, he has the hallmarks of a real contender. Still, the question looms large: Will he become the Don Quixote of state Republican politics?

“Clearly, the party leadership is looking for money and name, and the two guys with money and name are Golisano and Weld,” said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “A guy like Faso, who is sort of an established institutional player who’s put in his dues, is sort of lost in that mix. It’s unfortunate that this gazillionaire era we’re entering into could freeze out a candidate like Faso in the very early stages.”

And there’s more than money in the mix. Republican leaders are concerned that, as New York becomes a deeper shade of blue, only a socially liberal candidate can prevail statewide. Mr. Faso disagrees. “I think that philosophy is what’s led to the Conservative and Republican base of the state, and left us in a position where we look like we have no philosophy,” he said.

An Extreme Case?

Mr. Faso has, in the past, been tarred as a right-wing extremist. During a 2002 interview with the Albany Times Union, Mr. Hevesi said of his opponent: “He’s a smart guy and very presentable, but he also believes Louis XIV was excessively liberal.”

Mr. Faso, who opposes late-term abortion and supports strengthening parental-notification laws, also left a lasting impression on the abortion-rights group NARAL, which bitterly opposed his candidacy in 2002.

“New Yorkers need to understand—and at the end of this campaign, will know—that John Faso is a threat to women’s health,” said Bob Jaffe, the deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, on Dec. 6. Mr. Jaffe also pointed to a transcript of Assembly floor remarks from April 10, 1987, which his organization still has on file. During that session, Mr. Faso described Roe v. Wade as a “black mark upon this country.”

As he prepares for his latest campaign, Mr. Faso said that the legal status of abortion in New York—at least in the broadest sense—“is not going to change, no matter who gets elected.” Taking that as the status quo, he would rather concentrate on his platform’s pocketbook issues, in particular making the state more fiscally competitive by cutting local taxes and bringing jobs back to New York.

But when it comes to fiscal matters, Mr. Faso’s opponents have questioned whether his current role as a registered lobbyist could compromise his ability to govern. Mr. Faso replies that he has no conflict of interest. In fact, he added, he has lobbied Congress on behalf of the state and the M.T.A. for federal transportation funding.

“Look, I’m a big boy—I understand the environment in which we operate,” he said. “Everyone is subject to having their business and professional lives opened up to scrutiny, and I anticipate that. But I also am not ashamed of anything.” He added that he had done “little, if any, lobbying of the state legislature,” and that his lobbying had maintained a federal focus.

Right now, the most important kind of lobbying for Mr. Faso and his competitors involves winning the hearts and minds of New York Republicans.

Among members of the party’s state committee, Mr. Faso named Onondonga County chairman Robert Smith among his strongest supporters. Mr. Smith, who spoke with The Observer on Dec. 5, said he’s still making up his mind. Though he considers Mr. Faso and Mr. Daniels to be “the two most credible candidates,” he added: “I honest to God don’t know exactly what I’m going to do.”