Hevesi Gets a Pass In 2006 Campaign

With control over $129 billion in pension funds, budget oversight and audit functions at stake, you’d think that New York Republicans would be itching to take out the state’s Democratic comptroller, Alan Hevesi.

You’d be wrong.

With fewer than eight months before Election Day, Republicans have barely begun to think about why they want to knock him out—let alone how they’d do it.

Mr. Hevesi realizes as much. Thumbing his nose at the state Republican Committee, he recently declared that his re-election campaign was over.

“The comptroller election has been terminated,” said Mr. Hevesi, a garrulous, wonky, competitive fellow, speaking to Wise Guys a few weeks back, sounding half-joking and half-serious. “It’s a dull job and nobody should want it.”

The remark, while facetious, pointed to a larger truth: Even as candidates on both sides of the aisle had been maneuvering for months for the open gubernatorial and attorney-general seats, no Republican had stepped forward to challenge Mr. Hevesi.

That situation changed—finally—on March 8, when Saratoga County Treasurer J. Christopher Callaghan threw his hat into the ring, to little fanfare.

Noting the increasingly Democratic coloration of the state, Mr. Callaghan acknowledged that he would likely be taking a bullet for his party. “For me to suggest victory is a foregone conclusion would be inconsistent with my claim to competency in working with numbers,” he said in his announcement speech.

That dry assessment seems accurate.

It’s not as if Mr. Hevesi, on paper at least, appears invulnerable. A one-term incumbent, he won his race four years ago by a scant three points. To this day, to the chagrin of his supporters, he remains little known in large parts of the state. Yes, it’s hard to unseat an incumbent. Still, the Republicans haven’t developed any real case about why Mr. Hevesi shouldn’t keep his job.

In a half-hour conversation with Wise Guys, Mr. Callaghan, a smart, genteel local official who takes a conservative line on spending, mustered only middling criticisms of Mr. Hevesi’s performance. He said that Mr. Hevesi sometimes had resorted to “fiscal gimmickry” in his role as budget watchdog—such as when, in 2004, he pushed cities to delay making their contributions to the state’s pension funds until 2005 in order to make the state’s books look better.

“He was encouraging officials to fiddle with the numbers,” Mr. Callaghan said, which “bespeaks a political attitude that’s inconsistent with doing a good job” in what should be a nonpolitical green-eyeshades position.

Mr. Hevesi, for his part, criticizes the budget gimmicks of the state’s Republican Governor, George Pataki.

Mr. Callaghan also said that Mr. Hevesi’s audits of state authorities and other bodies had on occasion been “slanted politically,” although he declined to elaborate on the charge, saying that he had acquired the information on the down-low from staffers in Mr. Hevesi’s office.

So when will he be able to tell us more?

Others Republicans echo the “political” criticism.

Mr. Hevesi “is not really in the Arthur Levitt–Ned Regan mold,” said a G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate, John Faso, referring to two former State Comptrollers revered for their nonpartisanship. “He doesn’t check his partisanship at the door.”

Mr. Faso, who narrowly lost to Mr. Hevesi when both men ran for the seat being vacated by Carl McCall in 2002, observed that Mr. Hevesi recently has taken some swipes at President George W. Bush’s capital-gains tax cut, which Mr. Faso said has been “a real revenue generator for the state.”

It’s true—a proudly partisan liberal Democrat, Mr. Hevesi complains vociferously about the ballooning federal deficit. Just the other day on Staten Island, according to the Staten Island Advance, the State Comptroller criticized Mr. Bush for what he called the administration’s “deception” and “corruption.” That, no doubt, is a good re-election strategy with the President’s approval ratings in the mid-30’s nationally.

Mr. Hevesi also can point to a record of audits and other accomplishments: for example, an audit of a Nassau County school district that turned up $11 million in theft; the scotching of an improperly bid $4.9 billion state prescription-drug contract; and new guidelines to fix how state contracts are awarded. In a move that has garnered him praise even from the conservative Manhattan Institute, he advocates reform of the public authorities, which unaccountably circumvent state debt ceilings.

Nonetheless, good issues to exploit against Mr. Hevesi exist.

Chuck Bresher, research director of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, a private watchdog representing the liberal end of the business community, thinks Mr. Hevesi hasn’t been aggressive enough on pension reform—a pressing state issue—because he’s too close with the public employees’ unions.

The Republicans, if they want to be a party worthy of the name, should articulate a clear and forceful conservative case on these issues—and they should do it now.

If not, they should stop wasting voters’ time and cross-endorse Mr. Hevesi.