The Hevesi Skid: Who Belts in for Chauffeurgate?

Just over a month ago, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s re-election seemed guaranteed. With an unknown, inexperienced Republican opponent, his strategy was to wait until Election Day and do nothing.

Now, with a week to go until Election Day, a well-publicized scandal involving the misuse of salaried state employees to chauffeur his infirm wife is threatening to end his career and blemish the Democrats’ imminent statewide landslide.

In this last week, Mr. Hevesi’s remaining allies—unions, most notably—began to mobilize on his behalf. Whether that late push can reverse nearly a month’s worth of uniformly negative developments is unclear.

“I doubt he’s going to win,” said one particularly pessimistic Democratic lawmaker from Queens. “A month ago, nobody heard of him. Now the average voter’s head of him, and they don’t like what they heard.”

Mr. Hevesi’s woes date back to late September, when his Republican opponent, J. Christopher Callaghan, accused the veteran lawmaker of using a state employee to chauffeur his wife over a period of three years. The charge was later substantiated by the State Ethics Commission, which released a 26-page report condemning Mr. Hevesi and unequivocally refuting his contention that his wife needed the security of the 6-foot-2 driver.

“He was simply a driver and companion for Mrs. Hevesi,” the report said, which went on to suggest that the nearly $83,000 Mr. Hevesi reimbursed the state may be insufficient. (A separate investigation is underway by the Albany District Attorney, who declined to confirm whether a grand jury was hearing evidence in the case yet.)

The State Ethics Commission report was forwarded to the Governor, who appointed a former federal prosecutor to determine whether Mr. Hevesi should be removed from office. (If he were, in fact, removed—it wouldn’t be decided until after the Nov. 7 election—the Governor would appoint a new State Comptroller. If Mr. Hevesi resigned—a suggestion helpfully raised by Republican State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, among others—then it would be put to a collective vote of both houses of the State Legislature to choose his successor.)

While the report was being circulated among lawmakers and reporters, Mr. Hevesi emerged from hiding and agreed to debate Mr. Callaghan, a former Saratoga County Treasurer, on NY1 News.

He eviscerated his portly, bow-tie-wearing opponent in a performance that The New York Times called “defiant.” New York magazine’s political blog said that Mr. Hevesi was “King Lear with a calculator.”

On his way out after the debate, Mr. Hevesi told reporters in the studio’s lobby that the chauffeuring was “an egregious error” for which he was “profoundly apologetic.”

It didn’t help. The next day, the campaign of soon-to-be-Governor Eliot Spitzer released a statement saying, “The outcome of the Ethics Commission investigation presents information that compromises Alan Hevesi’s ability to fulfill his responsibilities.”

Then the stampede began. Mr. Hevesi’s name was erased from the endorsement list on Mr. Spitzer’s campaign Web site. Citizens Union, the good-government group that only began endorsing candidates this year, withdrew its endorsement and said that Mr. Hevesi should resign.

And in a rare sign of synchronization in this otherwise horrible political year for the state G.O.P., the Republican candidates for Governor, Attorney General and Comptroller released television commercials linking their opponents to Mr. Hevesi.

Even skilled orators like the Harvard-educated Senator Charles Schumer, who isn’t up for election, got entangled in Mr. Hevesi’s mess. “You can’t just say it’s a mistake and flick it away,” Mr. Schumer told reporters during an Albany press conference where he had hoped to talk about the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Minutes later, Mr. Schumer’s office released a statement to clarify the Senator’s position in the race. “Personally, I plan to vote for Alan” because “his opponent is just not up to the task of managing the pension fund,” the statement said. Not really a ringing endorsement. Awkward, in fact.

Polls, which even in the days after the scandal broke showed Mr. Hevesi leading by margins of 2-1, showed the race having closed to within 12 points, according to a survey from Marist College/WNBC-TV.

It got the point by the last week before Election Day that some Democratic lawmakers actually began to predict the unthinkable: that Mr. Hevesi would lose.

On Oct. 27, Mr. Hevesi began to fight back. His previously invisible campaign aired two television ads calling Mr. Callaghan unqualified. A third ad sought to re-introduce the longtime lawmaker to voters, complete with images of smiling Mr. Hevesi and soft, serene background music.

And for the first time since the scandal broke in late September, some of the state’s most politically influential unions—whose members are vested in the $140 billion pension in Mr. Hevesi’s care—moved into action on his behalf, releasing statements of support and calling and e-mailing members to turn out for their ally.

“We never disappeared from him,” the director of legislation and political action of the United Federation of Teachers, Marvin Reiskin, said this week.

The Hevesi campaign, bolstered by the formerly active campaign consultant Hank Morris, according to a report in the Daily News, even mustered a statement of support from the man most widely rumored by other Democrats to be Mr. Hevesi’s replacement: City Comptroller Bill Thompson. “Comptroller Hevesi’s record as both New York City Comptroller and State Comptroller is something to be proud of,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement. “I am voting for Alan Hevesi.”

A spokesman for Mr. Hevesi, Matthew Mullarkey, explained the relative outpouring of support this way: “People are putting Alan’s mistake in the context of his 35 years of public service. They know Alan’s record of accomplishment and support him for it.”

Despite the late help from the unions and others, Mr. Hevesi’s fate is anything but certain.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who was another rumored replacement candidate for Mr. Hevesi, said, “When you weigh the apparent wrongdoing that Alan’s engaged in against Mr. Callaghan’s ideas, his record and his background, it’s a very close call and it’ll be a very close election.”

—additional reporting by Gillian Reagan