The Political Landscape

Political candidates of limited imagination never fail to remind us that elections are about the future. This year, that dreadful cliché actually has some meaning for New York politicians who are looking beyond Election Day 2000.

The city’s term-limits law begins to take effect next year, depriving Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of a chance at a third term. Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Public Advocate Mark Green, Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer are already preparing for a succession battle. Mr. Green and Mr. Hevesi appear to be the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, which would be tantamount to victory. In this overwhelmingly Democratic city, the Republicans have little chance to retain City Hall.

Meanwhile, in 2002, George Pataki will be nearing the end of his second term. Inevitably, there will be speculation about his intentions, because unlike Mr. Giuliani, the Governor does not have to go, gently or otherwise, into that good political night after two terms. Mr. Pataki may choose to run for a third term, as Mario Cuomo and Nelson Rockefeller did. Or he may decide that life is too short to spend another four years dealing with people like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The next few months, then, will tell us a great deal about New York’s changing political landscape. The leading Mayoral contestants have it easy, for term limits have made their decisions for them. Like Mr. Giuliani, they will have to surrender their current posts after next year. So they either run for Mayor or voluntarily withdraw from power. Not much of a choice, really.

For five other ambitious pols, however, the future is hazy, and the months ahead promise lots of soul-searching and reflection. Mr. Pataki must decide if two terms are enough. Mr. Giuliani has to decide if, or when, he will try for public office again. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo find themselves in each other’s way and are waiting to see if the other is bluffing. And Representative Rick Lazio will know in just a few weeks whether or not he is washed up.

Here’s how it shapes up for each:

George Pataki

The Governor may not know E.B. White from J.T. Snow, but it doesn’t take a Yale graduate to figure out that he’s the odds-on favorite to win a third term in 2002. The question is whether he wants it or not. And upon that decision, the fortunes of several other ambitious politicians rest.

It’s clear that Mr. Pataki is willing to consider a change. He was a finalist in the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential sweepstakes, and there has been talk that Mr. Pataki could find himself in Washington in a Bush Restoration Cabinet, perhaps as Interior Secretary.

The prospects for a Bush Presidency, however, are uncertain at best. If Mr. Pataki remains in Albany, there is little reason for him to turn down a chance for a third term. He has a broad and eclectic base and has been Governor during a time of tremendous prosperity. Assuming the economy remains sound, a prospective opponent would have to make a compelling case for change, and that is no easy assignment. So Mr. Pataki would seem to be the master of his universe.

Rudolph Giuliani

Had Mr. Giuliani remained in the Senate race, Hillary Rodham Clinton would be fighting for her political life right now, instead of coasting. Even if he had lost, he would have had a future-as a national figure in the Republican Party, as a potential candidate for future statewide office.

His health, he said, left him no choice but to drop out. That decision embittered his fellow Republicans, and turned him instantly into yesterday’s news. He’ll be out of office as of Jan. 1, 2002; he’ll be history even sooner. Still in his late 50’s, he might have had a claim on his party’s gubernatorial nomination if Mr. Pataki decided not to run for a third term. Now, however, state Republicans would sooner nominate John Rocker for Governor than Rudolph Giuliani.

Rick Lazio

He wanted to be a candidate for Senate badly, and he got his wish-he is a bad candidate. It’s astonishing to realize that Mr. Lazio is fighting (if that is the correct word) for his political life. He gave up a chance at re-election to the House to run for the Senate, which means that he is staring at the wrong end of his career at the age of 42. Had he acquitted himself well, he could have won even by losing. His name would have been at the top of the Republican waiting list for statewide office. Instead, defeat will make an orphan of him.

H. Carl McCall

Mr. McCall is an impressive politician and an underrated vote-getter. A success story in politics as well as business, he certainly merits consideration for higher office. But he may have been too cautious for his own good. When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced that he would retire after this year, he mentioned Mr. McCall as a possible successor. Mr. McCall took a pass on the race, clearing the way for Mrs. Clinton and her carpetbag. Mr. McCall, at age 64, knows he has just one more chance to earn a promotion. So he has no choice but to pass up certain re-election as Comptroller in 2002 to run for Governor, even if that means challenging Mr. Pataki. He would be a formidable candidate but we can only imagine what he might have been like as a Senate contender.

Andrew Cuomo

Mr. Cuomo apparently has decided that if a President’s son can aspire to his father’s old job, why can’t a Governor’s son? Standing in his way, however, is Mr. McCall, who has won two statewide races compared with Mr. Cuomo’s none. Furthermore, should Mr. Cuomo defeat Mr. McCall in what would be a bloody Democratic primary, he probably would face Mr. Pataki, the man who unseated his father-an act of electoral regicide for which no small number of upstaters remain extremely grateful. Ironically enough, Mr. Cuomo the younger faces a dilemma similar to Mr. McCall’s: It’s now or never. Though much younger (42) than the state Comptroller, Mr. Cuomo has been around state politics for nearly two decades. If he declines to run for Governor in 2002, Cuomo restorationists will start looking elsewhere. Surely there must be a Cuomo grandchild approaching voting age.

The Political Landscape