Governor George Pataki was exhausting his working knowledge of
Chinese as he worked a room of 300 senior citizens in Chinatown on Feb. 15. ” Gung hey fat choy ,” he said. “Happy
4700! Nihoma ! ” A bright red and yellow dragon, accompanied by loud drummers and
dancers dressed in green satin, followed the Governor and his entourage down a
cramped and dingy stairwell into this room, where the balmy temperature matched
At Mr. Pataki’s side was May Chao, the newly named executive
director of the state Consumer Protection Board and the sister of U.S.
Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. The Governor gleefully told the crowd of the
$700 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development that he will hand out to businesses here. Chinatown’s business
leaders turned out for this event in force, and they seemed pleased with the
Nine days earlier, Mr. Pataki was working a very different crowd
in a very different setting. Almost all white, crammed into a smallish ballroom
at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, 750 people had paid $1,500 each to
munch roast beef sandwiches and ham canapés and get a chance to rub shoulders
with the Governor and-on only his second fund-raising foray since Sept. 11 (the
first was for brother Jeb)-President George W. Bush.
“Thank God we have George W. Bush as the President of the United
States!” Mr. Pataki said that night to delirious applause. “Mr. President-and I
love saying ‘Mr. President’ when I look at our President-your leadership has
inspired the country and inspired the world!”
Mr. Bush spent every moment he could helping Mr. Pataki while he
was in town on Feb. 6, gladly and uncharacteristically stopping to chat with
reporters while he was touring the command-and-control center at 1 Police
Plaza, falling all over himself to promise $20 billion in aid. That promise got
saturation coverage in the next day’s television and radio reportage.
Then, in a private fund-raiser at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s
townhouse ($15,000 an individual, $25,000 a couple) and at the Sheraton event,
he raised $2 million for Mr. Pataki’s re-election campaign.
“He’s got a good record,” Mr.
Bush told the roaring crowd at the Sheraton. “He’s proven he knows how to lead.
And it also makes sense for New York State to have a Governor whose phone calls
will be returned from the White House.”
But that’s good only if the White House is willing to act on what
it hears-something it has proven willing to do only on rare occasions.
Notwithstanding the President’s record-high popularity in New
York right now-the day of his trip here, Quinnipiac University found that
two-thirds of city residents approved of his job performance-Mr. Bush may not
be able to help the Governor win points with the voters he is courting as he
prepares for a tough re-election campaign. On any one of a long list of policy
items, from tax cuts to acid rain, New Yorkers-Republicans included-tend to
disapprove of Bush administration policies (except for the campaign against
terrorism). Some of Mr. Pataki’s initiatives, like the recently completed
health-care deal and his outreach to labor unions, are not high on the
President’s list of priorities.
But in an interview with The
Observer, Mr. Pataki said there is no contradiction between his support for
the President and his policy interests. “Not at all,” he insisted. “On one of
his [previous] visits here, President Bush spent a lot of time in Chinatown,
and we visited an elementary school. It was a tremendous visit, and he was very
moved by the children and very impressed by the strength of the community, as
am I. It’s not a question of political constituencies; it’s a question of doing
what’s right for the people.”
It’s also a question of straddling quite a gap: a national
Republican Party that is increasingly conservative, and a state that has turned
Democratic in recent statewide elections. The Republican Party is, without
doubt, Mr. Pataki’s greatest source of fund-raising strength. But his voting
muscle must come from elsewhere.
So Mr. Pataki is in full-outreach mode right now. Two days after
his Chinatown foray, he spoke, for the first time, before the State
Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, an all-Democratic group. Then he
left for a days-long trip to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In
addition to Ms. Chao, his recent hires include former New York City Council
member Una Clarke, a Caribbean American, and former Bronx economic development
director Joe Ithier (Fernando Ferrer’s longtime operative).
This is, of course, an election year, and this is the kind of
thing that Governors of New York do, particularly if they’re Republicans in a
mostly Democratic state. And it is something Mr. Pataki’s two would-be
opponents will have to deal with.
There’s a difference between “new friends” and “true friends,”
Comptroller H. Carl McCall, the crowd’s clear favorite, told the Black and
Puerto Rican legislative dinner. “Sheer desperation,” sniffed former federal
Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, himself a no-show at the group’s dinner. “A
deathbed conversion.” (Mr. Cuomo himself went to the Dominican Republic on Feb.
Still, Mr. Pataki isn’t
exactly a newcomer to this game. Though he has unquestionably stepped up his
activities in minority communities in this election cycle, he’s been tilling
this ground for some time. Mr. Pataki, for example, has been pushing health insurance
for the uninsured, even for undocumented immigrants. The grandson of
immigrants, the son of a postman and a former union member himself, Mr. Pataki
feels a connection to the newly arrived. “This is the Year of the Horse,” he
noted in Chinatown. “Children born this year are social, articulate and
hard-working, and I think this speaks to this community as well.” The community
felt spoken to.
“My father used to tell me, you could judge a man by his shoes,”
David Chen, the executive director of the Chinese-American Planning Council,
said over lunch at a Bowery restaurant. What could Mr. Chen tell from Mr. Pataki’s
shoes? “I could see, as he got out of his [car], they weren’t shined. They
hadn’t been shined in a while,” Mr. Chen said. “He is a man who doesn’t stand
on formality.” Nearby, Mr. Pataki skillfully deployed chopsticks for the dishes
of chicken, duck, beef, Chinese greens, even the rice. This in itself is
unusual: Politicians don’t normally eat at the political “luncheons” on their
schedule-instead, they grab a bite or two, pose for a photo and then head for
Even with this apparently
successful outreach, however, there are some clouds on the horizon for Mr.
Pataki. The state’s education budget is pinched, a particular concern in
minority communities. Without federal relief on Medicaid funding-and the White
House has made it clear this is not a priority-localities will have to reach
deeper into their pockets. And that will make those depending on government
assistance, who tend to be immigrants and minorities, feel even more desperate.
And in the one area where many upper-middle-class whites tend to
favor activist government-the environment-Mr. Pataki is already getting some
flak, even though the only time Mr. Bush ever arguably favored the interests of
environmentalists over industry was when he ordered General Electric to clean
the Hudson River of PCB’s, partly at Mr. Pataki’s behest. Still, some of Mr.
Pataki’s best friends in the environmental movement-including the League of
Conservation Voters and the Adirondack Mountain Club, which once gave him their
“hero award”-used the occasion of Mr. Bush’s visit to chide the Governor for
not doing more to object to the Bush administration’s loosening of regulations
on power plants.
“Mr. Pataki won’t be able to call himself an environmentalist
forever if he doesn’t start taking the President on some of these issues,” said
Chris Meyer, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research
Group, who worked side by side with Mr. Pataki in putting together New York
City’s watershed-protection deal.
Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall, you can be sure, will take every
opportunity to link Mr. Pataki to Mr. Bush’s unpopular policies in the most
disparaging manner possible-and there’s plenty of ammunition to choose from.
But there is a difference between the two men.
Mr. Bush’s tasseled loafers are always shined to perfection.