Love That W.! Pataki Nuzzles Nearer to Bush

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

the reception.

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

Governor’s words.

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.

20.)

No Newcomer

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

the exits.

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. Love That W.! Pataki Nuzzles Nearer to Bush