These days, it would be hard for an election to command headlines if it pit Jimmy Walker against Al Sharpton. How much harder when George Pataki, the incumbent and front-runner, is, both by nature and by design, a dullard. But since this is our home state, a little attention must be paid.
Happily for Mayor Bloomberg, he will not be facing the voters. The surprise over his victory, and the urban patriotism that followed 9/11, have worn off, and the outlines of possible failure are becoming apparent. Bloomberg Time will be remembered, first, for piss-the urine of bums that is now trickling again over the sidewalks, and the odor that lingers in nooks, crannies and confined spaces. The word is out on the street: It’s O.K. to sleep in boxes again. It has nothing to do with the economy, or with budget constraints for the Police Department. We heard all that in the late 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s, in fat times and lean. The homeless camp out on the streets when the police lack the disposition to move them along. Mayor Giuliani wanted them moved, and they were; Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t, and they have moved back.
Meanwhile, the Mayor expends his political capital on making New York a smoke-free city. Add to the taint of class-driven lifestyle reform, the ignorance of market forces that will enrich thugs and smugglers. You may already have noticed, in the alternative press, the ads for Indian-reservation cigarettes (even as the white man plied their ancestors with firewater, so they will now kill us with fireweed). Wait till Al Qaeda realizes how many Chechen terrorists it can supply by running cigarettes up in car trunks from North Carolina. To top it all off, our Mayor has suggested that the city’s deficit may have to be plugged by tax hikes. A man who spent $70 million on his job application is not sensitive to ordinary economic pressures, but individuals and businesses less well-endowed than he is are, and if our already-high taxes go up, so will office buildings in New Jersey.
But let us look at the candidates actually before us. Since shortly after his first election in 1994, Mr. Pataki decided that the security of his tenure lay in sliding to the left. That is not surprising for a New York Republican, but it is unusual for a man who has run three times with the blessing of the New York Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, which was founded to protest and, where possible, block such slippage, celebrated its 40th anniversary in May 2002. William F. Buckley Jr. was one of the speakers, and he made some honest (and therefore damaging) cracks about Mr. Pataki. There were mutinous cheers in the hall, and nothing changed. The Conservative Party seems poised to follow the Liberal Party in becoming a creature of patronage and a guardian of the status quo. Ray Harding, boss of the Liberals, has long defended himself against the charge of running a patronage shop by saying that minor parties need the same lubricants as major ones, and he is right. But minor parties in New York must also justify their existence by representing an agenda that is too prickly for the major ones. By saving their last dance for George Pataki, the Conservatives are bidding to join the Liberals in meaninglessness.
I do not rule out Carl McCall, simply because he now has Bill Clinton on his case. Deploying Mr. Clinton is a safe way to run a racial campaign. Mr. Clinton is the most popular white politician with black voters; he is shameless; he can make all the naked appeals that, even coming from a candidate of color, might strike some of the news media as pandering and race-baiting. Dull Mr. McCall, who by manner and appearance could pass for Mr. Pataki’s half-brother, won’t have to wave one bloody shirt. If a candidate can be elected by demonic possession, Bill Clinton is the incubus to do it.
The contest may hang on Tom Golisano’s millions. One of the causes he has taken up is dear to my heart: medical marijuana. His spin on the matter is that Mr. Pataki will not enact such a sensible reform because he is beholden to the pharmaceutical companies, who would rather have sick people take Marinol, the pill form of pot’s major active ingredient, which is much more expensive than a joint and (according to many patients) less effective. In the home stretch of a campaign, it is not enough that your opponent be mistaken; he must also be shown to be evil. But Mr. McCall has jumped on the medical-marijuana bandwagon, too. In this featureless contest, a cause that has been dismissed as the property of whining victims and cranky potheads has taken center stage.
There is a candidate on the ballot who is not a newcomer to the issue: Tom Leighton of the Marijuana Reform Party. Mr. Leighton believes that it was his presence in the first candidates’ debate that brought medical marijuana to the attention of Mr. Golisano and Mr. McCall. Like the Jewish Christians of the early church, he is somewhat nonplused by the rash of Gentile converts.
Of course, Mr. Golisano and Mr. McCall are being opportunistic. Opportunism is also the fuel of successful reform; you know you have hit smooth sailing when the rats start swimming toward your ship. But Mr. Leighton also makes the point that, in New York’s fractured system, his party needs a ballot presence to keep the issue in the minds of the political class. In order to keep a slot, its gubernatorial candidate needs 50,000 votes. Since the Marijuana Reform Party seems many years away from becoming a patronage machine, his argument is a powerful one.
Advocates of medical marijuana are not all potheads, and they are not whiners. Marijuana helps ameliorate the symptoms of some diseases, such as the wasting syndrome of AIDS, and it smooths the harsh effects of the cures for others, such as chemotherapy. Cancer was my introduction to the medicinal weed. None of my doctors and nurses discouraged me from smoking it; all of them had seen patients profit from it. Yet none of them could prescribe it. If a dull election helps end that anomaly, so be it.