Could Faso Confound Democrats in 2006?

In 1960, when John Faso was 8, his mother took him to a rally at the Bellmore train station on Long Island for a young Catholic politician who was electrifying America: John F. Kennedy. Mr. Faso, who left the rally with a Kennedy button, credits the experience with kindling his interest in politics. “I come from a family of stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Faso, a Republican who left office as the State Assembly minority leader to run unsuccessfully for state comptroller in 2002, told Wise Guys last week. “I still have that button.” The anecdote holds the key to understanding why Mr. Faso, who is eyeing the Governor’s race now that George Pataki has decided against a fourth term, just might be the most viable Republican candidate for the post. A Catholic from Long Island who cut his teeth politically in upstate Columbia County, Faso, 54, has proven to have quite a bit of appeal among Catholics, the largest faith group in New York State.

In 2002, with Mr. Pataki leading the G.O.P. ticket, the relatively unknown Mr. Faso narrowly lost the comptroller’s race to a strong Democratic candidate, Alan Hevesi, by a scant 3 percent. How did that nearly happen in blue New York State? The dirty little secret of the Democrats’ 5-to-3 voter-registration advantage in the state is that many of those “D” voters are Democrats in name only—Irish- and Italian-Americans who are happy to pull the lever for a Republican and have done so for candidates named Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Giuliani, George Pataki and George W. Bush.

Styling himself as the state’s “fiscal watchdog,” Mr. Faso, a soccer-dad type with a straight-ahead, almost Midwestern demeanor (read: unlike those tricky New York City types), evidently figured out how to talk to voters like them. He showed unexpected strength in heavily Catholic suburban counties such as Rockland and Westchester, depriving Mr. Hevesi, a Jew from Queens, of the margins he needed in those areas. Indeed, when the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Carl McCall essentially collapsed, depressing African-American turnout in New York City, Mr. Hevesi—who was counting on those votes—almost got pulled down in the vortex.

Democrats think it was the pro-choice women of New York (a.k.a. his female co-religionists) who saved Mr. Hevesi: On his behalf, the National Abortion Rights Action League spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pounding Mr. Faso for his Assembly votes against late-term abortion and for parental notification of minors. (Those positions remain a substantial liability for Mr. Faso, with abortion taking on greater salience owing to a more conservative Supreme Court.) The electoral map of 2006 won’t look identical to that of 2002. For starters, Democrats likely can count on high black turnout, because a superstar in the African-American community—Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton—sits atop their ballot. (Secretary of State Randy Daniels, an African-American vying for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, may be hoping to ride some of this wave.) But once again, the struggle for the hearts and minds of suburban Catholics is likely to prove decisive in any statewide race.

Certainly, that belief is fueling the insurgent Democratic gubernatorial bid of Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, another Catholic. Democrats must find a formula for locking in these voters, or they risk the kind of back-to-back G.O.P. administrations in Albany that they’ve already suffered in New York City, despite their prohibitive numerical advantage there.Conventional wisdom says that after 12 years of Mr. Pataki, 2006 will be the Democrats’ time. Could they blow it? Sure. The perennial budget woes bedeviling Albany provide a number of avenues for Mr. Faso or another Republican. Resurrecting the “fiscal watchdog” brand, Mr. Faso likely will make an issue of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit judgment, which mandates that the state spend billions of dollars more on education. Republicans say the judgment will soak up every available extra dollar without assuring any increase in educational achievement.

One can also expect Mr. Faso to take the G.O.P. position on other issues like taxes, spending, infrastructure improvements, Medicare-Medicaid and jobs. Contra the Daily News, which last week dubbed him “tainted” by his 2002 loss, he would enter the battle tested and wiser. By contrast, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democrats’ presumptive 2006 gubernatorial candidate—like Mr. Hevesi, a New York City Jew—cakewalked to re-election in 2002 against a no-name challenger. Republicans say the hard-driving “sheriff of Wall Street” has a glass jaw, and they’re itching to push him to the left. Irate titans of finance will give them the wherewithal to try it.

Notwithstanding his crusading reputation, as a retail politician Mr. Spitzer doesn’t enthrall, and his stump skills leave something to be desired. Still, barring the entrance of a big name such as Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Spitzer probably wins next year. Mr. Faso, however, could make it a race. He did it against a downstate Jewish Democrat once before. Could Faso Confound Democrats in 2006?