The Quietest Campaign of All

So Christopher Callaghan, the unknown, super-long-shot Republican candidate for State Comptroller, was driving along the Long Island Expressway a couple of weeks ago in his green Honda Civic when he spotted someone he knew: Alan Hevesi.

Mr. Hevesi, the current comptroller, whose bid for re-election was made somewhat more complicated in recent days by the news that he had been using a state employee to chauffeur his wife, was in a black S.U.V. heading west.

Mr. Callaghan pulled up alongside his opponent and honked. Mr. Hevesi waved.

And in that moment, there was about as much interaction between the candidates than at any time before or since.

“The third encounter with Alan Hevesi was a week ago today,” said Mr. Callaghan on Sept. 27. He said that the first exchange was a brief encounter at a public event in New York City in February, and the second was at the annual show of the Legislative Correspondents Association in March up in Albany. And then, last month, the car. And that was it.

“That’s unbelievable,” he said.

In this election season fit for The Jerry Springer Show, Mr. Hevesi—who stands to become the senior statewide leader this year—has been invisible.

Part of that is simply his style: tall, slightly receding puff of white hair, very understated sense of humor. But it is also by design. Mr. Hevesi, 66, is running against a candidate that no one has heard of for a job that almost no one understands. All he has to do is be the Democrat—and be quiet.

Hence, although Mr. Hevesi has spent more than $230,000 on his campaign to date, he has no campaign office, no campaign staff—until Tuesday, when an employee from the comptroller’s office moved over to the campaign—no campaign schedule, and not even a campaign Web site. He does, though, have his consultant from the Mayor’s race on retainer.

“We do not have a campaign Web site,” confirmed Matt Mullarkey, the campaign spokesman who is on leave from his job with the State Comptroller’s office.

When asked why, Mr. Mullarkey said, “We don’t discuss campaign resources.” When asked how much a site could cost the campaign, he stuck to his script about not discussing resources.

The last time Mr. Hevesi ran a competitive race was in 2001, when he was the City Comptroller and the leading candidate to be New York’s next Governor. One of the city’s most celebrated political advisors, Hank Morris, was so dedicated to Mr. Hevesi’s effort that the two appeared attached at the hip. (Aides to his rival reportedly referred to Mr. Hevesi as “Hank.”)

In the end, the fund-raising edge, high expectations and savvier-than-thou consultant eclipsed the soft-spoken Mr. Hevesi, while the man he hoped to succeed, Rudy Giuliani, made matters worse with a series of fierce and unusually personal election -season attacks. Once a front-runner, Mr. Hevesi lost badly and sunk to temporary obscurity after the election.

But the following year, he re-emerged as a candidate for State Comptroller. Stitches from his Mayoral beating still visible, Mr. Hevesi played second fiddle to the gubernatorial race. Hardly anyone noticed his refusal to debate his conservative opponent, former Assemblyman John Faso, who compiled Governor Pataki’s first (and most respected) budgets.

With a below-the-radar strategy, Mr. Hevesi relied on the state’s five-to-three Democratic enrollment and squeaked out a victory over Mr. Faso—by three percentage points.

From his influential perch in Albany, Mr. Hevesi has occasionally surfaced in conjunction with something important, notably when excoriating the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for keeping two sets of books, and scolding some Long Island school districts for fudging theirs. That alone seemed to secure his re-election to the job of watching the state’s finances.

Then, on June 1, something happened. Mr. Hevesi gave a speech at Queens College, where he jokingly said that Senator Chuck Schumer would “put a bullet between the President’s eyes, if he could get away with it.” The outcry was predictably large.

Mr. Callaghan, the 53-year-old former treasurer of Saratoga who had just been named his party’s candidate, tried his best to seize on the gift that Mr. Hevesi had just given him. But, as he painfully discovered, “the story lasted for 48 hours. He apologized and it went away.”

Then came Mr. Callaghan and his Honda Civic, two weeks ago. Wearing the bowtie that his advisors said would help get him noticed and remembered, the former Saratoga County treasurer acted on an anonymous tip and called into a hotline to report an instance of a state official using a state employee to chauffeur his wife.

“We’re never going to be able to check this out,” Mr. Callaghan said, sitting with his one campaign aide at an empty table in the Fort William Henry Hotel. “We’re outrageously underfunded.”

Without a hint of irony, Mr. Callaghan, using his pointer finger as an exclamation point, added, “Fortunately, Alan has provided us with a vehicle.” That vehicle, Mr. Callaghan said, was the comptroller’s own tip hotline to report government waste, fraud and abuse.

“So we called the tip line,” Mr. Callaghan recalled.

Without being able to verify the charge, Mr. Callaghan called to say he heard that a state employee was chauffeuring the comptroller’s wife on the state’s dime. Three hours later, the man who spent the entire campaign season ignoring his opponent admitted to the charge, and has since agreed to reimburse the state $82,000.

Citing a bullet he received in the mail two weeks ago and other death threats, Mr. Hevesi said the chauffeur for his wife was, in effect, for her security. “A 6-foot, 2-inch person is a deterrent,” Mr. Hevesi told reporters at a meeting of the New York State Association of Counties in Lake George.

Ultimately, though, it will probably be Mr. Hevesi’s anonymity that saves him, at least politically.

A WNBC/Marist poll taken after the scandal broke in late September showed that less than half the state’s likely voters had heard about it. Even better for Mr. Hevesi: One week after the scandal, his garish 57-to-27-percent lead over Mr. Callaghan remained intact.

Around the same time, as everyone knows by now, the Republican nominee for Attorney General, Jeanine Pirro, admitted to being under investigation for trying to arrange the bugging of her ex-felon husband, whom she suspected of cheating on her with his lawyer’s wife.

Mr. Hevesi, once again, has found himself safely in the shadows.

The Quietest Campaign of All