Political junkies and maybe even a few ordinary voters will remember Tom Golisano as New York State’s answer to H. Ross Perot: A business leader with money to burn and an inexplicable desire to be a political player. Mr. Perot, of course, ran for president in 1992 and for a time seemed a threat to the established order. When he ran again in 1996, he seemed like yesterday’s news.
Mr. Golisano seemed to be heading in the same direction. His first bid for governor, as the Independence Party candidate in 1994, attracted a fair amount of attention during a race that eventually saw George Pataki defeat incumbent Mario Cuomo. His subsequent bids for the state’s highest office, in 1998 and 2002, had less of the dignity one associates with the quixotic and more of the self-absorption that animates a vanity campaign. When Mr. Golisano’s name was absent from the 2006 gubernatorial race, many figured he had had his fill of New York politics.
Wrong. Mr. Golisano, who hails from the upstate city of Rochester, has made it clear in this legislative election year that he still wishes to be a force in New York politics. And this time, he wants to do it without asking for votes.
This time, he wants to let his money to the talking.
Mr. Golisano recently announced that he is ready, willing and able to spread at least $5 million around the state in hopes of influencing the outcomes of targeted state legislative elections. In the spirit of political independence, he will support (or oppose) no single party or caucus, although his understandable dissatisfaction with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side, is no secret.
Ordinarily, this kind of a power play might be criticized as dangerously undemocratic. Mr. Golisano, after all, holds no office; indeed, his previous attempts to be governor met the usual fate of third-party candidates, no matter how well financed.
But the past few months should have reminded us that these are not ordinary times in state politics. Albany remains mired in an ethical and moral mess of long standing. Incumbent legislators are reelected as a matter of course, not because they are popular but because worthy opponents are hard to find, or find it hard to mount a serious campaign in the face of gerrymandering and other methods of incumbent protection.
Many words have been spilled about the need to clean up Albany, but legislators know better than to wring their hands about negative newspaper editorials. They are counting on voter apathy and a rigged system to keep them in office.
Mr. Golisano’s plan to spend money in targeted districts could break up the power arrangements and assumptions that make state politics such a dreadful business. For that reason, his presence in this year’s campaign is welcome. Anything that can make Mr. Silver or his colleagues sweat is a good thing.
Mr. Golisano may discover what the bosses of old knew: Sometimes power is best wielded behind the scenes. If he makes a difference in November, it can only be for the better.