George Pataki Limbers Up for a Run at the White House

Web_George Pataki_Paul Kisselev
Illustration by Paul Kisselev.

George Pataki served as governor of New York from 1995-2006, a period that witnessed tremendous prosperity and also the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center. Now, the amiable former emperor of the Empire State is taking a look at running something even bigger than New York. While he spoke to the Observer, the governor enjoyed a tuna wrap with Diet Dr Pepper and wasn’t even eating most of the tortilla. In short, the lunch of a guy who’s getting ready to run for president.

New York has been a place where third term administrations go to die. How did you walk out of a third term with such good standings? Well, one was having key people step in the administration, people like John Cahill who became my chief of staff and really did a lot to invigorate the whole team, and then we had an aggressive agenda. It was never looking back at what we had managed to get through; it was what still needed to be done. We had a very aggressive economic agenda, tax agenda, educational reform agenda, and health care, too—which I got pilloried for, but I think in retrospect people will think it was an excellent plan.

George Pataki in his office at Chadbourne Park (Photo: New York Observer)
George Pataki in his office at Chadbourne Park (Photo: New York Observer)

Pilloried by… By conservatives. I remember when the advocates for the uninsured came to see me and they proposed exactly what Romneycare and Obamacare was. They said, “We have these free riders and we should tax every employer who doesn’t provide health care.” I said, “Let me get this straight. We’re trying to fight to bring jobs to New York but an employer who adds a job is going to be fined $2,000 for adding that job.” So we had the private sector offer three different new plans—Healthy New York, Family Health Plus, Family Health and Child Health Plus, which provided a market-based access for affordable health care insurance to virtually everyone in New York State, and it was working very well. Of course it had to be dismantled when Obamacare came along because it was private sector-driven.

Let’s say the conservatives dominating Congress dismantle Obamacare. Do you think your plan is still viable? I do. I think you get rid of Obamacare, which I think is critical to a better health care system and to get the economy growing with full-time jobs that we need, not just these 29-hour-a-week jobs where 8 million are underemployed and want to be full-time employed. With additional reforms as well that I couldn’t do as governor like allowing the purchase of policies across state lines and tort reform, which obviously when Sheldon Silver was the speaker was not going to happen in New York State.

You mentioned Sheldon Silver, do you have ideas for reforming the way Albany conducts itself generally? We have to have term limits, and the sad thing is that the legislature is never going to vote them on themselves. Another thing is this tremendous abuse with the so-called not for profits that are funded by items obtained by legislators that often employ people who are closely related to their campaign operation. There should be either much broader disclosure of outside income including clients, or restriction on outside income that legislatures are allowed to make. I also think that we need to have the Legislature be subject to things like the Freedom of Information Act that it has exempted itself from so that people will see their emails and correspondence and communications.

I’m having dinner tonight at Peter Luger’s with Arthur Finkelstein, my yearly stop-in at the knee of the guy I consider the greatest political strategist of his generation. I’m going to ask him but I’ll ask you. You’re taking a serious look at the presidency. Why didn’t you run in 2008 or 2012? In ’08 of course the frontrunner was Rudy who was a New Yorker, and it’s hard enough for any New Yorker to get the Republican nomination, but when you have America’s Mayor seeking the nomination from the same state in the same year it made the climb extraordinarily steep. And then in ’12 when I looked at it everybody had committed early to Mitt Romney and it was really very frustrating because I thought Mitt Romney would be a very good president but had significant weaknesses as a candidate. And unfortunately I was right about that. Now I’m not looking so much at who else may be in the race, but what’s happening in Washington and what’s happening in the world. If you believe you have the ability to not just manage a large complex government but change it for the better, and you see how Washington is so dominated by the lobbyists and the special interests, and Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy is a catastrophe …

I think the conditions globally and in Washington have gotten worse and I think it’s having very negative consequences for the country.

So is this an announcement that you’re making to me? No. It is an announcement that I am taking a very, very serious look at it, more so than I have in the past because I do think this time it’s different. I think the conditions globally and in Washington have gotten worse and I think it’s having very negative consequences for the country.

So your positioning would be the reasonable adult who has had this long record of achievement. Is that the Pataki strategy? Well, I don’t know that I would call it a strategy but I have been traveling the country. I sat down in New Hampshire with a bunch of friends while I was considering this. I’m leaning toward a decision but I haven’t made the firm decision, and basically to feel them out, and the reaction was we just had somebody who speaks well but never ran anything and it’s a disaster. We need somebody who has actually run something. Some actually used the term “We need an adult running our country,” and others talked about the need to be able to win beyond the red state base of the Republican Party.

You were known for your advocacy of green issues. Do you think that poses a problem for you in trying to get through a republican primary? The Republican Party is the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

I see him on your shelf… I preserved over a million acres of open space and created dozens and dozens of new state parks in this state. Right here we are reclaiming the Hudson River waterfront with a magnificent park and my argument the whole way through was we did things environmentally in a way that wasn’t just consistent with economic growth, but synergistic with economic growth. Just look at the Hudson River Park and the explosion of activity on the west side of Manhattan. There is a new sense of quality of life and excitement on the West Side that comes from our environmental initiative with the Hudson River Park. George Pataki Limbers Up for a Run at the White House