When ranking bad American governors, it’s wise to set aside literal corruption: So many of them have been thieves that it’s useless to single out any particular governor for stealing money.
The better and more compelling standards are irresponsibility and incompetence. It’s here that George Pataki is distinguishing himself. Pataki’s behavior in the current state-budget impasse is a unique political lab experiment: Can a man be reelected governor and then simply refuse to do his job without suffering any real consequences?
Actually, that question is unfair. Because while it’s true that Pataki’s proposed budget threatens to eviscerate public schools, he’s never defined his job along the lines followed by most of his colleagues and predecessors—i.e., forging compromises and crafting ways to make life better for the citizenry as a whole. Pataki’s job definition—true when he was mayor of Peekskill and true in Albany now—is to look out for his own future. At that, the man has been a magician.
Now, though, even some of Pataki’s allies worry that his wand is misfiring. Talk about role reversal: New York is facing its worst fiscal crisis since the seventies, but back then it was the mayor who bumbled and the governor, Hugh Carey, who took command.
Like Pataki, California governor Gray Davis won reelection last fall by understating the ruinous state deficits lurking right around the corner. Davis’s approval rating has plunged to a dismal 24 percent, and he’s facing a serious recall drive. Yet Pataki isn’t vilified like Davis, even though our governor has done more to precipitate the state’s current crisis: Eight years of Pataki tax cuts have reduced state revenues by $14.4 billion. At the same time, Pataki expanded government-subsidized medical programs that were already the nation’s most generous.
Part of the difference in reaction is that Davis is prickly and Pataki resolutely genial. More important, though, is that Pataki shrugs off blame as efficiently as a duck repels rainwater. Pataki has gotten his way in Albany by never, ever admitting to being central to the debate, let alone part of the problem: How does a total unknown run for governor in 1994? He makes the issue anger at incumbent Mario Cuomo. The MTA hides half a billion to win a fare increase? Well, yeah, Pataki appoints most of the MTA board, and the agency has been a freight train of patronage during his entire administration—but Pataki sure didn’t tell current MTA chairman Peter Kalikow to cook the books. The state budget is $11.5 billion short? Must be the State Legislature’s fault.
Lately, though, Pataki has been showing signs of desperation. He’s used the Post to strafe his enemies before, but the recent bombardment of Joe Bruno by columnists, editorials, and op-eds was artlessly blatant. And it was an indication that this fight is far uglier than those over the late budgets of the previous eight years: Bruno, after all, is the Republican State Senate majority leader. Last week, Pataki resorted to another favorite tactic—changing the subject by wrapping himself in the World Trade Center flag. But by insisting that a new “Freedom Tower” be standing by the end of his third term, Pataki looks nakedly selfish.
Staunch supporters echo Pataki’s argument that things are tough all over and say they’re confident in his leadership, but even their expectations are strikingly low. “If the governor can just get us through this without a complete breakdown in the city and state, he’s doing pretty well,” says lawyer Eddie Hayes.
“I made the right choice endorsing George Pataki for reelection,” insists the Reverend Calvin Butts, the Harlem minister and president of suny–Old Westbury. “I’m just hoping the governor’s policies are the right ones.” (In October, Pataki moved 250 state workers from an office near ground zero to a building co-developed by Forest City Ratner and Butts’s nonprofit Abyssinian Development Corporation.) Dennis Rivera, the health-care-union leader who crossed party lines to back Pataki’s reelection, says he has faith the governor will deliver. But Rivera says it with scant enthusiasm.
Pataki’s recent pandering to the right wing of the national GOP by meeting with government-hating bozo Grover Norquist is merely offensive. What’s truly scary for the city is that Pataki’s ambitions for a Washington job coincide with his loss of political agility. “Here’s the fundamental problem in the governor’s office: It’s a third-term operation,” says a Republican official and Pataki ally. “The A team left the field a long time ago. It’s not even the B team or even maybe the C team around him anymore. It’s not one individual; it’s universal.” This Pataki intimate wants to believe that the governor’s intransigence on taxes now contains a measure of savvy, preserving the option of higher taxes in 2004 if the economy keeps sliding. But he’s not sure: The governor so badly bungled the debate about federal anti-terrorism money that Pataki’s political instincts may be eroding completely. How often do statewide polls, from Marist and Quinnipiac colleges, show New Yorkers asking to have their taxes raised to plug the deficit? Still, Pataki can’t be shaken from his anti-tax absolutism.
In one respect, the governor is correct in claiming that the current fiasco isn’t his fault. We are living through a time in American politics when voters don’t want leaders who are smarter than they are. The 2000 presidential campaign vividly illustrated the mood on a national level; locally, candidate Bloomberg was assumed to be pretty sharp since he’d built a business and made himself a billionaire, but Bloomberg came across as just folks compared with the flagrantly brainy Mark Green. Regular-guy Pataki exploited Mario Cuomo–cleverness fatigue to win in 1994; last fall, Pataki’s placidity fit the mood of a city and state still jittery from September 11.
Now we’re seeing what happens when we order political comfort food. Pataki is the glazed doughnut of governors. He goes down bland and reassuring, but he’s an empty calorie, starving the state and city in the long run. And George Pataki isn’t about to transform himself into a bowl of greens. He knows how the Bushes hate broccoli.