Tip O’Neill used to say that “all politics is local.” Which is true. To that we should add another maxim: All national politics begins locally. Just ask George Pataki.
In the past 25 years, no Republican has won statewide in New York without the nomination of the Conservative Party. On its face, this is not a fascinating fact. Apart from political scientists, there are only two categories of people who might be interested in knowing it: George Pataki, and his enemies.
The Conservative Party is pro-gun and anti-abortion and is therefore politically out of step both with the rest of the state and with the current governor. It is also relatively tiny, with only about 150,000 members. This means that if you wanted to prevent George Pataki from being re-elected, you wouldn’t need millions of votes. You would need only 76,000. If you really disliked George Pataki, this would be good news.
Phil McConkey really dislikes George Pataki. McConkey, most New Yorkers may remember, is the former wide receiver for the Giants who became a hero when he caught an impressive touchdown pass during the 1987 Super Bowl. Three years later, McConkey ran for Congress from New Jersey. He lost, but he turned out to be a pretty good candidate. He is well-spoken, self-consciously ethnic (half-Sicilian and proud of it), and he has a great bio: Naval Academy graduate, helicopter pilot, self-made Wall Street guy.
Pataki, on the other hand, has won the Conservative Party nomination in both previous races. Since then, however, he’s gone left, doing nothing to ban partial-birth abortions, then joining the celebrity opposition to bombing at Vieques. For McConkey, watching at home, the final straw came when he saw Pataki suck up to Al Sharpton on television. This was too much. McConkey began to think about a run.
In order to get on the ballot in the Conservative primary next year, McConkey would need only 25 percent of the votes from the party’s state committee. He could get them. If he campaigned on guns and abortion – and there is no reason he wouldn’t – he could probably win the party nomination.
The Pataki people know all this, of course, and they’re upset about it. Pataki’s spokesman, Michael McKeon, isn’t ready to savage McConkey directly. (McConkey hasn’t announced yet, after all.) Instead, McKeon outlines what he says is a conspiracy to get his boss. It begins with McConkey’s Washington-based political adviser, Roger Stone. Here’s how the plot supposedly works:
Roger Stone does consulting work for Donald Trump. Trump, for obvious and self-interested reasons, opposes casino gambling in the Catskills. Pataki favors it. Last year, Stone put together an ad campaign attacking Pataki’s support for casinos in New York. Stone orchestrated the campaign secretly, in violation of state lobbying regulations. He wound up with a $100,000 fine and a vendetta against Pataki. Stone is using Phil McConkey to get revenge. Not only that, says McKeon, “it’s clear Stone is working with Andrew Cuomo. They’re both dirty tricksters.”
Stone denies being at the center of a vast, bipartisan conspiracy. It’s true that conservative Phil McConkey recently gave $500 to liberal Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial effort. But that, Stone says, is only because McConkey is friendly with Cuomo’s younger brother, Christopher, who asked him to. As for his own motives, Stone says they are straightforward: Pataki has become an annoying liberal. He should be punished.
Who’s telling the truth? It’s hard to know, and it’s not clear that it matters. Stone and McConkey may have a secret agenda. But their descriptions of Pataki strike me as pretty accurate.
Pataki thinks quite a bit of himself – or, as we say in Washington, he has “national aspirations.” I didn’t know this until one day in 1999, when I got a call from his office inviting me to meet him for an informal chat at the Willard Hotel, near the White House. I met him in his suite.
The conversation went fine until I asked him about abortion. It was a standard question: If you run for president, what will Republican primary voters think of your position? Something like that. Pataki became furious, red-in-the-face mad. It was weird. The chat didn’t last much longer. On the way down in the elevator, his press secretary apologized. “I’ve never seen him respond that way to a reporter,” he said, though I sensed he’d seen it a lot. “Maybe it’s your hair.”
True, I could have used a haircut. On the other hand, if my hair was enough to enrage him, Pataki would have a rough time in Iowa and New Hampshire. And not only is Pataki temperamentally unsuited to a presidential primary, he’s also too liberal to run as a Republican. In 2004, there are likely to be a number of Democrats in the race more conservative on social issues than he is, including John Edwards, Evan Bayh, even (by the time he completes his current political transformation) John Kerry.
Pataki has no chance. If his career in politics were to end next year, it’s not as if the next generation of Republican voters would be losing a national leader.
The other reason I find it hard to get upset about a Stone-led conspiracy is that I like Roger Stone. Stone has a mixed reputation in Washington, and if you talk to political people here, you’re apt to hear an unsavory story about him (or two, or ten, or … how much time do you have, anyway?). Doesn’t bother me. When I think of Roger Stone, I picture a man in a garish suit standing in the front room of the Palm, his gold, horseshoe-shaped pinkie ring flashing in the late-afternoon sun, talking on an impossibly tiny cell phone to “Mr. Trump.”
Stone talks to Mr. Trump all the time, sometimes in public. He’s not embarrassed about it. Nor is he ashamed of the work he has done on the fringes of campaign politics. Remember the Republican “riot” in Palm Beach County during the Florida recount? (A handful of GOP operatives and Hill staffers banged on a door in front of TV cameras.) Stone directed the event from a Winnebago down the street. He told me about it one afternoon at lunch, laughing as he did.
Stone is smart and charming in a mob-related sort of way – think of a right-wing Terry McAuliffe. He’s experienced. He can be ruthless. If I were running for office, I’d hire him. The Republicans could use a lot more Roger Stones. Far more than they can use another George Pataki.