The Pataki Puzzle

Photo: Michele Asselin

Governor Pataki’s closest aides have cashed out of government, and two alpha Democrats are jockeying for his job. His poll numbers are mediocre, and the editorial pages have been unkind. On many weekends, he is not even in the state.There are signs that the Pataki era in Albany, after nearly a decade, is winding down. Although the governor and his aides maintain that he might yet seek a fourth term—“There is just so much to do,” he told me, with as much conviction as he can muster—he is developing an exit strategy. He is trying to maximize the options for his next political step, which, inconceivable as it may sound, could well include a campaign for the presidency.So in late June, as the legislative session was ticking down and the unfinished business was piling up, Pataki slipped away for a weekend in Southern California. He headlined a congressman’s fund-raiser, addressed a local Republican club, and delivered the keynote speech at an Orange County GOP dinner. Last fall, he spoke at an Iowa Republican Committee dinner, and then in January and again in May, made pilgrimages to New Hampshire—touching down in the two states that just so happen to play an outsize role in presidential campaigns. In between, he spoke to Republican audiences in Washington State, Oregon, Georgia, and Florida.The hurdles to becoming President Pataki are formidable, if not insurmountable. The governor is personable, disciplined, and determined. But he still hasn’t mastered the political arts of delivering a rousing speech and commanding a stage. (Of course, John Kerry hasn’t, either.) More important, Pataki’s positions on guns, gays, and abortion, which sell in New York, would find few takers in the Republican heartland. Then there is his old rival Rudy Giuliani, who stands a far better chance of surfing the admiration he engendered after the 9/11 attacks all the way to the White House. If a presidential race barely has room for one New York Republican, how could two squeeze in?But increasingly, political observers see a presidential bid as Pataki’s next move. He now has a huge fund-raising base, which would provide enough money for him to amble up to the race, play for a while, and see what happens. And while there are many doubters who cannot imagine him atop the GOP ticket in 2008, no matter the unforeseen events between now and then, not everyone is prepared to count him out. “There are people who run for president who don’t ever have the chance to win, because it would break their hearts, kill them, if they didn’t try,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist mentions the Republican senators Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch, with a “What were they thinking?” tone. “I do not see Pataki in that category. He would be serious. Republicans would not say, ‘That guy has no chance.’ ”New York is a Democratic state, but it is packed with wealthy Republicans, most of them part of Pataki’s vast donor network. His chief fund-raiser, a lawyer named Cathy Blaney, began building it when she worked for Senator Alfonse D’Amato. In winning three campaigns for governor, Pataki has transformed D’Amato’s fund-raising Rolodex into a file cabinet, and he has been using it to help Republicans around the country—building friendships and amassing political IOUs in the process. He has raised $9.5 million for the president’s reelection, aides say, more than fulfilling his obligations as one of Bush’s “Rangers,” the elite tier of supporters who pledged to corral at least $200,000 apiece for the campaign.Pataki’s fund-raisers also have become the go-to guys for Republicans who regularly troop into town seeking donations. They have organized events for everyone from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, the beneficiary of a $1,000-a-head cocktail hour at a Manhattan restaurant last September, to House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who collected campaign cash at the home of public-relations executive Howard Rubenstein last month. No matter where Pataki lands—another term in Albany, a cushy job in the private sector—it won’t hurt to have such highly placed friends in his debt. But it’s in a bid for the White House that they might prove the most useful.

“These days, if Rudy is Oprah, Pataki is Montel.”

One evening in June, a black SUV pulled up to La Nueva España, a Dominican restaurant on West 207th Street. A back door opened, and Pataki, who just turned 59, stepped onto the sidewalk. He entered the restaurant, walked past a framed picture of himself on the wall, and made his way to the dining room upstairs, saying hello to each table of patrons along the way. Pataki settled his nearly six-foot-five frame into a chair and ordered dinner in Spanish, flashing the language skills he acquired for his third—and, most people believed, final—campaign for governor in 2002. His Spanish appeared smoother now than two years ago; clearly, he has continued to bone up. “Now I am going to get drunk,” he joked, sipping a Presidente beer. Well, one can hope. It would be bad form for any politician to talk about 2008 when the 2004 race is not settled, and no New York pol holds his cards tighter than Pataki. A little inebriation might loosen him up. Over the course of an hour-long dinner, Pataki admits he’s watching his carbs, talks about the Knicks, and boasts that his Spanish is now better than his Hungarian. By the time the tapioca pudding arrives for dessert, the governor allowed that his fund-raising appearances now could create more political options for him down the road. “Sure,” Pataki said. He quickly added, “That’s not the reason.” He wants to be “part of the national policy debate,” he said, and help the president.Friends say they would be surprised if Pataki is not operating from some grand plan. “George Pataki is always planning for the future,” says State Senator Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican. “He is conducting himself not as a lame duck, but as someone who is going to run for office again.” Pataki was the underdog in winning elections for Peekskill mayor, the Assembly, and the State Senate, defying expectations every step of the way. Then he unseated Governor Mario Cuomo, joining the celebrated wave of Republican governors who swept into power between 1990 and 1994 and were hailed as the future of the GOP. A certain governor of Texas went on to fulfill that promise. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania is now Homeland Security secretary and may himself be a candidate for the White House in 2008. Nearly all the others have left active politics, either because they were term-limited, hit a political ceiling (Christie Whitman of New Jersey), or crashed and burned (John Rowland of Connecticut). Pataki is the only one still standing as governor. Which suggests either that he cannot make it to the next level or that he’s shrewdly waiting for the most opportune moment to try.Pataki does not deny thinking about the presidency, but places his thoughts in the most benign of contexts. “It’s like when I was in the backyard [shooting basketballs] and trying to get playing time at Peekskill High School. You dream then of the NBA. Of course, when you are in the political realm, you can’t help but think about it. But that is 2008. You are looking at 2004, and that has got to be and that certainly is my focus.”In his stump speech to Republicans, Pataki calls the November election nothing less than “the most important in my lifetime.” He frames it as a choice between “whether or not Americans will forget what happened on September 11.” He is the anti–Michael Moore. “I mean this every day as one who was there—thank God President Bush was our president on September 11,” Pataki told a New Hampshire crowd. One of the survival rules for a statewide Republican in New York is to downplay the Republican label. These days, Pataki is doing just the opposite. His support for the president is up front and unwavering, no easy position in a state that Senator Kerry is likely to win. But such partisanship has won him points with the president and the party, and stamped Pataki as a loyal Republican and a team player.The president’s advisers see Pataki as having credibilityto talk about homeland security and terror because he was governor when the Twin Towers were attacked. So while the Republican governor of another big Democratic state—that would be Arnold in California—shies away from Bush, the campaign regularly calls on Pataki to be a surrogate, by holding press conferences and appearing on the cable-show circuit. It is a theme that Pataki has woven into his own stump speech. He paints the president as having the spine that Democrats lack to make America secure. There are no apologies for invading Iraq. “We hear the Democrats saying, ‘Saddam Hussein maybe didn’t have weapons of mass destruction,’ ” he told the Republican Jewish Coalition last February in Palm Beach. “I want to tell you that Saddam Hussein by himself was a weapon of mass destruction.”Pataki’s status as the 9/11 governor enables him to stand out from the other political-dinner speakers who also boast of cutting crime and taxes. Shelley Ashenfelter, finance director of the Oregon Republican Party, says she had no trouble selling out tickets to a September fund-raiser once Pataki was booked as the speaker. “I think people wanted to hear from his perspective—as someone who was there on 9/11 and was part of the leadership that had to respond,” she says. “He was a huge hit.”

At precisely 10 a.m. on the morning of July 4, a solemn procession began descending the temporary ramp leading to the dirt and bedrock floor of ground zero. This was the ceremony to lay a block of Adirondack granite as the cornerstone for the new Freedom Tower. First came the bagpipers, and then the three men in suits—Mayor Bloomberg on one side, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey on the other, and Pataki, symbolically, in the middle. It was all low-key and restrained, not unlike the way Pataki presides as governor. Pataki, in fact, had decided against having his name engraved on the twenty-ton slab. “This isn’t about a person,” he explained earlier. “The Statue of Liberty … I don’t know who the governor was, who the mayor was. It was a symbol of freedom. Nobody says, ‘Wasn’t it great that Governor So-and-so allowed the French guy Whatever-his-name-was to put it there?’ ” Absent from the groundbreaking was the New Yorker most closely identified with ground zero. Giuliani, it seems, has a tacit understanding with Pataki: The rebuilding is yours.If it were only that simple on the campaign trail. These days, if Rudy is Oprah, Pataki is Montel. Giuliani took the lead role on September 11 and went on to become America’s Mayor. Pataki has yet to be introduced as America’s Governor. “Everybody knows Rudy Giuliani. He was the face you saw on TV every day,” says Ashenfelter. “I actually ran this by my family when Governor Pataki was going to be our speaker. They said, ‘We know Rudy. Pataki, we don’t know who he is.’ ”There were years of tensions between the two men after Giuliani shunned Pataki in 1994 to support Mario Cuomo for governor. It took six years and Giuliani’s prostate cancer in 2000 for the chill to subside. The thaw began when Pataki invited Giuliani to his Hudson Valley home for the weekend. Their work following September 11 brought them closer together. But Giuliani also has been flying around the country, raising cash for Republicans and trying to maximize his political options—including a run for president. Giuliani and Pataki could be on a collision course again.Indeed, there was some anxiety within the Pataki camp last month as the Bush campaign was finalizing the schedule for next month’s convention. Would Giuliani get a more prominent role than the governor? One planner of the Garden gathering called it a “subplot of the convention,” adding, “I guess they never stopped being rivals.” The Bush campaign settled things late last month. Giuliani received a prime-time speaking slot on the convention’s opening evening, and Pataki was assigned the honor of delivering the speech nominating Bush on the final night. The governor’s camp was relieved. If he decided to run, Pataki could raise at least $10 million, and maybe $30 million, up front, Republican strategists say, probably enough to stay in the race beyond the initial thinning of the field in Iowa and New Hampshire. Winning is another matter. Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman, touched all the politically correct bases when asked how Giuliani or Pataki would fare in the South Carolina Republican primary. Sure, they would have a chance to win, he said: “They both took America on its worst day, and made us better by the minute.” He helpfully pointed out that this is no small matter; no Republican has won the party’s nomination in recent times without capturing the South Carolina primary, he said.Did he know that Pataki and Giuliani have been staunch supporters of gun control? “Well,” he drawled, “we are all supporters of the NRA in South Carolina.”Was he aware that both men supported a woman’s right to an abortion? Dawson paused. “That is a litmus test in the South. That would be plowing new ground in South Carolina.”And how about their support of some gay rights? There was no pause now. “A big stumbling block,” he said.Dawson chuckled. “When you come to South Carolina, you better be prepared for a brass-knuckles brawl,” he volunteered. “Issues: That’s what drives primaries in South Carolina and in the South.” The first decision Pataki faces is whether to seek reelection in 2006. When the question came up at La Nueva España, Pataki’s eyes widened. “I’ll tell you, I am excited as I have ever been. And you expect me to say that, and I should, but I honestly feel that way.” He mentioned that a day earlier in Albany, he had announced that high-temperature superconducting power cable, a new kind of power line, will be made in New York. “It’s totally obscure and it got no press and I did not expect it would.” The press just didn’t know. “The fibers will be made in Schenectady!” He beamed. “This will do for electric transmission what fiber-optic cable did for telecommunications!” Over the next five minutes, Pataki also said, “How could you not be really excited by this?” and “I know I am filibustering, but I just love this!” and “There is so much more to do.” Leaving the public sector holds no allure. “Their names shall be nameless, but many of my really good friends who were in the administration are making a lot of money in the private sector, and yet there is something missing,” Pataki said. “The reason they went into government was because they had this desire to impact policy in a way that affects people’s lives.”In Albany, it is widely assumed that Pataki is either too frustrated or too bored to want a fourth term. His relations with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, could not be worse. “Those guys really seem to loathe each other,” says Assemblyman Tom Kirwan, a Newburgh Republican. “I don’t know how much more you would want to put up with that.” Pataki has kept the option of a fourth term alive, collecting more than $1.5 million for his own gubernatorial-campaign committee since January. But running against a tough, well-funded opponent like Senator Chuck Schumer or Attorney General Eliot Spitzer would raise the ugly prospect of ending his political career on someone else’s terms.Running against Hillary Clinton for the Senate in 2006, on the other hand, would seem to have appeal. Beating her would make Pataki an instant hero to national Republicans, a transcendent figure. But that too would be a hard fight, and it’s not necessarily a job that suits him anyway. On this point, Pataki is remarkably frank. “After Rudy didn’t run [in 2000], a lot of people said, ‘You got to run, you got to run,’ ” Pataki said. “Had I run, it would have been a relatively not difficult—I wouldn’t say easy—race. I just didn’t have the desire to be a legislator when the alternative is to be an executive. You never say ‘never.’ But being the person in the hot seat making the decisions—the challenge is something that I have relished.” Pataki also appears to have little interest in the second-tier Cabinet positions, like Housing or Labor, that could be in his grasp if Bush wins in November. Seen one way, then, running for president could end up being Pataki’s best chance to hold public office. And looking at it from his perspective, why not? Who gave Jimmy Carter a shot to be president? Or maybe there’s a shot at the vice-presidency. Certainly, there are people around Pataki urging him to dream big. “He’s got a circle of friends who have been with him at every step of the way, from mayor to the Legislature to governor, who talk about the governor running for national office,” says his political ally Michael Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. “I have heard them talk, that given the right place, right time, the next time around, he could become president.”Right place, right time. Hardly a scenario to bet his new Adirondack farm on. But Pataki doesn’t need to make any decisions or commitments now. So he will continue to raise money and give speeches and network—especially next month, when the Republicans converge on the city. The governor already has penciled in a key fund-raiser during convention week. He will be the featured speaker at a benefit for the New Hampshire Republican Party.

The Pataki Puzzle