Pataki: New York's Bleeding-Heart Republican

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Pataki is a hit in New York City, even though 84% of voters are Democrats

It's a moment to savor, when a Republican Governor rises to accept the endorsement of a huge city teachers' union over his Democratic opponent, a former Board of Education president. "With this endorsement," declared George Pataki to the United Federation of Teachers, trying hard not to gloat, "we gain the support of more than a million members of organized labor across this state." He had already scooped up the health-care-workers' union and some of the state's biggest Democratic mayors and moneymen, leaving his opponent, Comptroller Carl McCall, with less than one-tenth as much money to spend and trailing anywhere from 9 to 16 points in the polls.

In one sense, Pataki's smooth glide toward a third term represents a personal triumph: the obscure state senator from Peekskill rose to fame eight years ago by toppling the mercurial Mario Cuomo, thanks mainly to being so unlike him. Like the straight man in old screwball comedies, the man who made bland a brand owed his success to being unobjectionable; but he owes his survival, in a state with 5 Democrats for every 3 Republicans, to moving so far to the center that the center itself has moved. He gave the teachers a raise; he subsidized prescription drugs for seniors; he boosted state spending 63%. Add to that the warm luster that still clings to him for his steady presence at Rudy Giuliani's side throughout last year's terror trauma, and he can even claim unusually strong support in New York City, which is 84% Democratic.

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This has not left McCall much room to maneuver. Raised in Boston as one of six children of a welfare mother, McCall leveraged his personal success story and reputation for rectitude to become the first black man elected to statewide office in New York. As the sole trustee of the state's $105 billion pension fund (up from $56 billion when he took charge in 1993), he has more responsibility for investing pension money than anyone else in the country — and lately that is what has got him into trouble. The New York Post revealed late last month that McCall had a habit ofwriting letters on official stationery to top executives that mentioned how many shares of their company stock he held in the state pension fund — and by the way, could they help get a relative a job? In the case of Verizon in 1997, it was for his daughter Marci; at Coca-Cola, for a cousin. It didn't help that McCall was slow to answer the charges, other than to say he wasn't asking for special treatment. But he sent aides to the state archives to scoop up boxes of formerly public letters that he said had been released by mistake during an office move. Upon examination, he ultimately released a total of 61 letters.

Pataki has his own potential Achilles' heel, left exposed because of his steady leftward drift. Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano, in his third Independent run for the Governor's mansion, spent $30 million winning the roughly 9,000 primary votes it took to beat Pataki for the Independence Party nomination — around $3,000 a vote. He says he is prepared to spend an additional $30 million to $40 million to get elected, aiming especially at Pataki's support in the more conservative upstate counties. In addition to slashing spending to avoid a state budget collapse (a $10 billion deficit is projected by March 2004), he wants to use money the state earns from a lottery to pay for college scholarships. So far, his roughly 13% support has hurt McCall and Pataki almost equally. "The ultimate question in this race: Is the middle ground that Pataki has tried to occupy no-man's-land, or is it anew base for him?" says Golisano spokesman Ernest Baynard. But Golisano has never managed to win more than 7% of the vote, and particularly in New York in the wake of Sept. 11, "people need a compelling reason to throw an incumbent out, and that case has not been made by McCall," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll. "That's the bottom line."