GOP Turncoat Leads N.Y. Dems

Early polls show Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross is front-runner among Democrats in the New York gubernatorial race.

New York's Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross sits back in her chair and the tone of her voice changes just slightly as she recalls the "watershed" day when she decided she was no longer a Republican.

It was April 8, 1997. In a bid to help a seriously ill truck driver, she was trying to get the Patients Fair Appeals Act out of committee in Albany. The act required insurance companies to pay for the treatment called for by a patient's doctor - even if the insurer disagreed.

"Every single Democrat voted for me, for my bill, and every single Republican voted to not let it out of committee," recalls Mrs. Ross. "It was clear to me that I was a member of a party that put politics ahead of patients and I have no patience with that."

As it turned out, Gov. George Pataki's patience with Ross ran out, too. Nine days later, he sent her a letter saying that she would not be on the party ticket this November. "They concluded she was not a team player," says Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City.

Last fall, Ross switched parties. Now, she's the gubernatorial front-runner for the Democrats and faces a handful of men in the September primary. According to a poll released last week, Ross leads the Democratic pack but trails Governor Pataki by 27 percentage points.

As an advocate of education and consumer-oriented health-care reform, Ross will attract voters, supporters say. And her husband, Wilbur Ross, is a Wall Street financier wealthy enough to keep her campaign coffers full.

To her detractors - and Pataki's office is perhaps the most vitriolic - Ross is politically radioactive. "The only thing we're saying about her is that you are dealing with an irrational woman who is making irrational statements that are factually incorrect," says Zenia Mucha, the governor's press secretary. "She doesn't stand for anything other than her own self-promotion."

On the Democratic side, the men she faces in the primary are dredging up statements she made as a member of the Pataki administration. "There's not enough space to list all the people who are after her," says Jay Severin, a Republican political consultant.

If she gets the nod from the Democrats, it would be a remarkable turn of events. Only four years ago, Ross was considered a conservative Republican. As a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she wrote two articles in the New Republic that helped knock out President Clinton's proposed health-care reform.

Now, she denigrates labels such as "conservative" and "liberal" as "largely irrelevant." "How can anyone respond to new problems or propose new solutions if you're bound to always do what you have always done?" she asks.

Most Empire State political observers agree that Ross is a formidable opponent. She is known for her in-depth understanding of issues. On vacations, she reads legal documents and reports. On the campaign trail, she is an effective public speaker, often telling audiences about her humble beginnings as the daughter of a janitor.

IN fact, these traits helped to get her on the Republican ticket four years ago when Pataki needed a running mate. "They needed someone to soften the ticket, broaden it out and she looked marketable," says Joseph Mercurio, a Republican political consultant.

She told Pataki she would press for health-care and education reforms. When she did, her party balked. "It's been a real learning experience: They learned that I meant what I said, and I learned that they didn't mean what they said."

Ross cites her experience in educational reform. In his second year in office, Pataki asked her to put together a report on ways to improve educational performance. Among her ideas: universal pre-kindergarten classes financed by an increase of 10 cents per pack on cigarettes. "The governor would not read the report," says Ross.

Instead, Democrats picked up the concept which Ross claims pays for itself since the children are less likely to need special-education classes. Opponents reply that it's an "expensive benefit for middle-class parents. At the low end, it will cost $700 million and the cost will grow exponentially," says David Shaffer of the Business Council, a business lobbying group.

Some of Ross's problems, says Mr. Severin, who has worked for her, stem from naivet. "In my experience she is the personification of the movie, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' " Ross denies she is naive. But she laughs and says the movie could be called "The Working Mom Goes to Albany."

By November, the voters will decide if there will be a sequel.

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