Pataki shifts leftward in bid to recapture governorship

GOP incumbent in New York woos Democratic stalwarts in rare three-way race.

Assemblyman Vito Lopez is giving visitors to his Brooklyn district a short tour. Look behind me, the Democrat says, pointing to a row of townhouses. "Four years ago, this was just empty lots with rats and garbage."

Across the street, at another new construction site for a Youth Center, a big sign explains that the money for all this has come from Albany – with Gov. George Pataki's name in bold letters. It's one of the reasons Mr. Lopez and other prominent Latino Democrats are here to cross party lines and support Mr. Pataki.

The Lopez endorsement illustrates the quiet transformation of one of the nation's most prominent governors. Mr. Pataki, elected as a conservative eight years ago, is now seeking moderate Democrat votes to win his third term.

He is making inroads into the constituency of his main opponent, Democrat Carl McCall, by making deals with unions, funneling money into minority communities, and supporting healthcare issues. Last week, he even won the approval of a homosexual group, which had never backed a Republican.

It is a remarkable change for a politician whose main issue eight years ago was bringing back the death penalty.

"It's been quite a transformation for George Pataki," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "He's gone from a conservative republican who defeated Mario Cuomo to the left of his own party."

Unexpected transformation

The extent of Pataki's political swing is unusual in American politics. The closest comparison is former President Gerald Ford, once considered a conservative, now viewed as a liberal Republican. "Some politicians have made more modest moves, but no one has done what Pataki's done as far as I know."

There are national political implications for this shift. Pataki once thought about running for higher office as either president or vice president, but he may now be far too liberal for his party.

Yet, the strategy is working in the Empire State. A Marist poll in early October found he has a 16-point lead over McCall, who is bidding to become New York's first African-American governor. Last week, Mr. McCall had to negotiate with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, Terry McAuliffe, to get new money for ads. In part to avoid taking the blame for a McCall loss, the DNC complied.

"Don't count McCall out," says G. Oliver Koppel, a former Democratic state attorney general. "He can still win it if he can energize his base and start to tear down Pataki."

Last week, McCall tried to do just that by campaigning with former President Bill Clinton – still popular in New York. He also asked for a grand jury investigation of alleged Pataki campaign violations. For example, he maintains that corrections officers have been pressed to perform campaign work, a violation of the city charter. Pataki denies knowledge of any wrong doing.

Upstate, a strong challenger

Pataki, however, is more concerned about the Independence Party candidate, Tom Golisano, a Rochester businessman. "As McCall has imploded, Golisano has become the anti-Pataki candidate as well as the upstate candidate," says John Zogby, a pollster who has been commissioned by Mr. Golisano. "Golisano is spending a lot of money and will spend more with a strong upstate message."

Upstate, Golisano is running ads attacking Pataki over the sour economic conditions in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and other areas hard hit by the national slowdown in manufacturing.

Although most observers still expect Pataki to win upstate, he won't carry the region by the usual Republican margin. This has driven him to campaign for from Democrats.

Last week, for example, Pataki visited the Service Employees International Union, local 1199 in midtown Manhattan. For the first time since 1962, the 208,000-member union endorsed a Republican. Dennis Rivera, the president of the union, has even served on the DNC.

The seeds of the endorsement were sown early in the year when Pataki made a deal that gave state healthcare workers a handsome raise. Then, the governor agreed to new legislation, backed by Rivera, that would prevent any hospital receiving state money from mounting any anti union (or pro union) drives.

"When I saw the Rivera pay deal, I said, 'It looks like the governor is on the winning track,' says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac poll.

The Hispanic and union stamps of approval are making a grass-roots impact. Lopez estimates that Pataki will win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. One of those voters is Edwin Avilez, a resident of Bushwick. "I don't care what the party is," he says, waiting for the Pataki campaign visit, "I'm supporting the person who does the most for my community."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.