Pataki's Pick

A new hire could cast the governor's prochoice stance further into doubt

Reproductive rights advocates are steeling themselves for what seems to be the imminent appointment of a Republican opponent of abortion as the next state health commissioner. While the governor's office has declined to comment, Antonia Novello is rumored to be the front-runner among possible picks to fill the state's highest health post, which has been vacant since Barbara DeBuono stepped down in late October.

Novello, a 54-year-old pediatrician from Puerto Rico, served a thoroughly unremarkable term as surgeon general under George Bush in the early '90s. She would stand out in overwhelmingly prochoice New York, however, if only because she would be the first health commissioner in the state to openly oppose abortion since Roe v. Wade passed in 1973.

Novello, who suffered from congenital colon problems until she was 18, has said her childhood illness shaped her opposition to abortion. And since, as health commissioner, she would be responsible for decisions about sex education, family planning, abortion, and other related issues (a prospect that NARAL-NY's executive director Kelli Conlin has described as "very chilling"), Novello would seem a strange appointee for Pataki. After all, the governor is prochoice, right?

Antonia Novello: the next state health commissioner?
N. Tully/ Sygma
Antonia Novello: the next state health commissioner?

Well, the governor's position on abortion is not quite as cut and dried as it might seem. Even with Pataki's recent proposal to protect clinic access, his main qualification as a prochoice candidate may simply be that he claims he is one. "He's never cast a prochoice vote in his life," says Polly Rothstein, president of the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion. "He tells the press he's prochoice, so he is. It's like he says he's Chinese, so he's Chinese."

Pataki's decision to call himself a supporter of abortion rights is significant in and of itself. But there is no question that Pataki's stance on abortion has varied according to his political needs— and that his roots are firmly in the antiabortion camp. As a member of the state assembly, he voted consistently against medicaid funding for abortion. He also got endorsements from the New York State Right to Life Committee in 1984, 1986, and 1988. Then, in 1990, Pataki had a change of heart— which coincided with his campaign for the seat of prochoice state senate incumbent Mary Goodhue— and publicly changed his position. Ever since, he's been billing himself as prochoice.

Yet, even after his "conversion," Pataki got a 100 percent rating from the state's Christian Coalition and received the Life Saver award from the conservative group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. In '92, the Westchester Right to Life PAC boasted that Pataki sought its behind-the-scenes help even as he ran as prochoice candidate against Goodhue.

As governor, Pataki has changed his position to support medicaid funding for abortion. But he's also consistently vetoed family-planning funds; his just-released budget includes a $2 million cut for family planning. And, though it didn't pass, he said he would have signed a ban on "partial-birth abortions," which many abortion rights supporters see as a strawman constructed by the far right. Pataki has also supported laws requiring parental notification for kids seeking abortion, and allowed a Catholic HMO that doesn't provide reproductive-health services to take over the care of some 40,000 unsuspecting medicaid patients.

So the latest rumors about Novello's possible appointment shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Pataki is now eyeing even higher office (some say he's got a good shot at the VP slot), which means he'll need the firm support of the national Republican Party, which is more uniformly opposed to abortion. As Westchester's Rothstein noted in a "Pataki alert" e-mail she sent to a network of prochoice advocates, the governor has "aspirations that include pleasing GOP religious conservatives." For those purposes, Novello, who is prominent in the National Council of Catholic Women, could serve well. (Novello did not return calls for comment.)

Nevertheless, there are still two others who have yet to be officially scratched off Pataki's shortlist, according to sources close to the administration. One is Russell Bessette, a Buffalo-based plastic surgeon who runs a biotech firm that's received more than $1 million in state funding. He's also made at least one major contribution to Pataki's reelection campaign. As for public-health experience, Bessette doesn't seem to have much. And he has so far declined to say where he stands on abortion, though he's been quoted as saying he would follow the law.

Another curious candidate is former Westchester County health commissioner Mark Rapaport. Rapaport seems to have the support of many within the prochoice community. But, up until recently, he directed Oxford's now defunct medicaid managed-care program— a stint that's likely to be seen as a strike against him. He's also been a strong opponent of tobacco, a feature that Pataki isn't likely to value.

With the appointment expected any day, prochoice advocates are holding their breath. But some think the heartfelt views of the new commissioner may not really matter. As prochoice Republican Tanya Melich puts it: "What's important is whether the person will implement the positions of the person they work for." If only we knew what those positions were.

slerner@villagevoice.com

 
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