New York’s Bush Boys

Pataki, Sweeney, Powers, Fossella to Prosper in Dubya Reign

A new president who lost New York by 1.5 million votes and the national popular vote by a comparatively minuscule 500,000 isn't likely to be looking our way when it's time to pass out the big federal checks. Nonetheless, a handful of GOP stalwarts are salivating over their own prospects in a Bush administration, expecting both access and appointments.

Governor George Pataki, the last Republican statewide official and up for reelection midway through the Dubya term, was not awarded a cabinet post, but he is already prospering under the new regime. Pataki will play a decisive role in naming U.S. district and circuit court judges, the U.S. attorney, and regional directors of the U.S. Marshals Service, adding the federal judiciary to his already considerable influence over the state bench.

While a state's U.S. senators are ordinarily pivotal in recommending candidates for these presidential appointments (requiring senate confirmation), the Bush administration is said to have made it clear that Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer will have little to say about selections. Jockeying for appointments to the city's two federal prosecutorial posts—U.S. Attorney for the Southern and Eastern Districts—has begun, with candidates close to Pataki in the drivers' seats.

Governor Pataki: doing well under the Bush administration.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Governor Pataki: doing well under the Bush administration.

If there is one big-time GOP loser during the Bush reign, it is the 71-year-old Molinari.

Also participating in these key appointments—as well as filling top patronage jobs in the regional offices of federal agencies like Housing and Urban Development, Health & Human Services, Labor, Environmental Protection, General Services, Transportation, and Interior—will be the leaders of the state's GOP congressional delegation. While Orange County Congressman Ben Gilman is the senior member of that delegation and will wield significant clout, the congressman with the best connections to the White House is John Sweeney, whose sliver of a district extends from Hyde Park almost to the Canadian border.

The former executive director of the state party, the 45-year-old Sweeney endeared himself to the Bushes by coordinating much of the recount fight in Florida, orchestrating the demonstrations, for example, at the Miami-Dade canvassing board. Denounced on national television as a "thug" by Alan Dershowitz, the prominent Democratic attorney who represented the victims of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, Sweeney told the Voice: "Pataki, [state GOP chairman] Bill Powers, and myself have pretty good ties with the Bush people and will serve as voices for the state."

One of a coterie of New York Republicans with experience in recount battles, Sweeney went to Florida with Brendan Quinn, Powers's aide and Sweeney's successor as executive director of the party; Jeff Buley, counsel to the state party; Ray Martinez, the new state commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles; Dan Allen, the state party communications director; Brad Blakeman, a Long Island Republican who ran the Bush campaign advance team; Martin Torrey, a Sweeney aide; and Tom Spargo, another Albany attorney who wound up as a Bush witness in the case before Judge N. Sanders Sauls. Sweeney ordered the Dade sit-in, which was led by Quinn.

Pataki also visited Florida twice at crucial moments, doing national television appearances as a campaign spokesman. While Powers sent others and did not go himself, he is well-regarded by the Bush White House. Insiders say he may take a part-time Washington post, either as a consultant-lobbyist or within the administration, maintaining his state post and remaining at home in upstate Columbia County.

One immediate effect of the Bush win is that talk of dumping Powers—who was blamed in news accounts for the defeat of U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio—has ended. Had Bush lost, some prominent state Republicans believe Pataki might have attempted to depose Powers—who was installed a decade ago by then Senator Al D'Amato—and replace him with his own party chief. Instead, the governor has reportedly "reached out to Powers to get him to stay," according to one well-placed source. While Pataki and Powers were frequently not on the same page during the Senate campaign last year, the rift between them appears over, and they are likely to approach the 2002 elections united, a peace that will no doubt be aided by White House operatives.

Powers is a close ally of Sweeney, who was one of only 16 members of the Bush campaign's national steering committee, and both were early visitors to Austin, setting up shop with Bush before Pataki orchestrated his statewide GOP endorsement last May. Another sign of Sweeney's impressive Bush ties is that his aide, Brad Card, is the brother of Bush chief of staff Andy Card. Indeed, Jeff Buley, who is Powers's attorney, also runs an Albany lobbying firm and represents General Motors, where Andy Card directed intergovernmental relations prior to taking a White House position.

Sweeney is reportedly focused on EPA, HUD, and Labor appointments, having served as Labor commissioner under Pataki before winning his congressional seat in 1998. Though a junior member of the House, Sweeney was recently given his choice of plum committees, choosing Appropriations over Ways & Means. Another Powers ally, Buffalo Congressman Tom Reynolds, is also highly respected by the Bush team.

The New York City Republican with the best Bush ties is Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella, who was the only major state officeholder to endorse Bush in early 1999, while Pataki was still flirting with a possible candidacy. Later, when Fossella's longtime mentor, Borough President Guy Molinari, broke with Bush to run John McCain's New York campaign, Fossella stuck with Bush, earning Molinari's public ire and helping to carry the island in the primary for the new president. Once one of the city's most powerful Republicans, Molinari, who is term-limited out of office at the end of the year, did not attend the inaugural this weekend. If there is one big-time GOP loser during the Bush reign, it is the 71-year-old Molinari.

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