How Pataki Won

Governor Strikes Strongman Pose, Wipes His Hands Clean

When Standard & Poor's downgraded the state's bonds from "stable" to "negative" last week, George Pataki was quick to blame it on the legislative budget he'd just unsuccessfully vetoed. In the coming months of continuing financial debacle, expect that to become a gubernatorial mantra.

Overridden again and again by unanimous votes in a senate controlled by his own party, Pataki has been widely depicted as an out-of-touch loser in the Great Budget War. But that assessment has one fatal flaw: It makes too much sense. The always on-message Pataki—despite how often he utterly reverses the message—is confident that he will emerge from this fiscally criminal fiasco of recurring multibillion-dollar gaps as the only perpetrator with an alibi. "I was out to lunch" is a better place to be, the governor clearly believes, than "I was at the table."

This is, after all, an era when a president can do a Top Gun landing on an aircraft carrier, utterly confident that the national media will not even report that he went AWOL from his own Air National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. It's a time when Unreality TV News can suspend overnight its Hare Krishna-like repetition of a weapons-of-mass-destruction, war-justifying themeas if it never embraced the Bush canard. All Pataki needs in such a moment is a plausible-sounding artifice to escape responsibility—especially nationally, which is the only constituency he currently cares about—for a $12 billion hole he dug and tried to hide from view until he was re-elected.

Knowing when to play and when to fold, Pataki is now positioned as the state's fiscal prophet.
Knowing when to play and when to fold, Pataki is now positioned as the state's fiscal prophet.

He is ready now to take to the stump as the tax cutter who refused—in the face of union-contrived clamor—to hike them even though his own budget raised clothing and hospital taxes. He is positioned as the only man in Albany willing to cut waste, though his budget made no attempt to even locate it, indiscriminately slashing education and Medicaid without so much as a cursory attempt to identify lard. He is set to pin the inevitable deficits on the legislature though his own budget contained $4.2 billion in one-shot borrowing that would've left a hole of the same size next year. He will now become, in a paradox fit for the times, Albany's iron man of fiscal rectitude, refusing to spend some of the legislature's appropriations, scolding, suing, smirking.

It may take a governor to understand a governor, so listen to one. Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor the last time a governor's budget was overridden, in 1982. After that, he did 12 executive budgets of his own that were affirmed by a legislature as divided by party as the current one. Asked by the Voice whether a governor truly trying to block a joint legislative budget would be best served by corralling enough individual legislators to prevent a veto override before those legislators actually voted for their budget rather than after, as Pataki did, Cuomo said: "Obviously, yes."

But Pataki, insists Cuomo, "never wanted his budget adopted" and "wanted to see his vetoes overridden.

"As a clever politician," Cuomo says of the man who beat him in 1994, "Pataki sought to work out a way where he wouldn't have to make the difficult judgments a governor has to make, like doing a budget. So he never did a real budget. He tried to put all the blame on the legislature. If they left it at his budget, the deficits into the future would be at least as large." Instead of proposing a budget, Cuomo says, Pataki merely adopted "a rhetorical position" designed to appeal to "Republican conservative dogmatists."

Fred Dicker, the New York Post's bureau chief in Albany, did a May 5 story naming 13 conservative Democratic assembly members "identified by Pataki's political advisers" who might then have been willing to vote to sustain the governor's vetoes. All Pataki had to do, the "insiders" told Dicker, was to swing four of them to stop the override, since all but one of the assembly's 47 Republicans were supporting the governor. Voice calls to the banner-headlined 13 could not turn up a single one who said that Pataki or his staff ever had called (several did not respond to inquiries).

Assemblyman Richard Smith from Erie County acknowledged that he was part of what he called "the Group of 13," a caucus of Democrats who "often stress independence from the Democratic majority." "But the administration did not contact us," Smith said. "If they had approached us about this, we had worked on the budget for about two months and there was not a 'For Sale' sign on my body." New Rochelle's Ronald Tocci said the same, as did aides to Robin Schimminger (Erie), Steve Levy (Suffolk), William Scarborough (Queens), and Syracuse's William Magnarelli.

Assemblywoman Joan Christensen, also of Syracuse, said: "The governor didn't call me. Or if he did, he didn't leave a message on my machine. Would it have made a difference? Not on the override. In fact, there is no exchange between the governor's office and my office. When I call there, which is not too often, I get referred and referred and referred." Not only did Staten Island's John Lavelle say he wasn't called, but he says he spoke "with all of the other 12 and none were contacted."

The assembly member whose comments were most descriptive of Pataki's NBA-style defensive flop was William Parment, who was labeled in Dicker's story "a business-friendly sometimes maverick from Jamestown." Parment told the Voice he was "very unhappy about the legislative budget" and "was a little surprised" that he wasn't contacted.

"There was certainly an opportunity to approach me, because I was invited to a prayer breakfast, right around the passage of the budget, where I spoke with the governor," said Parment. "But he didn't mention anything about the budget." After Dicker's story naming him came out, Parment said he "would not commit to answering questions about whether or not I would override because I was hoping there would be more negotiations." Waiting by the phone for the call that never came, Parment laments now: "I hoped there would have been some compromise."

Dicker himself recently wrote an item suggesting just how bogus Pataki's supposed veto war was. "I received one message on my cell phone saying the governor was trying to reach me," recalled Senator Hugh Farley of Schenectady, who is described by Dicker as "seen by many as at least potentially prepared to side with Pataki." Farley said he returned the call "and was told the governor wasn't taking any calls" and "that's the last I heard from him."

This is, of course, precisely the kind of detail that will never fit into a sound bite. Even the print media—which has been markedly critical of Pataki's stated positions—has not looked behind this sham performance. Reporters from The Buffalo News to the Syracuse Post-Standard to the Times have noted, for example, that Pataki "secretly" supported a 1.25 percent increase in the sales tax in "private," pre-veto meetings with Speaker Shelly Silver and senate leader Joe Bruno. It's a claim both leaders have made, and that Pataki denies. But every story so far has buried this explosive charge—which strips bare the governor's no-tax pose and puts him squarely on Bush's anybody-but-the-rich side of the tax debate.

Instead of portraying the actual Pataki—one who tried to cut a consumer-gutting deal and, once that failed, only pretended to block the budget he railed against—the media are allowing the governor to cast himself as a fiscal crusader. This is hardly a media favor for political reasons, as was the electoral cover-up of 2002. It's just lazy, cookie-cutter journalism.

Assemblyman Parment said it best: "The governor got the great political position on this. Any rise in the rate of unemployment or future economic problems of the state will now fall at the feet of the legislature." Can we let this slippery skell, who lied his way to re-election, get away with that too?


Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstendig

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