Pataki and the Incumbocrats

10.23.2006 | Harry Siegel | Urban Affairs

New York has now had a Republican governor for 12 years, and Republicans have held the State Senate for 64 of the last 65 years. Yet as George Marlin points out in his scathing critique of Governor Pataki, in the six years after his election “the GOP managed to lose two U.S. Senate races… three congressional seats, two State Senate seats, two Assembly seats, the Attorney Generalship, and control of the Nassau and Suffolk legislatures”—and this year, the GOP candidates for all three stateside offices are losing badly.

What happened?

Marlin, who twice ran for mayor as a Conservative and was appointed by Pataki to run the Port Authority, attributes the collapse to a party of “incumbocrats” unwilling to listen to its conservative conscience and unable to out-liberal Democrats.

In 1994, after 12 years of Cuomo nobly overseeing decline, votes cast on the Conservative Party line for the first time provided the margin of victory, and Pataki won with 28% of the New York City vote, a record low for a winning candidate. But having “proved that it is possible to put together a winning coalition without serious support from the city’s liberal elements,” Pataki, who’d served until then mostly in a largely ceremonial Republican Assembly seat, took his advisors’ advice and quickly began tacking left for short-term political gains.

Marlin claims there’s no political benefit in catering to downstate liberals, pointing out that the votes taken away from Republican Attorney General Denis Vacco by the fringe Right to Life candidate—a line Vacco, with an eye to the governor’s seat, had declined—provided Eliot Spitzer with the Attorney Generalship in 1998.

But courting Gotham’s electorate makes more political sense then Marlin concedes. Declining population upstate means increasingly elderly and poor remaining residents, with many highly dependent on government jobs and programs—no longer consistent conservatives. While Pataki, like his predecessor, has overseen this decline, he’s also clinging to the back of the demographic leviathan.

By the same token, Marlin attacks Pataki’s support for “gay rights” (his scare quotes), abortion and gun control, but never concedes that contrary stances would be politically costly.

pataki.jpgMarlin is right, though, that the party has long functioned as a vanity operation, without ideological or structural bearings and dependant on self-financing candidates, from Nelson Rockefeller to Bill Weld. Pataki’s patron, then-Senator Al D’Amato, had first tried to convince Donald Trump to run, and did convince cosmetics heir Ron Lauder to launch a kamikaze campaign against Giuliani in the 1989 Republican primary and furniture heiress Bernadette Castro to run a fool’s mission again Senator Moynihan in 1994.

Pataki came to office as ABC, Anyone But Cuomo, at a moment when the state’s fisc and confidence were collapsing. But he’s been a lot like Cuomo: Pataki pledged not to use private planes, as Cuomo had. Pataki uses a helicopter. He pledged not to appear in state-paid TV spots, as Cuomo had. Pataki’s ads run mostly in states key to his absurd presidential aspirations. Cuomo passed a “debt reform” bill that worsened debt in 1993; Pataki signed his in 2000. Under Cuomo, inflation-adjusted spending increased 189%; under Pataki, 212%.

Under Pataki, Albany’s already lucrative lobbying take business has swelled from $39 million to $149 million a year, much of it going to Pataki’s former chief consultant, the State Senate Majority Leader’s son, Al D’Amato and his brother Armand, and the former GOP state chair.

After 9/11, Pataki again mouthed change, then passed a budget increasing spending by four times the rate of inflation, using a record $4 billion in irresponsible one-off revenues. Since claiming control of Ground Zero in the weeks after the attack, Pataki has built nothing, which didn’t stop him from boasting in 2004, “Today we build the Freedom Tower.”

We’ll see if Eliot Spitzer, our near-certain next governor, does better with the opportunities Pataki’s failings present. Given his cozy history with New York’s equally bankrupt Democratic Party, I doubt it, but those incumbocrats are a column for another day.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Post

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