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Pataki Sets His Sights On NYC / Views City Vote As Key In Bid For Third Term

By Jordan Rau

February 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

Albany - In his last campaign for governor, George Pataki courted the Democratic stronghold of New York City with the wariness of a suitor who has been rebuffed one too many times. His tepidity was reciprocated:In 1998, Pataki won only a third of the city vote even as he easily turned back a limp challenge from Democrat Peter Vallone.

But this time around the Republican governor is embracing the city with a fervor designed to win over enough new converts to give him a third term this fall.

The effort got under way last year when Pataki joined with Puerto Ricans demanding that the Navy stop bombing practices on the island of Vieques and celebrated new, cheaper plane fares to Puerto Rico . He also helped bring a 7-year-old girl from the Dominican Republic to New York for surgery to repair a congenital heart defect.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Pataki was heading into the city for his second visit to the girl. The terrorist attacks deferred any campaigning, but in dealing with the assault's aftermath, Pataki became a fixture in New York.

This year the governor resumed his urban courting. He won plaudits from hospitals and their workers - many of whom are minorities - last month when he delivered $1.8 billion statewide to pay for raises and nurse recruitment efforts over the next few years.

The deal was cut with Dennis Rivera, the head of the Service Employees International Union local in New York City. Pataki also proposed to route a $208 million special allotment to the city's schools, to the delight of New York's influential teachers union.

"There are votes to be had in New York City that Pataki really hasn't spent a lot of time going after," said Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant in Manhattan who has worked for both parties. "When they've campaigned, they've basically neglected New York City in terms of phones and mail, and the television and radio campaigns were really targeted to the suburbs. You're not going to see that from Pataki this time."

Less visibly, Pataki has hired a roster of new aides with the credibility and connections to reach into places in the city that the governor has yet to fully mine.

His secretary of state, Randy Daniels, is a Democrat from Harlem and an influential emissary to blacks. Pataki's new link to the Jewish community is Herbert Berman, a well-known former city councilman from Brooklyn, and he also recently hired Teresa Santiago, a former aide to Pataki's predecessor, Mario Cuomo, as his campaign's liaison to Hispanics.

"What's really striking about the campaign so far is it's us fighting for theirs," said Kieran Mahoney, Pataki's strategist. "We're still managing to carry the fight into their political base, and they're not carrying it into ours. In aggregate, we'll do better in the labor community, better in the Hispanic community, and I think we'll do better in the new immigrant communities."

The preliminary results have been noticeable: 48 percent of New York City voters say they would support Pataki over either of his two Democratic adversaries, H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, according to a Quinnipiac University poll taken last month. That would be 15 percent more than Pataki won in 1998.

While the governor still remains more popular upstate and in the suburbs, political strategists in both parties agree that Pataki would sew up the election if he could beat his last city showing of 33 percent by 3 points or more, since New York City accounts for 30 percent of the state's vote.

But Pataki's new urban enthusiasm may mask his increasing vulnerability in the suburbs and upstate. There are now 2 million more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide, and even Pataki's victory last time was far from a landslide: He won only 54 percent of the vote against Vallone's 33 percent. This time around, Democrats hold the county executive seats in Nassau and Westchester.

"He's living in a situation where there are 2 million more of his enemies than his friends," said Hank Scheinkopf, McCall's chief consultant. "If he gets above 30 percent in the city, he's a great man. It's going to be very difficult for him, but he has no choice because he can no longer depend on the suburban votes."

In addition, Pataki's leftward lurch has irritated some conservatives. Thomas Carroll, a founder of the anti-tax group Change- NY, which was started by sworn enemies of Mario Cuomo who had helped elect Pataki, last month took the unusual step of joining with Andrew Cuomo to decry Pataki's health care plan.

"George Pataki ran in 1994 as a conservative," said Andrew Cuomo's campaign manager, Josh Isay. "He's now morphing into a totally different candidate, not because he believes in what he's saying, but because the politics of New York State dictate it."

The Pataki campaign expects conservative voters will still support the governor, given his efforts to cut taxes and the fact that he has been able to play the fiscal conservative to the Legislature even as Albany spending has well outpaced inflation. The Conservative Party is likely to stay with Pataki, but a challenge from the right could hobble the governor: In 1998, Independence Party candidate Thomas Golisano won 8 percent of the vote. A similar showing would be devastating to Pataki in a close race.

Much, of course, depends on the winner of the Democratic primary. If Cuomo is the Democratic candidate, Cuomo and Pataki, both Catholic, will be aggressively pursuing conservative white Catholics in the city as well as the suburban vote.

If McCall is the Democratic nominee, Pataki's campaign is likely to revert closer to a traditional Republican race that does not rely so much on the city. That is because blacks are likely to pour out in support of McCall, who would be New York's first black governor if elected.

Still, the Pataki campaign is banking that in either case the growing bloc of Hispanic voters will be in play. On Thursday, Pataki announced he will lead a bipartisan delegation to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico later this month to support the families of passengers killed on American Airlines Flight 587 in November.

Regardless of his challenger, Pataki will have Mayor Michael Bloomberg to help his city campaign, a boost so long as Bloomberg remains popular. Many strategists suspect that a nasty, racially divisive Democratic primary like the one in last year's mayoral race could leave the nominee, whoever he is, penniless and Democratic voters demoralized.

"I think Pataki has a very good shot with white Catholics in Queens. He'll do well among Hispanics because of Rivera and Vieques and the health care workers. What he needs is a very heavy Giuliani Democrat support," said George Arzt, a political consultant in lower Manhattan who worked for Vallone's and Fernando Ferrer's mayoral bids last year. "Anything can change on a dime, but he has a potential to do extremely well in the city."

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