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Two(?)-Party Politics Today; New York's Gubernatorial Contest Is Complex, But It Is Not Exactly A Clash Of Doctrines

By George F. Will

March 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsweek. All Rights Reserved.

This is going to make your head hurt, but persevere. The complexities of the contest for governor of New York give a glimpse into what politics becomes when a vacuum of ideas is filled with race and pork.

Time was, until 1964, New York was the most populous state and its governorship made many men presidential aspirants--Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith, TR's cousin Franklin, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller. Today New York has only 56 percent of the political heft of California, has less than Texas and soon will fall behind Florida.

Still, its governorship is not chopped liver, and Carl McCall, state comptroller, wants it. He would be just the second African-American elected governor of a state. (Virginia's Doug Wilder became the first in 1990.) But first McCall must win the Democratic nomination by defeating the son of the last Democratic governor--Mario Cuomo's son Andrew, 44. Then McCall must defeat the man who defeated Andrew's father, George Pataki, who is seeking a third term with some remarkably un-Republican maneuvers.

McCall, 65, is one of six children raised by his unmarried mother on welfare. He graduated from Dartmouth and attended the University of Edinburgh. Tall, dapper and courtly, he has been a vice president of Citicorp and an ambassador to the United Nations and is on the board of the New York Stock Exchange. His liberalism is the tangy Manhattan flavor: when president of New York City's Board of Education, he favored distributing condoms and books (e.g., "Heather Has Two Mommies") to indoctrinate children about "alternative lifestyles." He has been commissioner of the Port Authority and a three-term state senator.

McCall supporters like Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel say McCall has paid his dues, and it is his turn, not the upstart Cuomo's. Rangel recently said that if today the choice were between Andrew Cuomo and Pataki, "I'd go with Pataki." Cuomo, say some McCall Democrats, is an "outsider" because he has just returned to New York after eight years in the Clinton administration, the last four as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Such Democrats developed their distaste for outsiders after electing Hillary Clinton, of Illinois and Arkansas, to the Senate.

In 1998 McCall ran 290,000 votes ahead of Pataki and carried 45 of New York's 62 counties. Sen. Charles Schumer in 1998 carried only 11. Clinton in 2000 carried only 15. However, Cuomo is married to the daughter of a former New York senator, Robert Kennedy, and has the prodigious fund-raising powers of his father's and the Kennedys' allies.And he is as aggressive as McCall is diffident.

When Democrats are not playing the race card against Republicans, they play it against one another, and race is the subtext of this nomination contest. Asked over breakfast recently how he will handle the support of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the race hustler, McCall laughed and answered: "With difficulty."

It is becoming difficult for any New York Democrat to win an important office without Sharpton's support, and difficult for any Democrat supported by him to win statewide, because upstate voters do not appreciate the street-theater style of racial politics that Sharpton has made part of the background noise of city life. Sharpton has already said that if McCall does not win the governorship "he would be the victim of the greatest form of political racial profiling in the history of the state."

The primaries for state offices are in September because Republicans put them there in 1974 and Democrats have not been able to undo that mischief. September primaries hurt Democrats, who are generally more fractious than Republicans and have little time to heal their self-inflicted wounds before general elections. By the time McCall or Cuomo limps into the autumn campaign, Pataki may have personally put packets of cash on the porches of all the voters.

When first elected, in 1994, the first Republican governor elected since Rockefeller in 1970, Pataki seemed akin to that year's "Republican revolutionaries" who ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Since then Pataki has seen first Schumer and then Clinton win Senate seats, Democrats become comptroller and attorney general, and Democratic strength surge in the city's suburbs. So he has become hard to distinguish from a Democrat, even supporting demonstrators against the Navy's bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

In his first seven years as governor he increased spending an average of 15 percent a year, almost double Mario Cuomo's 8 percent average in his last eight years. After September 11 he presented Washington with a ludicrous $54 billion aid request that even included--really--money for a high-speed rail link between Schenectady and New York City. With blithe disregard for budget realities and procedures, Pataki has ginned up a bill that gives $1.8 billion in pay raises to the 210,000 members of New York City's hospital-workers union. The union's membership is almost entirely African-American and Latino--voters McCall or Cuomo must have in November. The union's grateful leader, Dennis Rivera, may be neutral in a Pataki-McCall race, and might even support Pataki against Cuomo.

When Pataki spoke by satellite television to the AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas, 1,000 delegates gave him a standing ovation. As well they should have. He has done what no other governor of either party has done--signed a law establishing the "card check" process that makes it easier to unionize a company's work force.

Now New York workers can choose to unionize just by signing a card. Critics say this process makes a mockery of free choice when the card is thrust at a worker by a burly union organizer. Pataki calls the process a step for "eliminating unnecessary hurdles" to unionization. By hurdles he means secret-ballot elections. He says the new process will thwart "unscrupulous employers."

All these are the sounds of the two-party system, New York style.

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