NEW YORK -- Amid the uncertainties of election politics, one 2002 outcome had seemed assured. Republican George Pataki surely would be elected to a third term as governor of New York against either of two flawed Democratic challengers. Yet, the political community now is not so sure because of a newly introduced wild card.
The wild card is B. Thomas Golisano, a Rochester, N.Y., billionaire making his third independent run for governor. Since his previous campaigns were ineffective, what reason is there to take him seriously this time? There are 75 reasons. Golisano has promised to spend $75 million of personal funds -- much more than ever before for him and equal to what Michael Bloomberg spent to become mayor of New York City.
Furthermore, under guidance of veteran Republican political operative Roger Stone, Golisano for the first time plans to campaign as a conservative. That was not envisioned as Pataki's shrewdly conceived strategy moved him steadily leftward the last two years. Having made himself indistinguishable from Democrats while neutralizing any threat from the Conservative Party, Pataki now faces a well-financed threat from the right.
One prominent Democratic politician, requesting anonymity, told me the bitter struggle for his party's nomination between State Controller H. Carl McCall and former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo has so alienated him that he plans to vote for the liberalized Pataki. If such a Democrat is defecting, isn't Pataki home free? "Not necessarily," he replied. "Golisano is the wild card."
Prior to the Golisano threat, Pataki seemed guaranteed to survive the Republican Party's ruin in New York. The widening Democratic statewide advantage over Republicans in registered voters has reached 2 million. The former GOP suburban hegemony is gone. As Hillary Clinton showed in 2000, the economically ravaged upstate has become happy hunting grounds for Democrats. With Republican presidential candidates dropping below 40 percent in the last two elections, Pataki was his party's only candidate elected statewide during the three elections between 1996 and 2000.
Pataki, an obscure protege of then Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, defeated Gov. Mario Cuomo's bid for a fourth term to become the first conservative elected governor of New York since Nathan Miller in 1920. Since his liberal shuffle following the 1998 re-election, he has raced leftward on issues from the environment to gay rights and allied himself with left-wing service employees leader Dennis Rivera (costing the state $850 million in higher pay for health care workers).
The Rivera coup left McCall, Cuomo and conservative voters all sputtering. The New York Conservative Party was formed in 1962 to deny votes -- and perhaps election -- to just such apostate Republicans as Pataki. At the party's recent 40th anniversary dinner in Manhattan, founding father William F. Buckley gently called attention to the governor's left deviationism, but Pataki was tight with Conservative State Chairman Mike Long and won the party's endorsement.
Just when Pataki thought he had all bases covered, Tom Golisano -- invisible since his last failed run -- reappeared, with Roger Stone at his side. Golisano impressed nobody in his previous two campaigns as a non-ideological cut-rate version of Ross Perot. He won only 8 percent of the 1998 vote, but in that limited, disorganized campaign drew a mere $13 million from his personal fortune. Golisano, whose payroll processing company actually prospered the last four years, is worth $5.5 billion and can afford the $75 million he has promised.
It figures to be spent more competently than in 1998. Stone is a professional who worked in the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. Golisano is being re-invented as pro-life (moderately), pro-gun, pro-Vieques and very conservative fiscally. While he is barred from the Conservative Party primary and may well lose to Pataki the primary of the Independence Party (which he founded), Golisano will have his own party line on the November ballot.
Stone has not always been so tough on aberrant Republicans (running liberal Sen. Arlen Specter's 1996 presidential campaign). This looks personal. Stone, lobbying for Donald Trump, ran television ads attacking the governor in a casino gambling dispute. The state lobbying commission fined Stone $100,000, a response Pataki may regret if Tom Golisano deprives him of a third term as governor.