Twenty-five years ago this week, a little known state senator from Peekskill, George Elmer Pataki, defeated a liberal giant, Gov. Mario Cuomo.
The outcome of the 1994 gubernatorial election was best described by political analyst, Michael Barone. “Pataki’s victory,” he wrote, “can be summed up as a near-unanimous decision by upstaters and farther-out suburbanites that the huge state and city governments were destroying jobs and communities. The New York version of the welfare state, for all the attractiveness of its champions, was repudiated.”
When Pataki was inaugurated in January 1995, conservatives, like myself, had great expectations, and we were delighted when the new governor quickly signed a death penalty bill, cut taxes, spending and regulations.
But before long, one could sense a change in attitude, particularly among the governor’s gatekeepers. Pataki’s original financial backers, conservatives motivated by principle, were unceremoniously cut out of the loop. Political apparatchiks concluded that it would be easier for Pataki to win re-election if he traded contracts and access for campaign support than if he cast his lot with “true believers” demanding fiscal restraint.
In 1997, Pataki abandoned his own version of a “read my lips” pledge: that he would end New York City’s ruinous rent control. He simply capitulated when polls showed his popularity plummeting among Manhattanites, despite the fact that they had never voted for him, and had no intention of ever voting for him.
That same year, Pataki supported a $2.4 billion education bond act to further finance a corrupt and incompetent School Construction Authority that on one occasion spent $300,000 to build a wheelchair ramp under a basketball hoop. The voters had the good sense to reject the bond act.
As he tightened his embrace of government activism, Pataki abandoned other bedrock Republican and conservative principles:
• His pledge to curb Medicaid costs.
• The fight to end unfunded state mandates on local municipalities.
• Promises to avoid one-shot fiscal gimmicks.
• The campaign to stop “back-door borrowing” and enact true debt reform.
• His pledge to impose no new taxes, which ended in 1999 with a $400 million cigarette tax hike, and hit a new low in 2003 with increases of almost every conceivable tax and fee.
• The effort to seek state labor force productivity gains.
In short, Pataki largely discarded the principles of fiscal restraint.
During his 12 years in office, Pataki was a life-style governor. He preferred the perks of his office than actually governing. He was more familiar with wine lists at trendy restaurants than he was with his state budget.
In a National Review cover story titled “Spurious George: The Pathetic Reign of New York’s Governor Pataki,” reporter John Miller wrote, “It seems that Pataki likes the idea of being governor more than he enjoys doing the hard work the job requires…. For a man who says his favorite president if Teddy Roosevelt, Pataki seems strangely reluctant to use the bully pulpit. He walks softly, but doesn’t even carry a toothpick.”
Pataki’s lackadaisical approach to governing explains why 65% of voters told pollsters, during his last year in office, that they believed he primarily represented special interests or his own self-interest.
Similarly, the conservative New York Post, in an editorial titled “What Might Have Been,” concluded:
“But early on, Pataki seemed to develop policy-deficit disorder:
He veered sharply leftward on a range of issues—and in a way that did considerable
damage to New York’s financial and economic health….
[Pataki’s] budget proposals became increasingly irresponsible, failing to control
discretionary spending and repeatedly relying on dubious fiscal gimmickry.
And his administration developed an air of cronyism, complete with contracts handed
out to politically connected bidders, that has been breathtaking even by Albany’s
terminally cynical standards.”
By abandoning his fiscal and social principles and betraying the coalition of upstate and suburban conservatives and urban blue-collar ethnics who elected him, Pataki squandered the historic opportunity entrusted to him.
That explains why 13 years after leaving office, George Pataki is a forgotten man.