Under the leadership of Governor Pataki

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Eye from Albany
September 2005

Under the leadership of Governor Pataki
by Paul M. Bray

Just as I was convincing myself that George Pataki was not willing to let go and would run for a 4th term, he called it quits. Goodbye government “under the leadership of Governor Pataki” as every state commissioner was required to say in any public statement.

After almost three terms as Governor and service as an Assemblyman and Senator, Pataki leaves as an enigma. We have gotten to know him, but who really understands him?

Three terms and twelve years is a long time for Pataki to be Governor but it seemed to fly by. Do you remember when he came into office and immediately started to move state offices from the Capital City of Albany to Kingston and empty former IBM office space? And then there was the Governor paying his debt to the State’s corporate polluters by decimating the enforcement unit of the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Pataki’s appointed Michael Zagata to be DEC Commissioner. Zagata’s antics were a foil to deflect attention from what the Governor was doing to environmental enforcement. And then, came the proposal for an Environmental Bond Act that put that brought the Governor back into the good graces of the influential land protection segment of the environmental movement. Although he could not bring himself to move his family to the Mansion in Albany, he reversed the state office exodus from Albany by moving agencies like DEC from the suburbs to downtown Albany-the so-called Albany Plan.

Pataki was the perfect candidate for governor. On the one hand, he was fiscally conservative and pro-law and order while at the same time he was liberal on the social issues. Coming from the suburban NYC metro area, he could give the state’s emerged suburban majority what it wanted. His timing was excellent as he made his move for the governorship at the point where the electorate was getting tired of three term Governor Mario Cuomo.

As Governor, Pakaki was skillful in being able to brazenly tack from the right to the left, albeit that the right and left are not as far apart as they once were. He has been an expert “flip flopper” that got away with it at least until the present time. At reelection times, he gave the key unions what they wanted and was willing to spend what was needed to be spent to beat the democrats at their own game. In between he could cut state taxes and make nice to Glover G. Norquist, the anti-tax “ringleader, visionary and enforcer” of the national conservative movement. Of course, all the time ignoring the growing local tax burden.

From day one when Pataki closed off the Executive Offices in the Capital (years before the security that followed 9/11 and a symbol of his isolation), Pataki has been all politics all the time with the Governor surrounded by attack-dog like characters like Zinia Mucha during his first term always ready to come down hard on any perceived opponent of Pataki. Unlike periods when there would be a time for politics (election time) and a time for government, at best politics was always being played sometimes with and sometimes without government (actually doing the people’s business) mixed in.

Even so, Pataki has left a legacy. His legacy is certainly much greater that Cuomo who could point to little more than prison building to show for his 12 years in the Executive Mansion where he actually did hang out.

In areas I particularly care about like land conservation, parks, agriculture, high tech development and energy Pataki has a progressive record and, especially in the Adirondack Park, the Catskill Watershed and Hudson Valley, the makings of a valuable legacy. Yet, the upstate economy continues to founder, the public work force is demoralized (the byproduct or outsourcing, man power shortages and little respect for public service) and, despite the rhetoric over high tech development, it is hard to be bullish about the state’s future.

That in a nutshell brings me to the question I ponder: Did Pataki have to govern in the political and contentious style he had in order to be reelected two time or could he have been more of a leader and a statesman to bring out the best in NYS and still have succeeded? Of course, that raises another question: Did Pataki have it in him to be a leader and statesman?

I cannot see why, for example, the Pataki who orchestrated the Catskill Watershed Agreement between the big, bad City of New York and the multitude of suspicious and agree watershed towns (something the Cuomo avoided doing like the plague) could not have facilitated the regionalism that upstate New York needs to become economically competitive again. Could it be that Pataki did not care about challenges like the upstate economy and only produced on matters that interested him like the Adirondack Park and the Hudson Valley? Or, perhaps, is New York State simply ungovernable. My take is that he sold himself short by not being the best governor he could have been.

In all likelihood Pataki will be history in less than a year and a half unless you believe he has a future in national politics. But his manner of governing and his legacy should get our attention if we want to have any voice in how the next administration governs. Instead of “under the leadership of Eliot Spitzer”, might we be better off with a new administration that bills itself as a team effort and/or partnership for New York effort rather than the one man show of Cuomo and Pataki and, as Governor Rockefeller did, that attracts the best and the brightest to lead state government programs?

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M. Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, NY. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com.