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The George Pataki record: A Roosevelt Republican and social liberal from New York’s crime-crackdown years

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
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Amid a growing group of long-shot Republican presidential hopefuls that already includes a neurosurgeon, a deposed Silicon Valley CEO and two failed contenders from presidential primaries past, few official or potential primary candidates have been as quickly dismissed as George Pataki.

The former New York governor, who announced his candidacy in New Hampshire Thursday, started eyeing the first primary state back in January — and the press has been rolling its eyes at him ever since.

Pataki “may be running the saddest campaign for president,” Slate announced. “Does George Pataki seriously think he can be president?” asked the Daily Beast. The Atlantic listed Pataki among the “Longest Long Shots of the 2016 GOP Race,” demanding to know “what on earth” he was thinking. And in a New York Daily News article proclaiming that he has “virtually no shot to win,” one political analyst said of Pataki’s presidential ambitions, “I don’t know how people obtain these delusions. I don’t take those drugs.”

And yet Pataki is an experienced politician, with three gubernatorial terms under his belt and several victories over incumbent Democrats in one of the country’s biggest — and bluest — states. He’s governed in a time of national crisis (Sept. 11 and its aftermath) and befriended one of the wealthiest and most sought-after GOP donors (Sheldon Adelson), and he stands out as part of a small minority of moderates in an increasingly crowded primary field thick with candidates vying to win the most conservative voters. Four former New York governors have become president, though it’s been a while since any were able make the leap. At the same time, Pataki has virtually no name recognition outside New York. He’s barely even registering on the national polls.

Undeterred by what he has acknowledged “will be a very stiff climb up a very steep mountain,” Pataki is pressing forward. As he throws his hat in the ring, it’s worth taking a look at his record to understand exactly who he is — just in case.

A fiscal conservative

Pataki first rode into the governor’s mansion in 1995 on a crusade for tax cuts. More than two decades later, he counts cutting both property and corporate tax rates, as well as boosting New York’s credit rating, among the biggest accomplishments from his three terms in office.

Pataki’s profile on the National Governors Association website boasts that he “enacted over $100 billion in tax cuts,” “reduced welfare rolls by more than one million recipients” and funded the creation of a number of research centers, including the Center of Excellence in Environmental Systems at Syracuse University, as part of an effort “to make New York a powerhouse in high-technology research, job creation, and economic growth.”

Tough on criminals

Pataki won office right as crime in America was peaking and as everyone from President Bill Clinton on down was concerned with getting more cops on the streets and doing something about crime in America’s biggest cities, such as New York. Among the first pieces of legislation Pataki signed into law was a reinstatement of the death penalty, which the state’s highest court deemed unconstitutional nearly a decade later. There were no executions during Pataki’s three terms in office, but he did push through more than 100 bills tightening crime laws and lengthening prison sentences, to which he has attributed the steady decline in crime rates across New York state between 1994 and 2005 (though, of course, much of the decline had to do with changes in policing in New York City and the changing downstate economy). This puts Pataki, a social liberal, to the right of such presidential contenders as Mike Huckabee, who has a track record of pushing for lighter sentences, and out of sync with a growing move on the right toward less-draconian sentences and against the death penalty, which Nebraska’s Republican legislature recently banned. 

Pataki’s support for gun control also makes him stand out in the GOP crowd, though it stems from the same anticrime efforts as his support for tougher sentencing. In August 2000, he drew the ire of the National Rifle Association when he signed the strictest gun-control law in the country.

A Roosevelt Republican

Pataki is credited with playing a lead role in a number of environmental protection initiatives, including an agreement with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to preserve the acres of watershed that supply New York City’s drinking water, as well as efforts to clean up the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound. 

“I’m a Republican following in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt who understands that conservatism isn’t just economic policy but it’s also preserving and enhancing the outdoors,” Pataki told the New York Post this week, likening himself to another one-time New York governor.

A December 2006 New York Times editorial on “The George Pataki Era” predicted the then outgoing governor would most likely be remembered for his environmental work. “Mr. Pataki has earned his badge as an environmental governor by protecting wilderness, adding riverside parks, creating coalitions for cleaner air and alternative fuels and, most recently, announcing the fulfillment of his pledge to add one million acres of land to the public estate,” read the column. 

A social liberal 

Pataki may have made his mark on New York with his environmentally conscious agenda, but in the 2016 presidential primaries, it’s his record on social issues that — if he makes it into a debate — will set the former governor apart. In 2002, he made New York the 13th state in the nation to provide protections from discrimination to gays and lesbians under civil rights law. And he has not only declared himself “pro-choice” but also sought to get the Republican Party to drop the antiabortion platform from its national agenda. 

To be sure, Pataki is hardly the most liberal backer of reproductive rights; his votes against Medicaid in the New York state legislature and his refusal, as governor, to sign a bill to make the morning-after pill available over the counter, earned him plenty of criticism from the left

But while his actions have drawn adversaries from both ends of the political spectrum, Pataki hasn’t wavered on the position that national politics is no place for the abortion debate.  

In a campaign video released by the would-be candidate’s new political action committee, We the People, Not Washington, Pataki argues that “Defeating Islamic terror, shrinking government and growing the economy” are what’s most important, while “social issues like abortion and gay rights” are just a “distraction and will only help elect Hillary.” 

A mixed record in Albany 

“Mr. Pataki’s dozen years in office have produced mixed results. In many critical areas, his best efforts bump up against disappointing failures,” the New York Times opined on the eve of Pataki’s departure from office. 

Among the most glaring disappointments from the Pataki era were a number of procedural reforms related to campaigns and governing itself: the outgoing governor’s failure to follow through on his own yearly call for campaign finance reform or to approve legislative redistricting rather than simply renewing a plan to protect incumbents, despite having campaigned on the promise of revolutionizing state government. 

“It’s not easy to remember, but this was a governor who came into office promising a new day and an open door,” the editors wrote. “He left a system so hard to penetrate that his quarters in the State Capitol were known as Fort Pataki.”

The Times also compared Pataki’s grand plans for rebuilding lower Manhattan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks to the actual execution of that effort. The discrepancies between the two would only become more apparent with time. Though he was applauded for initial decisions, like choosing architect Daniel Libeskind’s plans for the building formerly known as the Freedom Tower, Pataki’s dedication to the project soon started to wane, and the project’s glacial progress was proof. 

On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 — two years before the completed One World Trade Center would finally open its doors — New York  magazine pointed out that while Pataki was decrying plans for a proposed Islamic center opponents dubbed “the ground zero mosque,” “most of his plans for the Trade Center site, bloated financially and years behind schedule, had been discarded.” 

“No one seemed to work harder to catch [the Sept. 11] wave than George Pataki,” noted the magazine, observing that the former governor’s “moist-eyed and superpatriotic” efforts to spearhead the reconstruction and memorial projects “seemed designed to abet a presidential campaign (however unlikely) in 2008.” 

Five years and one more presidential flirtation later, Pataki is finally making his run for the White House.