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MISTAKES COME BACK TO HAUNT PATAKI
THE STATE LEGISLATURE DELIVERED THE GOVERNOR A POLITICAL BLACK EYE LAST WEEK. MANY SAY IT WAS THE GOVERNOR'S OWN DOING.

It appeared to come from nowhere, but the political black eye that the Legislature gave Gov. George E. Pataki last week over the state budget was years in the making.

And much of it, even some of his oldest allies say, was of the governor's own making.

It is a story about a powerful governor, one with even more powerful politicians backing him up, who lost control of the agenda in Albany. It is about a governor trying to woo, cajole, then threaten a legislative body for which he has long shown disdain, even when he served in its two houses.

And it is about a governor who has forged a Republican Party in his own image and to serve his own political needs above all others -- much as Mario M. Cuomo did before him with the Democratic Party.

It all came back to bite him last week when he turned to the Legislature and no one was there to help.

For evidence, look no further than the Assembly. While much of the attention and rhetorical wars were centered on Pataki's battles with his own usual allies in the Republican-led Senate, it was the Assembly that was the root of Pataki's defeat, a setback traceable to 1995.

In 1995, when Pataki was sworn in after beating Cuomo, the 150-member Assembly was composed of 94 Democrats -- six shy of what's needed to override gubernatorial vetoes.

Since then, Pataki has won re-election twice. He has raised tens of millions of dollars. He has cultivated the image as someone with national potential. His party has elected county executives in places like Erie County and cities like New York.

Yet, one floor above his Capitol office, a more basic problem has been left to fester, one that, handled differently, could have avoided the political mess Pataki found himself in last week.

Instead of building up the Republican ranks in the Assembly, Republican Party officials set their energies on other areas, notably the governor's own two re-election bids. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, through raw political skill, huge amounts of money from special interests and a bit of help from redistricting, began cultivating Democratic candidates -- and electing them.

Today, there are 103 Democrats in the Assembly -- nine more than when Pataki took office. It takes 100 to override.

At first, people chuckled at Silver. What was the point in furthering the monopoly on power Democrats already enjoyed in the Assembly? More political mouths to feed, more potential problems, insiders scoffed.

Veto-proof margin

When the Democratic ranks hit 101 last year, people talked of it as a veto-proof margin. But who cares? After all, Albany is a town where deals are forged in secret and notions of veto overrides are better left for high school social studies books.

Not this year.

Yet, when the bullets started flying, who did Pataki quickly turn to? His old friends, the Republicans in the Assembly, a house he served in for eight years. But the Assembly Republicans no longer had the juice to do anything to help him.

At first, the reach was done with a hammer. One day a couple weeks back, with the brewing budget showdown coming, Pataki aides called a dozen GOP members in the Assembly to berate them for helping override a Pataki veto of a bill delaying the statewide voting day for school district budgets. Several complained they had to listen to the screams of people who never before called them about anything.

The next night, Pataki had the whole group over to the governor's mansion for hot dogs and hamburgers alongside the outdoor pool.

But it didn't matter. With only 47 Republicans in the Assembly, the members were turned into bystanders. As the budget veto overrides were muscled through last Thursday, the Assembly Republicans barely let out a peep. And, on several votes, a dozen of them joined with Democrats -- 102 of whom stuck together and voted for all 119 overrides.

Last week's stunning pounding did quake the Capitol more than at any time in a generation. Rejecting Pataki's urgings, lawmakers voted to pump more money around the state funded with huge tax hikes. At the same time, they seemed to enjoy handing Pataki a black eye, if judged by the derisive laughs of Senate Republicans when criticized by Pataki throughout the week.

Center of fight

The budget, of course, was the center of the fight. But there was more at play: A growing resentment, clearly, against a governor who even many Republicans say is disengaged and forgets the little things in political life, like inviting lawmakers to events when the governor is in their district.

"When we cannot get the governor to work in a cooperative way, we will assert ourselves," Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester County Democrat, said on the floor as the Assembly ran through the veto overrides Thursday. He called it "an institutional revolt against an imperial governorship."

Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, who came to Albany in 1972, has been particularly vocal in criticizing Pataki's handling of the budget impasse. It came down to a matter of preserving the institution of the Legislature -- and the powers the constitution gives to lawmakers, he said.

"The governor's people think they should run the government," Volker said.

And when Pataki asked lawmakers to return to the negotiating table, his request was rejected as too little, too late.

"It is too late in the process for us to start over," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.

Throughout it all, the governor dismissed the complaints as distractions.

"This is about principles," he said. Lawmakers were acting irresponsibly, adding too much spending, too many taxes, too many gimmicks. They crafted a budget with promises of more money for schools that were built on "false promises."

If anything, the run-in with the Legislature showed how the governor's power has diminished since 1995. Clearly, he holds purse strings that can deny funding for a lawmaker's favorite project. He knows which political appointees on the state payroll are there at the request of a lawmaker. And he knows that, no matter what, he will still be governor when the dust settles.

No political machine

Still, there was no mighty political machine to back up his threats. Lawmakers, in the end, feared the wrath of school superintendents and hospital chiefs back home more than the governor.

Even the governor's list of allies had its limits. Gov. Hugh Carey, hardly a presence anymore at the Capitol, put out an encouraging letter. Fiscal conservative groups, long the loudest critics of Pataki, this time backed him. Radio talk shows, which Pataki dialed into, got listeners to e-mail lawmakers. There are those who believe, however, that this was all a victory for Pataki, that standing up against higher spending and higher taxes will help him with the party's conservative wing after last year's re-election campaign that saw him swing far to the left.

In this experience, a new Pataki emerged. Lawmakers say they were amazed how as each day went by he kept digging himself in deeper. Day after day, Pataki, who prefers his dealings with the Capitol press corps brief and seldom, kept reporters steadily streaming down to his office. Day after day, Senate Republicans watched the briefings on TV, waiting for him to offer an olive branch. Not only were no peace offerings made, the public bashings worsened with each press conference. There was no option, lawmakers said, but to override.

Republican legislators speculating privately about Pataki's motivations say it's about national ambitions. Pataki again recently denied he has any interest in leaving his job, but still his allies say Pataki is somehow angling for a job in the administration of President Bush -- all with a long-term view of setting himself on the national stage for the 2008 presidential race.

A line in the sand

Unclear, though, is how this budget fight has helped Pataki achieve those goals. Had he drawn his line in the sand -- or what lawmakers were calling more of a trench -- and then gone on to victory, it certainly would have been noticed in political circles beyond Albany. But it remains to be seen whether there is much mileage standing up against a big-spending Legislature, after years of proposing budgets double the inflation rate.

"It's all about keeping his options open," said one Republican lawmaker. "Who -- a dozen years ago when he was in the Assembly -- would have thought that today he'd be in his third term as governor of New York?"

Close allies of the governor sought to dismiss the national image talk.

"He was willing to look at things in the budget talks that clearly were unhelpful in the way of national politics," said one top party insider, citing the plan Pataki recently offered in closed-door talks with lawmakers to hike the state sales tax by 1.25 percent.

The bottom-line fallout for the governor?

"These things get played out over time. Ask me in January next year. The score in the second inning does not determine many World Series' games," Pataki's GOP ally said.

Party leaders insist this will all work itself out.

"They still have to govern and make decisions," Cattaraugus County Republican Party Chairman Jeremiah J. Moriarty said. "They have to patch this up."

Is Pataki damaged goods?

"I don't know anybody who gets away from this unscathed," Moriarty said.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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