MANCHESTER, N.H. – The poetry – and intrigue – of George Pataki’s run for the presidency can be captured in a single city block of downtown Manchester. Lowell Street is nondescript. It’s busy, but not too much so. It’s on the map, but doesn’t pop out.
Look again, though, and you’ll see it’s notable: On one side of the street is an apple-red, ’60s-style diner. Study up on it. It’s famous. On the other side of Lowell is a neatly kept brown brick building. It’s small, only two stories, a shoebox of an office building. Does anything important happen here? Is this a place where presidencies are made?
It doesn’t seem so.
But then, unless you have a name like Bush or Clinton, presidencies often don’t look like they’re being made at the very beginning. They look pretty much like this: An office building where you rent a suite and tape up signs for a political action committee. A diner that plays “Silhouettes on the Shade” and specializes in deep-fried knockoff Twinkies.
Lowell Street is George Pataki – noted, respected, but not eye-poppingly impressive, unless you look closely. Lowell Street doesn’t seem like the start of the journey to Pennsylvania Avenue – but it could be.
Though he governed New York for 12 years, Pataki has been out of office for more than eight years. He doesn’t seem like an obvious presidential candidate, but he’s about to become one. On Thursday morning in Exeter, Pataki will formally join a field of nearly 20 presidential candidates in New Hampshire’s Republican primary. The White House is a long way from Lowell, longer for Pataki than most. But after a solid decade of considering it, Pataki is pursuing the White House. For him, the road to Pennsylvania Avenue begins right here.
On places like Lowell Street.
So why run now?
Three-term governor of New York. Leader of his state as it rebuilt from 9/11. Pretty good qualifications to run for president, right?
Ask Pataki why he’s running, as The Buffalo News did in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon as the former governor was driving through Connecticut on his way to New Hampshire, and he’ll give a pat answer.
“The need to change the direction of this country has never been greater,” he said.
Sure, Pataki expands on that. He doesn’t like the government dictating health care plans and school curriculums. He’s concerned about national security and the United States’ global reputation. They’re beliefs similar to many in the Republican field, although – notably – his stances on social issues such as abortion are considerably more moderate.
So again, why run? And – perhaps more importantly at the moment, considering Pataki needs to win votes if he’s going to act on his reasons – who’s listening?
Not enough people. Not yet, at least. Pataki’s name barely registers in national polls. He hasn’t been governor since 2006, and except for dancing with the idea of running for president every four years, hasn’t been on the public radar screen. He has worked as a consultant. He represented President George W. Bush at the United Nations.
Pataki is 69 – certainly young enough to run for the job, but not necessarily to set up a stronger campaign for the future.
Outside New York State, his name recognition is low. The fundraising ability that comes with incumbency has weathered. He has been quiet. Even when thinking about 9/11, people remember New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
They don’t tend to recall George Pataki.
“Didn’t he resign?” asked Tom Clark, a stand-up comic and part-time bartender at the Bratskellar, a wood-paneled pub in the seacoast city of Portsmouth, where Jeb Bush dined a few days earlier. When told that no, Eliot Spitzer is the New York governor who resigned, Clark had to think about Pataki.
“… How do I know him?”
Or take John Constant, owner of Constantly Pizza in the capital city of Concord. Candidates shake hands up and down his block. So does he know Pataki?
“I’ve heard of him, yeah,” said Constant, his black apron pulling upward as he shrugged. But that’s all he had. Before Constant turned to take a customer’s pizza order, he added, “Tell him to come by here.”
Constant isn’t being rhetorical. In New Hampshire, such invitations are real. The Granite State has a relatively small population of 1.3 million that is concentrated toward the southern end bordering Massachusetts, making it possible for candidates who spent enough time there to meet, and hopefully sway, large swaths of voters. That gives presidential politics in New Hampshire a small-town feel. During primary season, presidential candidates show up in diners, coffee shops, pizza joints, bars, bookstores, churches, colleges, and even in the living rooms and backyards of private homes.
And for good reason: After the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire is the first state in the nation to vote in a primary, making it incredibly attractive to candidates who need a strong showing in New Hampshire to amp up their fundraising and create momentum heading South Carolina and all the states that follow. “Politics is our state sport – people talk about it everywhere,” said Ray Tweedie, 36, a mortgage broker and an official with the state Republican Party. “We don’t get our politics from the national media. We get it from the coffee shop, the town hall, from somebody’s living room.”
“It’s word of mouth, friends,” added Ray’s wife, Alissa, a 35-year-old personal security officer for the Navy who’s now a civilian after 10 years of active duty.
Given his position with the Republican party, her husband can’t actively support any one primary candidate. But Alissa can. She’s a member of Pataki’s steering committee. She met Pataki a few months ago at a seafood dinner with a dozen politically Granite Staters, as New Hampshire residents call themselves, She also met several other candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, before making her choice: Pataki.
“They are great speakers and they have great ideas and they’re good with crowds,” Alissa said, her brown hair pulled back tight as her three children took their puppy for a walk. “But they don’t have that presence about them. You walk into a room and you feel comfortable with Gov. Pataki. He’s not ...”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
Alissa leans forward, revealing a pair of navy blue pillows patterned with crabs on the couch.
“It’s almost the difference between a politician and a president,” she said.
Pataki is a nice guy, a straightforward campaigner. As politicians go, he’s low on rhetoric. That, Pataki supporters say, is exactly why he should run – and why New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation stature in presidential primaries plays to Pataki’s favor. People like him, they say. Pataki has a gentle but intelligent demeanor, and his 6-foot-5 frame gives him a stature that commands the room.
The challenge, though, is filling the room with voters – and reporters – who will listen to him in the first place. Rooms like the Red Arrow Diner on the aforementioned Lowell Street in Manchester. It’s directly across the street from the building where Pataki’s newly formed super PAC – We the People, Not Washington – has a second-floor, mostly empty office. (Forming the super PAC allowed Pataki to run pre-campaign commercials in New Hampshire; his aides say the super PAC and his presidential campaign will staff up shortly.)
Places such as the Red Arrow are where candidates like Pataki – and much more famous ones, too – begin courting votes. It has an L-shaped dining room, with a row of stools bolted to the floor in front of a long counter and a half-dozen booths around the corner. It’s so small that the single-person bathroom – for both customers and employees – is located inside the kitchen. The Red Arrow specializes in a macaroni and hamburger dish called American chop suey – a favorite of TV host Guy Fieri when he visited to film “Diners Drive-ins & Dives.” It also specializes in hosting presidential hopefuls.
Every four years, candidates pour through the doors, shaking hands and sampling the Red Arrow’s dessert specialties (deep-friend Twinkies or the comparatively lighter strawberry shortcake Twinkie). In the Red Arrow, small plaques are attached to the counters and booths that once seated famous guests: “AL GORE Sat Here,” “SEN. JOHN EDWARDS Sat Here,” “RUDY GIULIANI Sat Here.”
George Pataki sat here, too. More than once in recent months, actually. Before this week, he already had been to New Hampshire nine times, visiting all 10 counties – in the process, according to his supporters, exceeding the other candidates – and, of course, his office is across the street. But there’s no “GEORGE PATAKI Sat Here” plaque.
“I don’t know why not,” a waitress said to an inquiring visitor.
She was being nice. The staff there likes Pataki. He’s a nice guy. He’ll say hi to everyone, order a muffin or grilled cheese, and settle in a booth to review paperwork. One time, he chatted with a waitress, who looks to be about college age, with blue streaks in her black hair and tattoos circling her arms.
“You’re a good saleswoman,” she recalled him saying. “Have you ever thought about running for office?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll leave that to you.”
Therein lies the challenge: Pataki had danced with the idea of running for president for more than a decade. He recently made a joke that every four years, there’s an Olympics – and he comes to New Hampshire.
“And you call me, Governor,” his New Hampshire aide Alicia Preston recently added to the joke.
Preston, who runs Pataki’s ground operation here, has worked with him on and off for the last 10 years. But until now, Pataki never committed.
By all accounts, he’s doing it with fervor.
David Currier has known Pataki since the late ’90s. They met when Currier was in the New Hampshire State Senate and Pataki was New York’s governor. When Pataki began exploring his presidential possibilities in the Granite State, Currier – who owns Henniker Brewing Co. in a rural section of the state – offered his help. The retired senator sits on Pataki’s steering committee and drives the former governor to most of his visits. He knows Pataki well enough to load a case of Diet Lemon Snapple into the back of his SUV before each trip.
“He’s got a fire in the belly this time,” Currier said, noting that Pataki is constantly spending time in the passenger seat working the phone, writing notes to people – and then crashing “for 50 winks.”
“I hadn’t seen it as dramatic as it is now,” he said. “He seems really focused and believes in his heart that he can do this and get this job done.”
Currier, who’s a year older than the former governor, also sees his friend getting tougher on himself for even the smallest of mistakes, or what the brewer calls “hiccups.”
“He’s very critical of himself, which is interesting because I don’t think he needs to be,” Currier said, standing behind the pine bar at his brewing company. “He’s hard on himself. He says, ‘How did I do there?’ It’s like, ‘Just be yourself, Governor.’ ”
If Pataki can follow that “be yourself” advice with people watching, it’ll help his political cause. The political challenge is Pataki seems not to care whether cameras capture his good deeds. And on a human level, that doubles as an admirable quality, In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he readily yielded the spotlight to Giuliani.
With no GOP front-runner, Pataki is confident in his ‘ability to lead’
“It wasn’t a time to promote yourself or gain publicity,” Pataki told The News. “It was a time to lead in the way that was required.”
Charles G. Wolf, of Manhattan, whose wife, Katherine, died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, this week recounted a story about Pataki: During an intermission at the “World Trade Center” movie premiere, Wolf found himself standing next to Pataki in the men’s room. The governor knew Wolf, who was one of the most visible and vocal activists on behalf of victims’ families. As they left the restroom, with nobody and no cameras around, Pataki wrapped his arm around Wolf’s shoulder and walked him back into the theater.
“I was almost like a kid, and my dad was taking me,” Wolf said. “He’s just such a nice, nice man in terms of his personal dealings. Very compassionate.”
The human side of Pataki wins people over. Purr Gow Whalley, a New Hampshire resident whose grandfather, Peter Gow, founded the Gow School in South Wales, has known Pataki for 10 years. They met through her late husband, Mike Whalley, a Republican leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. During Pataki’s earlier primary dalliances, the Whalleys held a couple of house parties for him. Before one of those parties, the governor snuck off with Mike Whalley on a racer boat, zipping around Lake Winnipesaukee.
Not long after, Mike Whalley was diagnosed with brain cancer. The disease moved fast. As Whalley was dying in the hospital, his political career concluded, Purr got a phone call.
“Please hold for the governor,” said the voice on the phone.
It was Pataki, calling for her husband.
“There are a lot of politicians, and they all want to say the right things,” said Gow Whalley, sipping a beer this week on a dock overlooking that same lake, “but Gov. Pataki really did the right thing.”
But, still, can Pataki actually win?
Chances are, no, but he’s not saying that.
“I don’t underestimate the challenges here,” Pataki said. “There are a lot of good candidates. But if you believe in yourself and your ability to lead. …”
Pataki has been here before, albeit on a smaller scale. He ascended from mayor of Peekskill to assemblyman and state senator before taking down Democratic giant Mario M. Cuomo, a three-term incumbent governor, by a 3-point margin in 1994. Of course, that was a gubernatorial race; this is much larger. But as Republican observers point out, this is the first time in perhaps 50 years that there hasn’t been a clear front-runner.
“This is the most open field in my adult life,” said former Buffalo-area Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, 64. A longtime Republican leader, Reynolds is close with Pataki. “His career has been people looking at it saying it can’t happen,” Reynolds said, “and he figures out how to make it happen. I’ve learned in my many years of friendship with George Pataki, don’t underestimate him.”