Where have you gone, George Pataki?

The Erie County Republican Committee last Saturday sponsored a debate among the candidates for Governor of New York. The program ran smoothly and the attendance was very good. It gave local Republicans the opportunity to size up their options.

While attending that debate, though, the lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel’s sixties hit, Mrs. Robinson, kept rolling through my head – except that a few words needed to be changed:

                                Sitting on the sofa on Saturday morning

                                Going to the candidates’ debate

                                Laugh about it, shout about it

                                When you’ve got to choose

                                Every way you look at this you lose

                                Where have you gone, George Pataki

                                Our party turns its lonely eyes to you

For Republicans in New York State the twelve year run with George Pataki as Governor certainly was the last fine time for the party. Things have not gone well since then.

All the statewide elected officials are Democrats, as is the State Assembly. The State Senate is Republican pretty much in name only, and that could change this year. The party lost the county executive positions in Nassau and Westchester counties in 2017, along with control of the Erie County Legislature.

It is actually quite understandable that party leaders have some reason for hope this year. The trial of close Cuomo aide Joe Percoco is showing a pretty seamy side to state government. That follows repeated scandals involving statewide officeholders and members of the State Legislature. It’s not all one-sided, however, with the former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former State Senator George Maziarz also facing trial.

The candidates at the debate on Saturday highlighted a couple other issues that Cuomo will need to deal with, namely the less-than-inspiring state economic development activities and plans for the 2018-19 state budget, which include a billion dollars or so in new taxes and fees. You will see the “Buffalo Billion” besmirched from South Buffalo to Montauk.

The Republican Party in the state, however, has a couple problems. Problem number one is named Ed Cox, who happens to be the State Party Chairman.

Cox attended and spoke at the Saturday debate. I would diplomatically describe his presentation as underwhelming. His choo-choo-rah-rah speech felt flat. It was the first time I heard him speak. I would have thought that his late father-in-law, Richard Nixon, would have taught him a few things. His track record as chairman has been unsuccessful.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy was much more prepared for his speaking opportunities at the debate and handled housekeeping things like the identification of representatives attending from other counties well.

The second problem the Republicans face this year can be summed up very simply: you can’t beat somebody with nobody.   Three potential gubernatorial candidates – Harry Wilson, Marc Molinaro and Brian Kolb – have already dropped out of the race.

Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra touted his record of financial management of the county. If Joel’s campaign takes off there will be a lot to say about that later, but for now we only need note that the bragging will not be supported by the facts.

Former Pataki Housing Commissioner Joe Holland was grasping for upstate identify at the event (he said he once passed on the opportunity to sign as a Buffalo Bills free agent), and he lacks name recognition, money, or organizational support. That being said I would not be surprised to see Holland, who is an attorney, on the statewide ticket this year for some office other than governor.

State Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse has emerged as the frontrunner for this field, having already picked up support from about 15 mostly small upstate counties, plus his home county of Onondaga. He has more than one million dollars in the bank from his Senate campaign account that he can transfer to the governor’s race.

DeFrancisco is a 26-year veteran of the State Senate and he is well versed on the issues. He was frank to admit some positions on issues that he voted on as a senator might not be perceived well. The main problem he has, however, is that he is a 26-year veteran of the State Senate. He is part and parcel of the swamp that a Republican candidate for governor would otherwise want to rail against.

Chairman Cox, in his speech, optimistically noted that one of the three men on the stage will be the candidate for governor, much like some game show host might say on a reality television show to pique interest. Unfortunately for Cox, that is not saying much.

If there is going to be a real campaign for governor this year, it will be much more because of the failings, perceived or real, of Andrew Cuomo, rather than because of anything that one of the three remaining contestants for the party nomination brings to the table. It’s Cuomo’s campaign to win or lose. The Democratic Party wave that is showing all sorts of positive vibes in the state and elsewhere will certainly make a Democratic candidate’s possibilities much more likely than a Republican’s.

As the year moves forward the more intriguing political story in the state, at least for political junkies, might very well turn out to be what the state Conservative Party chooses to do. They have already ruled out supporting Joel Giambra, and it is likely that they will find the other two candidates, DeFrancisco and Holland, uninspiring.

So the decision for the Conservatives will drift back to 1990, when they bypassed the Republican candidate for governor, Pierre Rinfret, and instead nominated their own candidate, Herbert London. Mario Cuomo won big that year because of the division between the two normally close allies. London came within one percentage point of beating out Rinfret (22 percent to 21 percent). Had London come in second, all the state’s political laws and regulations that give jobs and political power to the two top finishers in the election for governor, including Boards of Elections, would have transferred to the Conservatives for at least four years.

Conservative leaders this year might view the poor state of the Republican ticket as an opportunity to grab a major political prize and send the Republicans a very big message. Stay tuned.

The 142nd Assembly District race

There will be a special election in the 142nd Assembly District on April 24th to select a successor to new County Clerk Mickey Kearns. The Democrats will go with County Legislator Pat Burke. The Republicans, Conservatives and Independent parties will support Buffalo school teacher Eric Bohen.

Both candidates have well established roots in the district, which includes South Buffalo, Lackawanna, Orchard Park and West Seneca. Both will have a measure of union support, which is still helpful in that district.

Bohen is a registered Democrat, so the Republicans will try to duplicate what they did by supporting Kearns when he first ran for the seat. But Kearns at that time already had an established political identity as the Councilmember from the South District as well as a former candidate for mayor. Bohen lacks that sort of recognition. Burke will be the clear favorite in April.

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