A thought on the New York governor's race

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Inspired by Fred Siegel's definitive and wonderful book on Rudy Giuliani, The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.

We tend to assume that party labels are pretty good guides to a candidate's public policies, and often they are. But in New York's peculiar state politics, they aren't—or haven't been for the past 30 years. Siegel notes that as incoming mayor, Giuliani hired John Dyson, a Democrat from Dutchess County, as deputy mayor for economic development. Dyson, Siegel notes, had been a top appointee of "the fiscally tightfisted Hugh Carey, a Democrat who had been the only genuinely successful New York governor since the spendthrift reign of Nelson Rockefeller."

The real test of New York governors, at least on fiscal issues, is the extent to which they give in to the voracious demands of New York State's and New York City's public employee unions. Giving in to those demands tends to expand New York's already bloated public sector and to choke off private-sector growth, particularly in unfashionable parts of the state, like the outer boroughs of New York City and the vast expanse of upstate New York. Carey, elected in 1974 and 1978, gave in very little; instead he subjected the bankrupt city government to the financial control board. Democrat Mario Cuomo, elected in 1982, 1986, and 1990, tended to give the public employee unions pretty much what they wanted. Republican George Pataki, elected in 1994, 1998, and 2002, sometimes clamped down on the public employee unions (notably in his tough budget of 1995) and sometimes indulged them shamelessly (as in the runup to the 2002 election). Party labels thus haven't been perfect predictors: On the spectrum of dealing with the public employee unions, Democrat Carey stood at one end, Democrat Cuomo on the other, and Republican Pataki in the middle.

Which raises the interesting question about Eliot Spitzer, currently the state's attorney general and the almost-certain Democratic nominee for governor in 2006. Where would he stand on that spectrum? Spitzer is a member of a wealthy Manhattan real-estate family and, as attorney general and likely next governor, can raise huge amounts of money wholly apart from public employee unions. (Carey was also not beholden to the unions: The underdog in the 1974 Democratic primary, he raised most of the money for that contest from big contributions from his brother and from a young and little-known real-estate developer named Donald Trump.) Would Governor Spitzer play along with the public employee unions? Or would he use his independence to stiff them? The economic future of New York may depend on the answers to those questions.

As for the Republicans, declared-candidate Randy Daniels, Pataki's appointee as secretary of state, and possible candidates Rep. John Sweeney and former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso have ties of varying strength to Pataki. They might well follow his middle path on this issue. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, mentioned occasionally as a candidate, would probably be tough on the unions; he was a fiscal tightwad in Massachusetts. Any Republican candidate might be wise to raise this issue against Spitzer; he won't want to antagonize the public employee unions during the campaign (they can turn out a lot of voters) even if he plans to follow Hugh Carey's example in the governor's mansion.