January 29, 2006
New York: A Diminished State

By George Will

NEW YORK -- Always antic and occasionally comic, the maneuverings for what once mattered greatly, this state's governorship, refute the state's motto, ``Excelsior.'' That means ``ever upward,'' which does not describe the trajectory of the state that soon will cease being the most populous east of the Mississippi.

Gov. George Pataki is not seeking a fourth term. Polls showed him being trounced by the probable -- but not certain; read on -- Democratic nominee, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Pataki, who favors gun control, gay rights and abortion rights, is nevertheless evincing interest in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He recently genuflected to an Iowa god, calling for ethanol to be made in New York and available tax-free at service stations. Ethanol is made from agricultural products, such as Iowa corn.

Spitzer is the state's most prominent crime-buster since Thomas Dewey, who in the 1940s rode his reputation to the governorship and two Republican presidential nominations. Back then, New York had 12 more electoral votes than the second most populous state (Pennsylvania). Spitzer's prominence flows from his flamboyant use -- many say abuse -- of his office to build a reputation as a scourge of Wall Street, although his record reveals more publicity than convictions.

Reports of Spitzer's verbal bullying -- which he says are wrong and, anyway, ``You will not change the world by whispering'' -- will not hurt him here, where mere rudeness passes for gentility. But his path to Albany -- en route, his acolytes suggest, to Washington as America's first Jewish president -- acquired an impediment last week.

Long Islander Thomas Suozzi is the Nassau County executive, with a budget larger than that of seven states. Having won 59 percent of the votes in a Republican-majority county, he has announced that he might challenge Spitzer for the Democratic nomination. Last year Governing magazine named Suozzi one of the nation's eight best executives, largely for rescuing Nassau County from the bottom of the list compiled by Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs that grades the governance of the nation's 40 largest counties.

The survivor of the Spitzer-Suozzi fracas might face Bill Weld, who wants to become the first person since Sam Houston (Tennessee and Texas) to be governor of two states. Weld was governor of Massachusetts for one and a half terms, at which point he resigned, apparently bored and certainly hoping to become ambassador to Mexico, a plan that failed because Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not like Weld's social liberalism any more than New York's Conservative Party is apt to. No Republican has won a statewide race without the Conservative endorsement since 1974.

Weld, an ebullient campaigner and a proven lightener of government's weight, might be just what this overtaxed state needs. In the last quarter-century, according to a Manhattan Institute study, New York has created new jobs less than half as fast as the rest of the nation. That is understandable, given that New York's state and local tax burden is nearly 20 percent above the national average.

But Weld must dispel the dark cloud of his association, as investor and $700,000 CEO, with a for-profit college in Louisville that recently collapsed in circumstances that interest federal investigators. Speaking of prosecutions, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican product of Nassau County in its flagrantly unreformed days, says he will not support Weld even if he is the GOP nominee, and not just because of ``the multimillion-dollar looting of these poor kids down in Tennessee (sic) who went to this sham college.'' Nearly 20 years ago, Weld was head of the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department, which prosecuted D'Amato's brother -- but after Weld left the department.

Some Republicans want to give their gubernatorial nomination to Tom Golisano, a billionaire upstate businessman who, running as an independent, three times lost to Pataki, never winning more than 14 percent of the vote. His virtue, as some Republicans understand that concept, is that he would finance his own trouncing.

New York's political weight once was such that, in an 80-year span, from 1868 through 1948, New Yorkers appeared on more than half of the two major parties' presidential tickets, and five became president. But New York has lost 16 congressional seats since 1948 and, after the 2010 Census, Florida probably will supplant New York as the third most populous state. Of course New York's junior senator, whose first-announced Republican opponent to her re-election has already withdrawn, plans to be president by then. Excelsior.

© 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will

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