February 1, 2006
Waiting for Golisano

By John Avlon

Rochester billionaire Thomas Golisano spent the weekend trying to decide whether he would run for governor a fourth time - this time on the Republican line. While Empire State politicos and the journalists who cover them wait for a statement before the expiration of Mr. Golisano's self-imposed January announcement deadline, the wisest course of action would be for Mr. Golisano to sit out this self-aggrandizing, self-financed political adventure.

He would at best be an odd fit for the New York State Republican Party. The once-proud party of Theodore Roosevelt and Rudy Giuliani would be selling out to a man who has not only been among Governor Pataki's harshest critics but who also surrounds himself with political advisers associated with the Reverend Al Sharpton. It's an absurd lose-lose, no matter how you look at it: left, right or center.

Mr. Golisano has many of the right reform ideas about for New York State government, but he is the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong party.

Mr. Golisano has been a thorn in the side of the statewide GOP since he first ran for governor in 1994 as a founding member of the New York State Independence Party. With his free-wheeling, free-spending campaigns he has been among Governor Pataki's harshest critics in each of the last three elections. The fact that the state GOP would seriously consider selling its line to the most consistent detractor of its most successful governor since Nelson Rockefeller is a sign of the party's desperation.

In particular, it is a cry for help from the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, who wants Mr. Golisano's big bucks to help fund statewide races in the hope that he can keep control of the Senate. It is a classic example of Albany insiders' situational ethics.

Mr. Golisano's previous sponsorship of the Independence Party did our state's politics a great service by advancing a centrist agenda that promoted fiscal responsibility, political reform and Libertarian values. But in addition to memorable ads attacking Pataki for out-of-control borrowing (one memorable ad called such a practice "pulling a Pataki," in a line delivered by an actor sporting a Joe Pesci-esque accent), Mr. Golisano should be remembered for his close political alliances with folks who have supported the far left candidacy of Al Sharpton.

Mr. Golisano's once and presumably future political svengali Roger Stone might be described as a rambunctious Republican connoisseur of hardball politics. The New Republic less generously referred to him in a 1985 cover story as a "state-of-the-art Washington sleazeball." Mr. Stone, a graduate of the Nixon campaigns and a Reagan Republican, has more recently made a name for himself by helping the 2004 presidential campaign and national con job of his self-described friend, Al Sharpton.

Al Sharpton's lead role in the infamous 1989 Tawana Brawley hoax means his name is still fighting words in upstate New York, but Mr. Stone nonetheless unabashedly helped Mr. Sharpton's recent political ambitions. Mr. Stone's close political and business ally Charles Halloran served as national campaign manager for Mr. Sharpton's 2004 presidential campaign, while current Golisano spokesman Steven Pigeon helped run Mr. Sharpton's campaign in the pivotal South Carolina primary.

Given these bizarre bona fides, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Golisano's name had been floated by aides as a possible candidate for the Democratic line in the past. Presumably, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's commanding lead dissuaded the billionaire and his advisers. Instead, Mr. Golisano found opportunistic political religion in October 2005 by leaving the Independence Party he helped found and switching his allegiance to the Republican Party.

Golisano defenders will no doubt point out that fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party before his 2001 mayoral victory, but this seemed to be more a recognition of practical politics rather than a betrayal of previously well-articulated principle. But questions of relative integrity are less a cause for concern than the reality that Mr. Golisano's campaign would confirm the presence of a new plutocracy, where billionaires walk into political office by stepping over the plebeians who have no choice but to follow campaign finance laws.

Certainly all signs indicate that Mr. Golisano intends to run: a well-timed party switch to the Republicans, closely followed by a $30 million sale of his Paychex stock as reported by the Buffalo Times. But a simple reality check should give Mr. Golisano reason to reconsider the wisdom of a fourth run for the governor's mansion.

Presumably, Governor Pataki will do everything in his power to stop such a move. Moreover, there is a loss of rationale for Mr. Golisano's candidacy this time around. There is broad overlap between the reforms he has argued for the past 12 years and the political profile cut by the leading Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor, William Weld. Both men are strong advocates for fiscal responsibility and political reform. Both men boast that they can bring an outsider's perspective to Albany reform. Ever the happy warrior, Mr. Weld admits as much. "I've been reviewing his policy statements from past campaigns, and he has a lot to say in terms of a reform agenda," said Mr. Weld. "The argument in favor of Tom Golisano getting in the campaign is to further enrich the reform debate for the State of New York." The crucial difference is that Mr. Weld has the experience and personality to achieve these goals, while Mr. Golisano does not.

The best proof is to imagine the reaction of the Spitzer camp to a Golisano candidacy. The prospect of a bloody Republican primary would be greeted like Christmas Day, while the prospect of facing Weld alone, with 10 months to build his profile and consolidate his base, would fill the Spitzer team with almost as much trepidation as the possibility of a Democratic challenge from Tom Suozzi.

If Mr. Golisano is serious about joining the Republican Party he can certainly do a great deal to help the party's fortunes in 2006 with generous donations to candidates across the state. He could be a powerful ally for another candidate's campaign and if Mr. Spitzer or Mr. Suozzi should win the gubernatorial contest, Mr. Golisano would be an early and credible frontrunner in 2012.
But if the Republican Party sells out to Thomas Golisano without even an attempt to establish authenticity, it will be a step toward plutocracy and the beginning of a pathetic new era in New York politics. Mr. Golisano cannot unite the GOP, only underwrite it.

John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.

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