George Pataki, the 53rd governor of New York, is tied for the distinction of third-longest serving chief executive in state history, exceeded only by George Clinton and Nelson Rockefeller. The man who defeated Mario Cuomo, Pataki is the last Republican to have occupied the governor’s mansion and is perhaps best remembered for having been at the helm of the state during the dark days following 9/11.
City & State Editor Morgan Pehme sat down with Pataki at his law firm in Manhattan to get his thoughts on City & State’s list of New York’s top ten governors of all time and to discuss what Pataki sees as his place in state history.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: Do you have a favorite governor of all time?
George Pataki: Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite political figure, but I think as governor the most impactful unquestionably was DeWitt Clinton. He’s ranked No.1 [on City & State’s list] and rightfully so. I truly think he had a profound impact, not just on New York, but on the country with particularly his commitment to the Erie Canal, which really changed America, and, of course, made New York City the commerce center of the country and now the world.
C&S: Our experts were generally of the opinion that you and Teddy Roosevelt were the governors who made the most significant contribution to conservation in state history. Do you consider your environmental record your greatest accomplishment as governor?
GP: No, I don’t. I never worried about my legacy when I was in office. A lot of the things that my team and I were able to do I’m sure will never really be recognized, but I’m very proud of so many areas, in particular in crime. New York City is the safest its been today since they kept records and certainly better policing, more active policing… has had a profound impact, but so has changing over 100 criminal justice laws, changing sentencing, changing evidentiary rules, changing judges, changing parole, changing probation. We changed the criminal justice system from top to bottom to place as a priority sentencing for appropriate terms and keeping in jail violent felons and I think that has had the most profound impact on people’s lives, because crime affects everyone and when you don’t feel safe you don’t build a building, you don’t move to a neighborhood, you don’t open shop, you don’t move your office, so it’s something where credit is rightfully given in many different places, but I have no doubt—none—that the profound changes… to the criminal justice system that my team and I made are one of the major reasons why we are so much safer today. And, by the way, while there are other more visible and tangible things that we did that I think will have a long-term positive impact on the state, nothing is more important than crime. Every hope, every dream, every aspiration an individual or a family can have can be taken away in an instant. That’s why I’ve always believed that the single most important role of government is to provide for the safety of its citizens and we worked very hard to do that.
C&S: But certainly you also pledged your efforts to preserving natural resources, to conservation…
GP: I care very strongly about it and I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish. No one was ever able, certainly in this state, to protect for future generations and centuries over a million acres of open space—we did that. What we did in so many areas of conservation: You look at the city and the new park on the riverfront, the new park in Brooklyn, the Hudson River, not just the greenway on land, but also the waterway, the water greenway that it will create; revitalizing the Erie Canal quarter—it’s the longest linear park of any place in the United States of America; revitalizing inner city areas like the Buffalo inner port. Things of this nature, hopefully, are permanent. We worked very hard not just to preserve open space, but to reclaim our waterfront and to encourage the new technologies that will allow us to continue to become greener as a state and as a country whether it’s in energy or in building efficiency. The first green building tax credit in America, the first high-rise green residential building in the world—so many things that we did—and I’m proud of that, but—and everybody says, well, that’s what he did—well, the first thing government does is to provide for your safety. We did that, I think, better than any governor in the country and if you look at the history of this state, I don’t know if any governor had as profound an impact from top to bottom on the criminal justice system as we did. The second thing is you can’t invest in future generations’ environmental protection if the state’s finances are a wreck, and we completely transformed the state’s finances from having the lowest credit rating in America—tied with Louisiana—to having the highest credit rating in over a generation and billions in surpluses despite the horrific economic battles that we had and transitions that we went through. We improved not just the state’s finances, but the economic climate by lowering taxes—$143 million in tax cuts cumulatively over the course of those 12 years—no state comes close—and we went from having an 8.75 personal income tax rate to a 6.85 and at the end of the day we had 670,000 more private sector jobs in the state when I [left] office than when I started. And we had, again, survived so many downturns and difficulties, but [still] made New York a place where people were willing to invest, creating opportunity, and la[ying] the foundation for more growth. So the environment is something that personally matters a great deal to me—and I think it matters a great deal to the state and to our country because we have to think of future generations—but if you don’t have the resources, if you don’t have a state whose finances are sound, and you don’t have a state where people have jobs and the economy is growing, [you don’t have the necessary resources to apply to conservation]. I remember early on—two years I think it was into the administration, [with] the environmental bond act that we proposed, going to Lake Placid and having protesters—there was a lot of opposition to the bond act—and what it was they were saying [was] we need jobs, not more imposed green theory from Albany—I’m paraphrasing, obviously—and I understood that, and I understood that [an] environmental legacy would be impossible to achieve if [it] were at the expense of economic opportunity. That’s why from the beginning I argued that economic growth and environmental protection are not just consistent, but they’re synergistic, because when you create a better quality of life and greater confidence in the future, then you create economic opportunity and I think the West Side of Manhattan, the Hudson River Park, is an example of that. Look what has happened to real estate, to economic growth on the West Side of Manhattan and not all of it, but certainly a part of it comes from the fact that people have this incredible new amenity, whereas when I took office they had these tumbledown piers and broken-down, inaccessible waterfront.
C&S: You also had some very forward-thinking ideas about economic development with nanotechnology in the Capitol Region.
GP: That is something I’m extremely proud of and I remember in 2001, in the State of the State, laying out the concept of the Centers of Excellence—photonics in the Rochester area, bioinformatics in the Buffalo area, wireless and communications down in Stony Brook, environmental systems in Syracuse, and nanoelectronics in Albany—and it was a challenge where the state would put up funding, but only if the not-for-profits, the private sector and the university sector came together to match us three for one, and Albany is the one that was most advanced and still is. I’m extremely proud of what has happened there, not just the thousands of research and technician jobs that have made Albany the nano center research capitol of the world, but also what we knew would happen, and that is the economic growth that was spun off from that, like GlobalFoundries and the new chip-fab plants that IBM and others have in the Hudson Valley. I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface on this, and I have no doubt that its going to continue to transform not just the Capitol Region’s economy, but [that it] has the potential to transform the whole country’s economy. I truly think that should be a model as to how we achieve economic growth in a competitive globe in the 21st century. It has to be something where the synergies are put in place so we can compete. And I remember how hard it was convincing the Legislature of this opportunity, but ultimately it’s been an unbelievable success and I’m very proud of it.
C&S: Speaking of the Legislature, some of our experts noted that one of your accomplishments was how you challenged the Speaker on the governor’s ability to formulate the budget.
GP: It was always frustrating to me that every year people said, ‘Oh, the budget’s late.’ We could have had an on-time budget, but they would have been what they had been the 12 years before: horrible budgets—budgets that just deferred the decisions necessary to make us economically competitive, to restore our financial soundness as a state, and to allow us to work with the private and university sector to create these opportunities for future generations. So, to me, it wasn’t about the timing of the budget, it was about what was in the budget. It’s so easy for the press to say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re a week late.’ You pass it on-time and the press goes, ‘Wow, you passed the budget on time.’ But [what] they don’t write is that it’s out of balance, it defers critical decisions, it borrows in ways that are unacceptable, and that it further creates economic non-competitiveness. So whether it was fighting with the Legislature, or convincing the Legislature, it was something that was extraordinarily difficult, extraordinarily painful, unpopular with the public, but absolutely necessary. Another thing that we did was we successfully challenged the ability of the Legislature to substitute appropriations and won in the Court of Appeals in a landmark decision that really limits what the Legislature had done for 20 years before, which was just substitute its judgment for the leadership of the executive. I hated that concept and ultimately the law allowed us to not have to continue to accept [it] and that’s an incredibly important decision that should have a profound impact if properly used by the executive.
C&S: And Gov. Paterson and Gov. Cuomo have both taken advantage of the outcome of that decision.
GP: To an extent, yes.
C&S: Are there other ways in which you think the power of the governor’s office should be expanded?
GP: I am a great believer in balance of power, so I don’t think an imperial executive is what this state needs. I think you do need to have a Legislature, so [that there are] checks and balances. Obviously, it would have been a lot easier without any Legislature at all, but that’s not the way the system works, or it should work. With [the Court of Appeals’] decision, and unfortunately it didn’t happen until my last two years in office—I wish it had happened in my first two years—I think that the balance is now more appropriately restored, because what had happened is the Legislature had really ignored the Constitution, in my view, and ultimately in the Court of Appeals’ view, and gone on their log-rolling, spending sprees, which is exactly what the Constitution was aiming to prevent.
C&S: Some of your critics say that you betrayed your fiscal conservatism by increasing spending in New York State. How would you respond to that charge?
GP: You know, over the 12 years I was governor we had the fifth lowest rate of spending increase of any state in America and that is with a hideously irresponsible Legislature, and that is in one of the most liberal states in America, and that is even after they successfully overrode me on a number of budget items. So to go from this free spending state to the fifth lowest spending state in America over those 12 years is an extraordinary accomplishment that I’m very proud of. The ideological purists who say, ‘Oh, he only got 90 percent of what we wanted done,’ well, they’re the ones who run for office and get 28 percent and never have a chance to get anything done. So, would I have liked to have done more? Of course! I still have ideas of things that should be done to make this a better state, but I won election and I governed successfully and if I wasn’t able to be 100 percent ideological, I think that’s a good thing, because politics is the nature of the practical, of what you can get done. We see in Washington the consequences of rigid ideological gridlock, where we lurch from one ideological approach to another unsuccessfully without ever even seriously discussing—let alone solving—the major problems pending in Washington. We did that in Albany. … Was it hard? Yes. Was the way in which it was done horrible? Absolutely! I couldn’t stand it. And was the result 100 percent of what I or some on the right would have liked? Of course not. But it never will be and 90 percent is far better than zero, which is what we’ve largely had before and since in this state, with tragic consequences.
C&S: Were there any governors that you looked to as a model for your own administration?
GP: From a number of them I took away some things. One was Al Smith, who got the Constitution that I relied on in that court case to limit the power of the Legislature to go on their ridiculous spending ways, even though it was only for the last two years. Teddy Roosevelt believed in government not playing the game, but making the rules, so that it would be fair—not [so much] as governor, but as president—and we tried to do that. I didn’t want government making decisions for the private sector, but we wanted to make sure that the private sector had to operate under rules that were fair and reasonable. Governor Rockefeller believed in an expansive government and began the process through his Clean Water and Clear Air Initiative of state leadership in dealing with [those] issues… and I thought he had made a tremendous start in that [regard]. Governor Dewey started the state university system. When I took office both the City University and the State University were far less than they should have been. The standards had plummeted, the value of a degree had plummeted, so we made a conscious effort to turn that around. So, yes, I did learn [from prior governors]. None of them served as a particular model, but all of them gave me lessons that I could learn from to enable me to be the best governor that I possibly could.
C&S: Are there any regrets that you have about your administration?
GP: No, there are no regrets. I’m very proud of the magnitude of change we were able to accomplish across the board. I mean, things that people don’t even think of, like I virtually singlehandedly got the charter school law that has allowed so many charter schools in this state through, against opposition from both parties in the Legislature and the public, which didn’t understand the concept. So many things like that, from criminal justice to economics … to the environment… to restoring the value of higher education. The magnitude of the change we brought to this state I don’t think is remotely recognized, so I have no regrets. But are there things that I wish we could have gotten done? Absolutely. I had an education reform idea that I only thought of in my last year that I think would have passed and had a very positive impact had we had more time to do it. I think we should have done more to enhance economic competitiveness, particularly in upstate regions. I wish we had had the opportunity with hydrofracking, which I think poses a tremendous economic opportunity for this state and I think can be done right in a way that protects the environment, which is obviously something I deeply care about.
C&S: In recent decades we’ve had few governors from upstate. Do you feel like, having been an upstater, that you had a unique difference in perspective from most of our governors?
GP: I think I had three things that most governors haven’t had. One was geographically. I am from upstate and that certainly gives you a much greater appreciation [for the priorities of that region]… The second is I’m the first governor in I think it’s over 150 years who had been a mayor. And I had been mayor of a small city—Peekskill—[and] the way we were able to work with the upstate cities in particular to help them financially… I think was… because I understood their problems from firsthand experience. And then the third was [my] having served in the Legislature for ten years. I knew a lot of the legislators. I knew how the Legislature worked—or didn’t work—and how they thought or didn’t think, so I think that was helpful… Plus, of course, I had lived in the city. I took the subway all the time, so I knew it wasn’t just abstract that you can’t have a functioning New York City without effective mass transit.
C&S: Having been mayor of Peekskill I’m sure you have a great deal of empathy for the mandate relief troubles that our mayors are managing right now.
GP: Absolutely. One of the first things I learned when I became mayor—small city that it was—was that a significant percentage of our fire department was being paid and living in Florida because they had some sort of in-service disability and that was just one of a thousand examples that I experienced of state requirements imposed on local governments without any recognition of the enormous cost they impose.
C&S: And what do you think the state should do to make life easier for these mayors?
GP: I think you have to do a number of things. One, mandate relief, obviously. That’s very important and something that is extraordinarily difficult to accomplish in Albany. The second is aid. I created a special aid to small cities program and we provided tens of millions … to upstate small cities. The third is recognition of their growth opportunities and [to] direct state efforts to help it. One of the things that always stunned me was how state offices were located out of the cities in the suburbs under the prior 20 years when you had Democratic governors whose support came from the cities. The offices had all been located, if not in the suburbs, like on Wolf Road in Albany, as opposed to downtown, so we created a very important program to move those offices back downtown. Economic growth like the nanocenters. The nanocenters were specifically aimed at Albany, at Buffalo, at Rochester, at Syracuse, with some great success and some not success—and in the case of Rochester they decided to move it to Canandaigua, which may have been necessary, but was disappointing to me. And also, with cities, two of the things that I understood completely from my time as mayor [was, first, that] public safety matters because you want people to feel safe and crime, sadly, too often is highly disproportionate [in cities]. The second is schools. A young family can love a city and love their home and love their neighborhood, but when their kids turn 5, then too often they move to the suburb, because the schools are failing. That’s one of the reasons I fought so hard for charter schools. It’s one of the reasons why I fought so hard for school report cards and holding teachers accountable. We got some done. There were some we couldn’t get done. So, when you look at it—as with almost any problem—you say, city mandate relief. Yes, but it’s also safety. It’s also good schools. It’s also economic growth. It’s also creating the quality of life, like reclaiming the waterfront is some of these older cities. The state can be enormously helpful if it has an intelligent, multi-pronged approach to work cooperatively with these localities.
C&S: Do you see casino gambling and hydrofracking as an important part of upstate’s economic rebound?
GP: I think hydrofracking is an unbelievable once—not in a generation—but once-in-50-years or hundred-year economic opportunity for this state and it can be done right in a way that provides environmental protection and safety. I feel so bad for those families and communities on the Southern Tier that are sitting on top of this tremendous economic potential and, because of the state, not being allowed to take advantage of the opportunity. … Casino gambling is mixed. I think it makes sense in limited numbers in traditional resort areas, like the Catskills, where it’d be helpful, and in certain appropriate areas in the city. But I don’t think it is a panacea or really something that will create economic growth, so much as revenue for government. I think that accessing the natural gas resources in this state can do both: create revenue for government [and] create tremendous economic opportunities for the people in this state.
C&S: Another criticism of your administration is that you didn’t do enough to address the dysfunction in Albany and that, with “Fort Pataki,” for example, you did not promote transparency in government.
GP: If someone had some ideas as to how we could [have done] it, I [would have been] delighted, but there is separation of powers. We couldn’t make laws apply to the Legislature. Things that the executive was required to do, we couldn’t require the Legislature to do, much as we tried, much as we wanted to do. Everything from term limits to disclosure to limiting conflicts of interest, it’s easy to do with the executive, because I was for it. We had our commission that created advanced ethics laws—the Millstein Commission—but we couldn’t impose it on the Legislature. The Legislature had to vote it on themselves, and they would exempt themselves. It is appalling how many of them have ended up in jail. If there’s one thing that’s stunning to me, it’s not that the Legislature was often putting political and interest group benefits ahead of the public interest, but it’s that there was actual criminal corruption with so many of them. [T]he press would always say, ‘All right, we’ve got to pass this law.’ The Legislature would go out and pass this law that applies to the executive, but they would never impose it on themselves. The press at that point would never focus on that. Now, with all these convictions, I think the press is far more aware that the dysfunctional and in many ways corrupt part of government in the past has been the Legislature.
C&S: You were a member of the Legislature. This crime wave, how do you deter it?
GP: I had no concept that this was going on when I was in the Legislature. I got along with most of the legislators extremely well in a nonpartisan way. If they had a good idea or they were a good person, I didn’t care what party they were in. It’s really stunning to me and obviously disappointing, but it’s important that [legislators] be held to the highest possible standards and a lot of the ethics laws, disclosure laws, conflict of interest laws that apply to the executive and to the authorities and to the executive branch should also be made to apply to the Legislature, and that still hasn’t happened enough to my way of thinking. Yeah, the criticism [of my administration] is valid about the result, but it’s wasn’t for lack of effort, or lack of concern. I can’t tell you the number of times I would just say, ‘We do have separation of powers.’ How can I get the Legislature to pass something that requires them to do something when they won’t even come close? [I] was never able to get the public attention toward that [dilemma].
C&S: Your 2002 reelection was the last great victory for the statewide Republican Party. How can the GOP rebound in New York State?
GP: The Republican Party has to offer ideas and solutions that people feel. It’s pretty simple. You can’t run as a Republican, but you can run on basic Republican ideals: empowering the private sector to create jobs, encouraging small business, holding criminals accountable, reducing the intrusiveness of government in people’s lives, reducing the power of government, having schools that actually teach and teachers that are capable of teaching the subject area. These are things that Republicans believe in, but they’re not Republican only. But we never seem to have candidates who are able to connect with the independent and Democratic voters who share a great number of the beliefs that Republicans in general share.
C&S: So, the demographics on voter registration, that’s not destiny for the party?
GP: It’s not destiny, but it something that tells you what you have to do. You can’t do in New York State what the Romney campaign did nationally, and that’s essentially ignore the Latino vote. You don’t have to change principle, you don’t have to compromise principle, but you do have to recognize and show respect for communities. [That’s] not hard to do, and it’s not in any way something that should be inconsistent with the core Republican philosophy of individual responsibility, limited government and holding people accountable for their actions.
C&S: Is it frustrating for you that governors like yourself and Christine Todd Whitman have kind of been marginalized within your party?
GP: I don’t think in any sense that’s the case. I think there are a great many national Republicans who still look and say, ‘Hey, they did pretty well,’ and they may not quite have the same sense as to how you win, but they have similar philosophies, and understand that we were able to win in difficult circumstances. One of the things that’s been disappointing to me has been the polarization of Washington, not just from a partisan standpoint, but from an ideological standpoint, because things like understanding that entitlements are out of control and need to be reformed, that shouldn’t be something that the Democrats on the left oppose. They are stealing from future generations and they know it and yet, for whatever reasons, they are allowed to get away with it and it’s just irresponsible, and it’s irresponsible to me that the press doesn’t hold them accountable for that and just basically says, ‘Well, they’re all terrible,’ or ‘The Republicans won’t negotiate.’ Well, the Republicans will [negotiate], but we want to see those reforms. Federal spending this year went up very close to 10 percent—around 9.5 percent. When families are broke, the economy is creeping along, government is broken, we have a federal government that is spending in ways that are unprecedented, and that is enormously disappointing and something that I think—not just Republicans—but the vast majority of voters, independents and intelligent Democrats as well know is completely wrong.
C&S: You were a very active surrogate for Gov. Mitt Romney and you’ve been more involved in electoral politics, raising money. What’s next for you on the political landscape?
GP: I really can’t answer that question. It’s just so frustrating for me to look at Washington and really have this sense of despair—not about the future and not about the country—but about our government, because it is hideously dysfunctional, and the problems—and there are very real problems facing this country—are just ignored, largely by the Democrats who just continue to say that the world is going to be a better place if we can take more from the so-called rich, [while] in fact what we’re doing is limiting economic growth, stealing from our children’s future, building a government that is unsustainable, and changing America in a way that limits our future [and] is the opposite of what the generation before me did for us. To just sit back when that is happening is not just frustrating, I think it’s irresponsible, so I do want to try to do my part to help the ideas that I believe in gain ascendency, so that this country’s government can get back on track.
C&S: And that despair about the nature of our government right now, would that ever translate into you becoming a candidate again?
GP: One of the things I learned early on was to never say never. I love the private sector, I’m very happy with my life right now, but I do want to get more involved in trying to offer solutions that not just are consistent with the philosophy of limited government and creating opportunity for the future that I believe in, but are also things that non-hardcore Republicans can identify with… Too often we become so ideologically trapped in purity of ideas that may well make economic and other sense, but that are incomprehensible to middle class voters. And you have to do both. You have to have the ideas that you believe in, that will reform government and build a better future, but you have to be able to advance them in a way that non-just partisan Republicans can say, “Yeah, that makes sense and will help.”
C&S: What are you focused on right now in your private sector work?
GP: Energy stuff. I have no client in the hydrofracking space, by the way, [laughs] just so people are aware of that. But I just do think that it is a tremendous economic opportunity that is being taken advantage of around the country and parts of the world other than New York and I think that’s very sad, particularly for the Southern Tier of the state.