Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Empire State ‘Politics’ From Pirro and Pataki to Cooperstown

By Stuart Rothenberg

While New York state may be the nation’s financial and media center, it hasn’t exactly been a breeding ground for competitive and interesting elections. Even with the GOP’s solid control of the state Senate and its ownership of the governor’s mansion for more than a decade, Democrats have the edge in the Empire State.

That said, the state has been very much in the news recently, with Gov. George Pataki (R) announcing that he won’t seek a fourth term, and with Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (R) indicating that she will seek her party’s nomination against incumbent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D).

I’m not surprised that Pataki has chosen to leave office gracefully rather than wage a possibly fruitless re-election bid against New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), the favorite not only for the Democratic nomination but also for the general election.

True, Pataki has overcome adversity before - as when he upset then-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) in 1994 - but that happened in a landslide year for the GOP when many Republican underdogs around the country were swept into office in a political wave.

If there is a wave next year, it isn’t likely to benefit Republicans, and Pataki looks more vulnerable now than he has been anytime during his years as governor.

When I talked with the governor recently, just days after his announcement, he was absolutely bubbly as he asserted how well things were now going in the state. But few share that optimism. And most observers dismiss the view that he could have won another term.

Pataki’s potential as a presidential candidate isn’t good, either. Conservatives aren’t likely to find him acceptable - he’s too moderate on too many issues - and he may well have to compete with other moderates for the nomination.

Is Pataki going to seek higher office in 2008? "I’m not going to ride off into the sunset," says the governor. "I’m going to be out there in the national debate, [though] I don’t know in what capacity." That sounds to me like someone preparing to make a presidential bid.

Pataki has at least one supporter if he runs.

When I asked former Cleveland Indians pitcher and Hall of Famer Bob Feller, 86, who he’s supporting for the White House, the Iowa-born conservative Republican said, "There’s nothing wrong with [Pataki]. ... If he comes to the Iowa Caucuses, I’ll be there with him."

Pataki’s announcement has now been overshadowed by Pirro’s announcement of a Senate bid. Frankly, I assumed that the Westchester District Attorney and TV talking head would run for state attorney general rather than take on Clinton.

Pirro’s chances of winning are microscopic. But Republican insiders will be satisfied if she runs a respectable race and makes Clinton spend heavily from her bulging war chest.

The Westchester D.A. may well figure that she can set herself up for another race down the road if she makes a strong showing against Clinton. And while the problems of Pirro’s husband - most notably his jail time for tax evasion - would be a major issue in most races, they may not be as explosive in the Senate race, given the Senator’s husband’s history.

Pirro - like Ed Cox and John Spencer, two other Republicans in the race - argues that New Yorkers want a full-time Senator, not one who will spend two years running for president. That argument may have worked somewhere, sometime, but it didn’t derail Gov. George W. Bush’s re-election in Texas in 1998, and it isn’t likely to stop Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) from being re-elected next year.

Still, Pirro’s entry into the contest could make for an entertaining race — and increasingly that’s all most in the media care about.

Finally, there is another election that deserves mention.

Each year, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, in addition to electing new members to the Hall of Fame, also selects the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing." The winner of the award is honored at the Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y.

And each year I wait for Roger Kahn to win.

It’s not that recent winners haven’t been deserving. Peter Gammons, this year’s honoree, is one of the greatest baseball analysts ever, and New York Times scribes Red Smith, Leonard Koppett, Joseph Durso and Murray Chass were worthy recipients.

The Spink award honors "baseball writing," but it has gone to newspaper sportswriters, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the membership of the BBWAA.

But "baseball writing" certainly should include the excellent work of George Will, Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Lawrence Ritter and the unparalleled Kahn, whose book "The Boys of Summer" was a classic the minute it was published.

Kahn wrote briefly for the New York Herald Tribune and served as an editor at Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post, but he is better known for his dozens of books (including "A Season in the Sun" and "Good Enough to Dream"). He has spent more than 50 years writing elegantly about baseball and its place in American society.

Kahn’s chances of winning the Spink award are probably no better than Pataki’s of winning the White House in 2008 or Pirro’s of winning the Senate race next year. That’s a shame, for whatever you think of the two politicians, Kahn surely deserves to win that award.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 15, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.