In New York, Cuomo Loses to Once-Obscure Challenger


Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a national symbol of liberalism, failed Tuesday in his bid for a fourth term in office, falling to Republican state Sen. George E. Pataki.

With 93% of the vote counted, Pataki had 1,833,234, or 48%, to 1,735,574, or 46%, for Cuomo.

“I congratulate George Pataki,” Cuomo said in his concession speech. “It was indeed a long and a tough struggle. George Pataki is the next governor of the state of New York. We will all work with him and respect him.


“I had great plans for this state in the coming years, and I have great hopes for her still,” Cuomo said.

Pataki told his supporters that “we are going to begin a new positive era for the people of this state. Be happy! Tonight we won a victory for all New York. Tonight, the people of this state spoke loudly and clearly. They want change, and let me tell you something, as your governor you are going to get that change . . . We are going to cut the taxes. We are going to change the criminal justice system of this state.”

Pataki said that his patron, Republican U.S. Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, “had suffered unfair attacks” during the campaign. The governor-elect happily quoted one of Cuomo’s commercials that sought to tie him with D’Amato. “You can call me Al,” he told cheering supporters.

Pataki, who started the campaign as an obscure 49-year-old legislator from Peekskill, built a winning platform of support with a pledge to restore the death penalty, to slash government spending and to cut state taxes by 25%.

How obscure was he? When the Republicans selected Pataki at their state convention in May, one New York City tabloid ran the headline, “What is a Pataki?” Pataki, the son of a mailman who attended Yale University and Columbia Law School on scholarships, was handpicked by D’Amato, who jubilantly declared that the voters sent a resounding message.

“I think they said, clearly, enough is enough. They’re sick and tired of being taken for granted and being overtaxed and being underrepresented and having a criminal justice system that failed them,” D’Amato said. “They don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods. They want workfare, not welfare.”


Pataki toppled a a towering figure in the Democratic Party, whose keynote address electrified the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. That speech propelled him into the front ranks of potential presidential contenders.

In the years that followed, the governor flirted with running for the White House but never entered the fray. He also turned down a chance to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, declaring that he preferred to remain leader of the Empire State.

The election was marked by a pitched battle between voters in New York City, who strongly supported Cuomo, and upstate residents, who cast their ballots for Pataki. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters told exit pollsters that Cuomo was in office too long. Blacks overwhelmingly backed the governor, as did Jewish voters. But other white voters favored Pataki, who ran particularly well among white Catholics.

More than 60% of voters said they wanted the death penalty restored, and by 2 to 1 they voted for Pataki. Cuomo is an opponent of the death penalty.

Cuomo strategists had hoped that conservative businessman B. Thomas Golisano, who was running as an independent, would cut into Pataki’s upstate margins.

Those hopes received a boost last weekend when the 52-year-old Rochester businessman, who sought the governorship as the candidate of the Independence Fusion Party and who vowed to spend $10 million of his own funds on the contest, received the backing of Ross Perot, an independent presidential candidate in 1992.

Perot praised Golisano’s campaign as “electroshock therapy to the political system” and said Golisano’s third party would be a “tangible signal to Albany and Washington.”

But Pataki dominated the key upstate precincts.

A key event in the bitterly contested election was the endorsement of Cuomo by New York City’s Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, prompting Pataki to lash out that the mayor was a “back-stabber.”

At the same time, Pataki pledged he would work with Giuliani in an effort to blunt fears among city voters of a feud that could harm the city’s interests.

After Giuliani’s backing, which also earned the wrath of D’Amato, the contest tightened in polls. President Clinton also appeared with Cuomo and called him a “national treasure.” A parade of Cabinet members visited the state to reinforce that message.

To no avail, Cuomo and Giuliani mounted a large get-out-the-vote drive, especially in New York City. Election Day was a civic holiday, and state and city employees were enlisted on their own time in the vote-getting effort. New York City’s largest municipal union sent a letter to its 130,000 members urging them to reelect Cuomo. The union fielded 3,400 volunteers to help voters get to the polls. Volunteers staffing phone banks made about 4 million calls on behalf of the governor in the closing days of the race.