For the first time in his life, George Pataki is worried about New York City.
In an exclusive interview with The Post at his Peekskill, New York, office, the former three-term governor said crime, COVID-19 and poor leadership across city and state government has brought the Big Apple to the brink.
“For the first time ever I fear for the future of New York City. The de Blasio administration has been a disaster and New York has been hit by just decision after decision that really jeopardize its future. It’s not just City Hall but Albany too,” said the 6-foot-5 Pataki, glowering over his desk. “This cannot be allowed to continue or New York City is going to die.”
Pataki, 75, has been out of politics for more than a decade now. His office is filled with smiling photos of him during his salad days in Albany, and cluttered with signed Yankees baseball bats and gold-bladed shovels that his staff sometimes use to clear snow in the winter. Images of Theodore Roosevelt, Pataki’s political hero and the namesake for his son Teddy, are everywhere.
Lately, Pataki has turned to writing. His new book, “Beyond the Great Divide: How A Nation Became A Neighborhood” (Post Hill Press), delves into his time as governor during 9/11 and offers thoughts on how Americans can move past their differences to rebuild a common future. He also still practices law at Norton Rose Fulbright; before the pandemic you could sometimes catch him on the Metro-North zipping into Manhattan.
But, behind the scenes, he remains keenly aware of and involved in political developments across the state, ticking off what he says are failed initiatives like bail reform, rent reform, defunding cops and Chirlane McCray’s mental-health boondoggle ThriveNYC, which has resulted in “having mentally ill homeless all over the streets of New York.”
“So many people are going to lose their lives needlessly because of the demonization of the police and the decriminalization of acts where people should be arrested and put away as opposed to turned loose on the street,” he said.
Pataki, now known by his intimates simply as “gov,” cut his political teeth as a working-class local mayor of Peekskill in the early 1980s. He refers to lower Westchester as the “rich” part of the county. Locals still recognize him, even through his pandemic mask. Pataki said he took particular umbrage knowing that the adverse effects of policies being shoehorned on the state — now under one-party domination of the Democrats — would not affect those with money and power.
“It’s the person working the night shift who will be murdered, or the guy in a bodega who will be held up and shot,” he said, repeatedly noting the city’s sharp uptick in violent crime. “If you’re a writer for The New York Times living in a safe Upper East Side neighborhood and taking Uber it’s not going to affect you.”
Though he declined to take any personal shots, insiders tell me he’s seething about Andrew Cuomo and has been particularly appalled by the governor’s executive order forcing nursing homes to accept seniors who tested positive for COVID-19. At least one Pataki confidante said the situation has angered him enough to even consider running against Cuomo in 2022 and denying him the same fourth term Pataki denied his father Mario in 1994.
“You never say never,” Pataki said, when asked if he’d run again, noting that he would still be “the youth candidate in a [presidential] Democratic primary.”
Pataki added that he opposes some of the more drastic efforts being put forth by partisans on both sides and he dismissed calls for civil or criminal charges against public officials for actions taken during the pandemic. And even if he were the governor, he said he would not remove de Blasio from office — as tempting as that may be.
“The consequences in our political system are political. If you make the wrong decision, the people have the right to change their view and elect new leaders,” he said. “The criminalization of political differences is a third-world negative that has become too commonplace in our country.”
On national politics, Pataki repeatedly declined to endorse President Trump’s reelection and refused to say who he would vote for, adding that if the election were held today, Trump would lose. When asked to evaluate the president’s performance Pataki crossed his arms and breathed deeply.
“Many of President Trump’s policies I agree with but his tweets and his feuds often result in the success of those policies being ignored,” he finally said.
Pataki was more forthcoming during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he mounted his own brief bid for the GOP nomination. After Trump jumped into the race in August 2015, Pataki denounced him for remarks calling illegal Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers” in an open letter to his fellow aspiring GOP candidates — which has since been taken offline.
In tweets from the time, he blasted Trump as a “divider” who was unfit to hold office, attacked plans for a Muslim registry as “revolting” and “un-American” and vowed he would not vote for him.
Trump, of course, shot back with tweets of his own, calling the former governor “TACKY PATAKI” and claiming that he “couldn’t be elected dog catcher” today — among other insults.
They were also at odds during Pataki’s time in Albany, particularly over plans to bring Indian casinos to the Catskills. Concerned that it might cut into his Atlantic City gaming interests, Trump spent years fighting the idea.
Despite his baggage with Trump, Pataki predicted Biden could still lose the election either by hewing too far to the left, or if it “became apparent to the American people that he’s not up to doing the job.” He called questions about the 77-year-old former veep’s mental state “a legitimate concern.”
“I’ve been disappointed by the ability of the leftist activists in the party like Bernie Sanders and [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez to apparently influence him in real and significant ways,” Pataki said, warning that the moderate Biden of decades past was long gone. “The Biden who was the moderate Democrat for a long time serving in Congress might not be the Biden who we would see as president.”