Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fight Night

I don't usually do politics here, but tonight, before the game, something interesting is going to happen. Regardless of your political stripe, I think that if you're in New York--or even anywhere where you can get a feed to the New York One news station, you should tune in.

This election cycle has been a big snoozefest in New York State. The Governor's race seems sealed up, with Democrat Eliot Spitzer capturing the Governor's mansion after 12 years of Republican rule under George Pataki. Hillary Clinton's opponent for the Senate has resorted to calling her ugly, which we suppose will be followed by "...and your mother dresses you funny!" The one Republican who was expected to run a competitive race, onetime senatorial candidate, Jeannine Pirro, now running for Attorney General against Andrew Cuomo (son of the former Governor), seems hopelessly sunk by reports that she called now-convict Bernie Kerik about illegally wiretapping her husband's yacht, and that it was Kerik who sounded more conscientious about not breaking the law.

But today's interesting thing is a race that was not supposed to be competitive, the race for New York State Comptroller. The Comptroller is basically the fiscal watchdog of the state, conducting audits and investigations and making sure that the state isn't losing money to fraud and waste. It's probably the third-highest elected office in the state.

Last winter, at an event honoring an Irish talk radio host, I meet a fellow in a bow tie who introduces himself and shakes my hand. As usual, it's a loud room and I don't catch his name, quick exchange of vague pleasantries and I'm on to the next person in the room. Later on my boss catches up with me and says, "I see you met Chris Callaghan."

The name was familiar. One of the things I do is manage the firm email account, which means wading through spam, particularly from political candidates and wannabes.

"Guy who wants to run for Comptroller?" I asked.
"You serious?"

There's something about politicians. When you catch them among civilians, they usually stand out. Almost invariably, they're alpha dogs. They carry themselves like they know that they're someone important, and they expect deference from you. The guy that I met had none of that. He looked like someone's accountant---which is pretty much what he is.

I filed J. Christopher Callaghan away under "Sacrificial Lambs" and went along my merry way.

You see, I'd also met the incumbent, Alan Hevesi. He is an alpha dog. When I was in law school, we hosted a debate for the New York City Comptroller's office, which was basically uncontested--so this was a pro forma contest of showing up against the Republican challenger as well as "candidates" from fringier climes like the Communist Party, the Right to Life Party, and the Libertarians. Hevesi won in a walk, as he did when he ran for the state Comptroller's position. He's got a good, professorial tone to him that's just a little bit wonky for discussing budgetary issues, but when someone gets out of line he slips on his Queens accent, and sounds like someone who could get in a good shot or two in a fistfight.

A few weeks ago, however, Hevesi's cakewalk started to resemble a street fight, somewhat. You see, Callaghan did what a good comptroller's supposed to do, and investigated some waste and the incumbent Comptroller. Turns out Hevesi has had a couple of state employees whose major work duties have been to drive his wife around. That led to an Ethics probe that recently found that Hevesi probably violated the Public Officials Law.

As the controversy brewed, the two candidates' standings in the polls didn't change all that substantially. Callaghan has only a very small fraction of the money that Hevesi has in his war chest, not enough to do any real advertising. Callaghan has no name recognition, and most voters couldn't pick his face out of a line-up, unless you clued them in about the bow tie. And Hevesi refused to debate him, prefering to coast to victory rather than have to meet Callaghan face-to-face to discuss the issues, and explain his chaufeur controversy.

Until tonight at 7:00 PM, that is.

Forget party politics--this is one of the most interesting political science experiments, out there. Can a guy who came out of nowhere, who has no money, and who doesn't look like your average politician win political office? Will Callaghan fumble the ball when he finally gets to take the big stage against a smoother, more politically-experienced opponent? Does it even matter? Does anyone decide how to vote based on debates?

Even more fascinating, I have no idea what Hevesi is going to say tonight, or for that matter, why he suddenly opted to debate after all. Maybe he dug up some dirt that allows him to go on the offensive. Maybe he'll offer a tearful apology; or he could angrily accuse his critics of being a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Anything could happen.

It should make for good TV. Here's hoping it makes for good government.

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