NEW YORK — With New York’s two superstar Republicans, Gov. George Pataki and ex-Gotham Mayor Rudy Giuliani, pointed toward the White House in 2008, Empire State Republicans are facing the grim reality that they’ll have to scramble to find a strong candidate for governor in 2006.
In this context, how about a politically moderate black former Democrat and ex-journalist who has worked for some of New York’s most outspoken liberals?
Improbable as it sounds, this is Randy Daniels’ dream.
Daniels, the New York secretary of state, is poised to run for the state’s top job if his boss, Pataki, chooses not to seek a fourth term.
“I am ready to go, and there are a lot of people who want me to do it,” Daniels said during an interview in front of Madison Square Garden last week.
Daniels certainly seems to be the choice of the Pataki crowd. Robert Ryan, the campaign manager for Pataki’s first gubernatorial bid, is Daniels’ top political aide, and two of the governor’s chief fundraisers are now working for Daniels.
“I think he’s got great potential,” said Alexander “Sandy” Treadwell, chairman of the New York Republican Party. “He’s a great secretary of state. He’s got a wonderful life story.”
A major part of that story is Daniels’ political journey — a potential source of controversy as he seeks to raise his profile and woo Republican stalwarts across the state. In a GOP primary, his status as a party-switcher could prove problematic.
“He has no base in the party,” said Fred Dicker, a New York Post columnist and conservative critic of the state Republican establishment. “What does he bring to the table? The African-American vote will still go to the Democrats.”
A former reporter and producer for CBS News, Daniels emerged on the New York political scene as the polished and smooth-talking communications director for Mark Green, the former Nader Raider who was the Democratic nominee for Senate in 1986. He then worked for the No. 2 New York City official at the time, City Council President Andrew Stein.
“I didn’t start as far on the left as those guys,” Daniels said. “I’ve always been a centrist.”
After several years as a communications consultant, including a stint working for the government of the Bahamas, Daniels returned to the political world, arranging an appearance by Pataki at the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem during his 1994 campaign for governor. Daniels said he liked Pataki because as a former mayor of Peekskill, Pataki “understood urban problems.”
After his upset victory over Mario Cuomo (D), Pataki rewarded Daniels by making him a top-level economic-development official, a job he held for five years. Only after being appointed secretary of state by Pataki in 2002 did Daniels formally switch parties, however.
If his Democratic friends were shocked, they shouldn’t have been, Daniels said. While he remains moderate on social issues, he said it is the GOP’s message of hope, optimism and economic independence, rather than its conservative orthodoxy that he found so appealing.
“I’m interested in what works,” he insisted. “I really don’t feel that I have moved [ideologically]. The Democratic Party left me. The Republican Party has met me.”
Daniels said he didn’t know it at the time, but he was inspired by Ronald Reagan when he covered Reagan’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination as a young radio reporter in 1976.
“He pitched freedom and optimism,” Daniels recalled. “He told us we have a destiny, and it’s a positive, hopeful destiny.”
It was hard not to think about Reagan at the convention last week. In fact, Daniels had just sat down for an interview with conservative radio talk show host Michael Reagan, the 40th president’s son, before talking to Roll Call.
As a black Republican — especially one who switched parties so recently — Daniels has become a celebrity for the national GOP and was in heavy demand at the convention. He floated from interviews to receptions to official proceedings, walking briskly through the throngs in the neighborhood surrounding the Garden. The burly Ryan served as a blocking tackle, careful to greet every police officer he passed.
Daniels’ ambitions are well known, and several conservative interest groups seem ready to help. Just after his interview with Michael Reagan, Daniels was buttonholed by David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union.
“He’s certainly someone we’re keeping an eye on,” said Alvin Williams, executive director of BAMPAC, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee dedicated to electing black Republicans.
At home, many Republicans are aware of his star power. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R) called Daniels “tremendous.”
“We’re fortunate to have so many highly-qualified people in the state Republican primary,” he said. “He is one that definitely has to be considered” for higher office.
Bruno predicted, though, that Daniels would have to wait a while before running for governor.
“I believe you’ll some day address Governor Giuliani,” he said.
That, however, is an increasingly minority view among New York Republicans. So is the notion that the party has a deep well of political talent.
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) is mentioned occasionally as a possible successor to Pataki, as is state Sen. Michael Balboni. But the GOP list doesn’t get much longer than that.
By contrast, two strong Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer are eyeing the 2006 governor’s race, and a majority of political professionals in the Empire State believe the Democrats will reclaim the governor’s mansion then.
New York Democrats apparently don’t see Daniels as a serious threat yet.
“He was a well-respected Democrat who has become a well-respected Republican,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic consultant and lobbyist. “That’s not going to translate into votes.”
Although his job as secretary of state gives him the opportunity to travel the state and deal with an array of issues that, in his words, “touch New Yorkers in every aspect of their lives,” Daniels’ political operation is still in its infancy. He has raised $274,000 for an unspecified statewide race so far, and his campaign is launching a Web site in a few days. The site will offer information in six languages, in keeping with Daniels’ pitch that he is working to make all New Yorkers prosperous — even those who are sometimes ignored by Republicans.
Daniels believes history is on his side. The secretary of state’s job has proven to be a valuable launching pad in New York. Cuomo once held the post, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) served as one of his deputies. Treadwell, the state GOP chairman, is Daniels’ immediate predecessor.
“There’s no better job to prepare you to be governor,” Daniels said.