New York News

Former Governor Pataki on Cuomo, Religious Freedom, and NY’s Need For a ‘Change in Direction’

Former New York Governor George Pataki, a Catholic, applauded the Diocese of Brooklyn for challenging former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in court last year over his emergency order to restrict the sizes of public gatherings, including worship services. (Photo: Marc Nozell via Wikimedia Commons)

WINDSOR TERRACE — George Pataki says people often ask if he is relieved that the COVID-19 pandemic did not happen during his three terms as governor of New York State, from 1995 to 2006.

“I answer the exact opposite,” said Pataki, who was governor on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. 

“When things are going well, anyone can do the job,” he said. “But when things are going badly — that’s when, if you believe in your philosophy and your capabilities, you want to be a part of the fray.

“I don’t miss the office,” he insisted. “I love being home and with my family and doing things in the private sector. But I do miss the ability to make important decisions in times of crisis like during the COVID crisis.”

Pataki made his personal “state of the state” comments in a telephone interview on Aug. 26, a few days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.  

Cuomo’s departure coincided with ongoing investigations into an alleged cover-up of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, as well as reports that he used state resources to prepare a memoir for which a publisher agreed to pay $5 million.

Kathy Hochul, then the lieutenant governor, took the oath of office to replace Cuomo, a fellow Democrat. Pataki said he did not know Hochul, and had only visited with her once. Still, he expressed relief that she had taken charge of the state’s government.

“I think Andrew Cuomo ran a very authoritarian, ineffective government that governed through intimidation and control and provided misinformation on so many issues,” Pataki said. “Having him removed and having Kathy Hochul come in is a very, very positive step.”

Pataki applauded the Diocese of Brooklyn for challenging Cuomo in court last year over his order to limit the sizes of public gatherings, including worship services, in so-called “hot zones” of COVID-19 infections.

The diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, argued that it had enacted safety protocols and, therefore, the governor’s order restricted religious freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in late November 2020, ruling 5-4 in favor of the diocese.

Pataki said he had kept track of the lawsuit as it moved through the judicial system.

“What the governor did was wrong and virtually punitive towards the Catholic Church and religion in New York State,” Pataki said. “I was hoping for the outcome that we finally got — that, ultimately, the United States Supreme Court said his actions were unconstitutional.

He said he welcomed new leadership in Albany to reverse the pandemic’s damage to New York and its economy and to respond to spikes in violent crime, high taxes, and attacks on religious freedom — all challenges he worked to address as governor.

Top Priorities

Pataki added that New York needs a “change in direction.” 

“So,” he said, “I would hope that Governor Hochul will not just look to be a new governor, but to put in place new policies … whether it’s criminal justice or dealing with health issues, or opening up the government so people get true information.” 

He commended Hochul for releasing updated data on the nursing home deaths, thereby taking the first step in her pledge to govern with transparency.

“But,” he added, “I find it incredible that over a year later, the state government still kept the numbers of people who died from COVID a secret. This is something that, if it’s not criminal, it certainly should result in any and everybody involved being fired and removed from state government.”

Pataki also said he was alarmed to see people leave the state, and New York City in particular, because of high taxes and crime.

“When I took office, we were the most dangerous state in America,” he said. “When I left, we were the safest large state and fourth safest state in America because we changed all the policies and directions in Albany. Now they’re in the process of changing them back.”

An example, he said, is the “no-cash bail law that has resulted in felons being arrested and released two hours later.” Consequently, Pataki said, crime is “skyrocketing.”

“Obviously, it’s a catastrophe for the victims,” he said, “but it’s highly destructive for us as a society. The most important thing the government does is provide for the safety of its people.

“If I was Gov. Hochul, that would be one of my top priorities.”

‘Not the Whims of One Person’

Pataki also urged lawmakers to never again pass legislation giving the governor unlimited power via executive orders.

He said executive orders are important, and he issued “well over 100” of them, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. But, he noted, the Legislature erred with a law giving Cuomo additional executive power, “saying he basically can do anything he wants for an unlimited period of time.”

The consequences, he said, are a delayed reopening of businesses shuttered by the pandemic and unfair constraints on religious freedom. He said decisions regarding public safety should be “based on science and not the whims of one person.”

Steady Hand

Pataki is the most recent Republican to serve as governor and the last governor to complete each of his terms without scandal and early resignations. Today, he is a senior partner in a Manhattan law firm, but he resides with his family in Garrison, N.Y.

Brian Browne, a political science professor at St. John’s University, said Pataki’s terms as governor overlapped stretches of economic growth, including the “dot-com” boom.

Before Pataki, Browne said, the last New York governor to serve three terms was Mario Cuomo, whom Pataki unseated in 1994. 

The elder Cuomo, Browne explained, was a prominent Democrat and a popular national figure. Pataki’s election victory, therefore, made him a “giant killer.”

But Pataki’s defining moment was the 9/11 aftermath, when his “steady hand” helped rebuild lower Manhattan, according to Browne.

Pataki campaigned to be president in 2016 but withdrew before the primary. On Aug. 26, he asserted he has no plans to run for any office.

“I think,” Browne said, “history will be kind to George Pataki, particularly for what he accomplished as governor and what he accomplished politically, just getting elected three times in New York State.”