Lew Lehrman

"Store No. 6 is in Binghamton." Lewis Lehrman is sitting in his midtown Manhattan office, looking out the window at the alternating horizontal stainless steel and glass strips of the Citicorp Center across the street, and remembering the New York locations of the early Rite-Aid drugstores. His suit is gray, his office walls white; the only striking color is the red of his suspenders, which have become a personal trademark. "Store No. 13 Yonkers. 14. No. 15 in Schenectady. 16. 17 and 18 in Troy. 19. No. 20 in Elmira." Remembering all the numbers, he gets up to No. 30, Avenue J in Brooklyn. Lew Lehrman wants you to know that he knew Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn before he knew Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, that he knows the neighborhoods and intersections where the ordinary people of New York City and Upstate live and shop. He is more than a rich media candidate with some rather unusual ideas.

But he is rich, of course: you have to be to buy $7 million of TV advertising -- ads which have made him a household name and which in early October put him about even in the polls, in a Democratic state in a Democratic year, with a popular Democrat who would be the first elected governor of Italian descent.

Lew Lehrman was not always so rich: his family had a successful grocery wholesale business in central Pennsylvania, but when he grew up and went to Yale, he had no reason to think he would ever have enough money to self-finance a statewide political campaign. He is now because he and his older brother-in-law, Alex Grass, transformed the family business into a discount drug empire, Rite-Aid.

What was their secret? They didn't invent the discount drugstore, but they studied them very carefully and came up with a strategy. "We saw an idea: selling indispensable prescription medicines and over-the- counter drugs to middle-income and working-class families at reduced prices. We broke the price structure" -- state laws fixing prescription drug prices at high levels -- "put the products in very simple store units, organized operations more efficiently and reduced prices 30 to 40 percent--and still made more money than our competitors."

Lehrman succeeded by ignoring the conventional wisdom: Rite-Aid was centered in the supposedly languishing Northeast, Rite- Aid stores were in supposedly dying small- city downtowns and central city neighborhoods. And in politics he has succeeded, so far, against the conventional wisdom: pledging to cut tax rates 40 percent in the premier big-government state. The 29-year-old who went to Wall Street, back in the go-go days, and helped to take Rite-Aid public -- the critical step in making his fortune -- became the 34-year-old who set up his own think tank, the Lehrman Institute, the 42- year-old booster of the gold standard who campaigned to be Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Treasury, and now the 44-year-old Republican candidate for governor.

His interest in ideas was always there. After college he studied history in graduate school. On the road, after buying up cheap United Shirt leases for Rite-Aid locations in the mill towns and small cities of upstate New York and central Pennsylvania, he would eat dinner at McDonald's and retire to a Holiday Inn to read history. The crinkled book jackets in the bookcase behind him are testimony to his continuing interest in history, economics and politics and the breadth of his knowledge.

The views he has developed are original. "A free people will tolerate financial disorder for only about 15 or 20 years," he says, with a steeliness that echoes the panels of the Citicorp Center. He is speaking of the American economy after the 1971 decision to let the dollar float free; one hero is Jacques Rueff, de Gaulle's economist, whose hard-money currency reform led to the vast prosperity of Fifth Republic France. Lehrman believes something analogous will happen here within the next 10 years; and if it does, he will have had something to do with it.

"Simple ideas," he says, speaking of Rite- Aid and of politics as well, "are the ones that have worked. It takes a very firm hand to direct it, and a clear vision."

He speaks deliberately, as if addressing an audience, taking pains always to express himself precisely, with the care of a man for whom political candidacy does not come naturally and whose views are constantly in danger of becoming, in the political arena, controversial. "No period of reform is easy," he acknowledges, in response to criticisms that his policies would disrupt the lives of people who have come to depend on programs he would cut. "I'm very sympathetic to that argument. But reforms have to be undertaken." So he moves forward, with the confidence of one who has in business imposed his own vision of order on the messiness of the everyday world, and believes he can do it in government as well.