The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Heard of George Pataki? Every four years he thinks about running for president.

Pataki speaks with Tony Coutee, left, and Jason Soto, both of Derry, N.H., at a Chipotle in New Hampshire. (Rob Strong/For the Washington Post)

EDITOR’s NOTE: This story was originally published on May 1. It has been updated to include the news that Pataki has announced his presidential campaign.

The tall man in a blazer burst into the Chipotle in the middle of the afternoon. He had a smile, a TV camera following him and the jovial air of a man who expects to be recognized.

“George Pataki, from New York,” he said, shaking hands with the first two diners he met. “We’re doing the non-Hillary tour. We’re actually saying ‘hi’ to people.”

Then the tall man moved on, to quiz the next table about their food. (“Chicken burrito? I gotta try something new.”) When he was gone, the first two diners wondered: Who was that? Do they not have Chipotle where he lives?

“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m from New York,’ ” said Aaron Lee, 22. “What are you doing here, then?”

Officially, what George E. Pataki was doing was flirting — for the fourth time in 16 years — with the idea of running for president of the United States.

A few weeks ago, Pataki was in New Hampshire: raising money, and telling people that he was close, close, close to making a decision. “I’m strongly leaning toward making the run,” he told a radio station in New Hampshire.

This happened three times before. Every other time Pataki flirted with running, he didn't [On Thursday, the Republican ex-governor of New York announced that this time, he is actually is running].

Spring is the flirting season in American politics: in the early part of this year, more than 20 politicians were officially “considering” or “exploring” a run for president. The key to understanding this strange every-four-years ritual is to understand that there are two kinds of flirting.

For the big-name candidates, the presidential flirt is a useful, temporary, legal dodge. They will run. They are essentially running already. But they don’t want to admit it yet, because that would bring on tighter fundraising rules.

For the others — particularly the eight or so who have fallen out of the political spotlight — the flirt can be an end in itself. It allows them to experience some of the most pleasant parts of a campaign: audiences, media attention, a chance to raise money. And then it lets them escape before they have to face the less-pleasant parts. Such as getting crushed.

This time, apparently, Pataki is ready to take that risk.

“I make a joke that every four years, there’s the Olympics, there’s the World Cup and I come to New Hampshire thinking about running for president,” Pataki told a crowd of 15 people during a speech at a Sea-Doo and snowmobile dealership in Laconia, N.H.

Nobody laughed. Then Pataki said this election was different: “This time, in all honesty, I see things differently.”

Pataki, 69, has already lived a remarkable political life. The son of a postman, he unseated liberal icon Mario Cuomo (D) in a 1994 governor’s race — one of New York’s legendary upsets. Pataki then won second and third terms by large margins. He led New York through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

But he has not held office since 2007. Since then, his political star has faded somewhat.

“Who is Bloomberg?” a “Jeopardy!” contestant said in January while looking at a photo of Pataki.

The category was "New York governors," and the clue was "He took New York into the 21st century."

“No,” host Alex Trebek said. The other two contestants stared blankly at the same photo, without buzzing in, until time ran out.

Another sign: There used to be a museum about Pataki in his hometown of Peekskill, N.Y. It opened after he left office, complete with an exhibit where schoolkids could see Pataki’s gubernatorial desk.

Then, in 2013, it closed. Its leaders thought maybe more schoolkids would visit if it was a Web site.

“Basically, it would be like a monkey flying out of a unicorn’s [posterior]” if Pataki won the 2016 Republican nomination, said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson. If Pataki got into the GOP primary, he would face obstacles that go far beyond his meager name recognition. He is pro-choice. He signed strict gun-control laws. He let state government spending grow rapidly.

In recent polls, his best showing has been 1 percent.

“Let’s just say a meteor strikes the first debate and kills everyone except Pataki, who is stuck in traffic. Let’s hypothesize for a moment,” Wilson said. He thought. No. It still wouldn’t be Pataki. They’d find somebody else.

But despite those long odds, Pataki came to New Hampshire last month for his eighth flirting-related visit since September. He later made a ninth.

“I know I can appeal — not just to Republicans and conservatives — but to independents and intelligent Democrats as well,” Pataki told an audience of eight College Republicans at the University of New Hampshire.

This is the heart of Pataki’s pitch to voters. He’s a Republican who won big in a blue state. He’s a reformer who would tame Washington’s bureaucracy. “I go there today, and it’s like I’m on an alien planet,” Pataki said of Washington. “They are an insular world. They talk a language you don’t understand.”

In New Hampshire, Pataki’s crowds were not big. At the official opening of his super PAC’s office in Manchester, for instance, 25 people turned up. And one of them turned out to be an incognito staffer for Donald Trump. Think about that. If this was an intentional act of flirter-against-flirter espionage (which the Trump staffer denied), it might be the most pointless dirty trick in the history of American politics.

Nevertheless, wherever Pataki went, the crowds were pleasant and admiring.

“Under a Pataki administration,” one man asked him at a diner, how would Middle East policy change?

“You’d change everything,” Pataki told him.

This is one of the things that makes flirting worthwhile: for an ex-politician, it is an unlocked door back into the American political arena.

That can mean new audiences for men used to audiences. The same College Republicans, for instance, had recently hosted a 2016 flirter whose odds are even longer than Pataki's: former Virginia governor James Gilmore III (R). Gilmore left office in 2002.

“I mean, thank God for Wikipedia,” said UNH senior Elliot Gault, 22.

And the same kind of magic works on the news media. Before former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee (D) announced he was exploring a presidential run on April 9, The Washington Post had not quoted him about anything in nine months.

In the weeks after that, The Post quoted him eight times. Er, nine.

“Clinton is just too hawkish,” Chafee said in an interview, repeating his signature attack line on the Democratic front-runner, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The other great thing about flirting is the money. While you flirt, you can raise it. And if you don’t run, you can spend it anyway.

In 1999, for instance, Pataki flirted with a campaign, then gave up and endorsed George W. Bush. In 2007, he did it again. “I was very serious about it” that time, Pataki says now. “But: Mayor Giuliani.” The former New York City mayor was in the race, and Pataki didn’t think there was room for two New Yorkers. So he got out.

Both times, Pataki raised more than $1 million in donors' money. Both times, the New York Times reported, Pataki spent it — giving to allied Republican candidates, paying for Pataki's travels, and paying a circle of Pataki's own advisers, strategists and fundraisers.

Then came 2012.

"I was very serious about it," Pataki says. "But everywhere I went, people had committed to Mitt Romney." He pulled the plug but still raised and spent more than $600,000 via a political nonprofit.

This year, Pataki is raising money again — for a super PAC called “We the People, Not Washington.” Among those leading the fundraising are several Pataki associates who got paid from the money he raised in past flirtations. Aides wouldn’t say how much he’d raised or spent this time.

“Because he was my friend, I wouldn’t feel cheated [if Pataki didn’t run]. I’m never one to say that a guy should be a suicide lunatic,” said Peter Kalikow, a New York real estate titan who donated to Pataki’s super PAC this year. In the last presidential cycle, Kalikow was a major backer of another long shot: pizza executive Herman Cain.

Pataki’s aides said they had a strategy ready if their man really got into the race. He’ll stand out in the debates with his genial wit and executive experience. Then he’ll surge in New Hampshire, by appealing to libertarian-leaning . . .


Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

“When I heard the name, I was like, ‘Pataki. Pataki. Pataki.’ But I didn’t know that he was the mayor of New York,” Tony Coutee, 42, a crane operator who was at the second table Pataki visited in that Manchester Chipotle, said incorrectly. After Pataki left his table, Coutee said, “I Googled him and found out.”

"So he is running?" asked Coutee's lunch companion, Jason Soto, 35.

Yes, Coutee said.

While the two of them were talking, Pataki was into a full-blown, campaign-style restaurant schmooze. He bumped elbows with the grill man. He walked back to greet employees in the walk-in cooler (“He just shook my hand and I said I didn’t want to be on camera, and he asked if I was on parole,” one said, bewildered.) Pataki went through the line and loudly asked if he could leave a tip.

Then he came back and sat down with Coutee and Soto. “I’m trying the chicken burrito,” Pataki told them.

The two men quickly got up to leave.

“Kinda normal,” Soto said of this only-in-flirting-season interaction, a pseudo-conversation with a pseudo-candidate, who never said what he was running for. “But abnormal.”

Anu Narayanswamy in Washington contributed to this report.