By Mike McPhate
Alan Hevesi is struggling to recover from a sudden political beating.
The incumbent comptroller had seemed assured of victory against his little known Republican rival Christopher Callaghan. He seldom gave interviews and declined to attend a debate.
Then last week the state’s Ethics Commission ruled that Hevesi broke the law when he used a city employee to chauffeur his wife, and suddenly he found himself abandoned. Even his longtime ally Eliot Spitzer was now calling his friend “compromised.”
“It was like falling off a cliff,” said Gerry O’Brien, a Republican consultant.
Hevesi changed course and agreed to a debate, where Callaghan hammered away at Hevesi’s ethics troubles as the 66-year-old comptroller struck an unrepentant pose. He said the reason he hired the driver was to protect his wife from valid threats from organized crime. "We followed the instructions that were given to us in the need for security, and I make no apology for that," he said.
Many observers called the performance arrogant. “I was stunned by the defiance Hevesi exhibited last night,” said O’Brien. “Everybody has a story, but that still doesn’t justify what this guy did.”
Before the scandal broke, Hevesi charted an impressive path to state office. He was born and raised in Queens, in the same neighborhood where he lives today with his wife Carol. He got his doctorate in Public Law and Government from Columbia University, and taught political science at Queens College for 26 years. He served two terms as New York City’s comptroller, and spent 22 years in the state assembly.
Hevesi has attacked Callaghan’s lack of experience for the state’s top fiscal officer, who conducts audits, issues economic forecasts, and oversees the state’s pension system among other tasks.
As Saratoga County’s treasurer, Callaghan oversaw roughly a dozen employees. “If you think that qualifies you to run an office of 2,400 professionals, we may have a disagreement,” Hevesi said in the debate.
With a recent poll showing the race now tied, Hevesi insists he’s not yet down for the count. “I can’t do more than apologize,” he said during the debate, vowing not to resign.
Challenger Callaghan Suddenly In Spotlight
Christopher Callaghan, a bow-tie wearing unknown from Saratoga County, may have just won what could be called an election lottery.
Until last week when his heavyweight opponent for state comptroller Alan Hevesi was slammed by an ethics scandal, Callaghan campaigned in obscurity, trailing in the polls by 27 percentage points.
Since then the former county treasurer picked up endorsements, though some of them reluctant, from several politicians and most city newspapers.
Callaghan has himself to thank. He was the one to expose Hevesi last month for using a state chauffeur to escort his ailing wife for more than three years. Though Hevesi apologized and repaid nearly $83,000, the scandal has proved debilitating.
Callaghan has made Hevesi’s troubles a central theme of his campaign. Asked where their politics differ, Callaghan snaps, “We differ on whether or not it’s okay to have a chauffeur drive your wife.” He continued, “That goes to a broader issue of the entitlement of office.”
Callaghan’s critics have called him unqualified for the job. “Poppycock,” said Callaghan. “I’ve been in government accounting for 35 years. I’ve actually done audits. That was a long time ago, but I don’t think Mr. Hevesi has ever done an audit.” Callaghan served for nine years as treasurer for Saratoga County, “perhaps the most fiscally successful county in the state of New York,” he said.
Callaghan said he first considered seeking the comptroller’s office when he said he noticed Hevesi was hurting the state’s pension fund with accounting gimmicks. He wrote a letter to newspapers criticizing Hevesi. Then early this year Callaghan said he was approached by Republican operatives for the job. “It occurred to me that it was difficult to hide from the call,” he said.
Callaghan is plump, gray-haired and speaks with a bit of a growl as if from a barstool. He grew up in Waterford – a place so small “there are no secrets,” he said – where he still lives with his wife, Liz. Growing up, he was a latchkey kid. His mom sold Yellow Page advertising and his dad sold life insurance. They worked hard and played hard, said Callaghan.
Suddenly besieged by media attention, Callaghan seems to be taking his change of fortunes in stride. “There was hardly ever a point in this race when I was losing ground,” he said. “I started pretty much from zero.”