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George Pataki

Out of the running Last modified: December 30, 2015

George Pataki served as governor of New York from 1995 through 2006. He announced his presidential candidacy in May 2015.

Pataki is widely regarded as a moderate Republican, a reputation that undoubtedly helped him to win repeatedly in liberal-leaning New York. He defeated incumbent governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, in perhaps one of the biggest political upsets in the country in a very pro-Republican election. He campaigned as a reformer who would shrink government, and early on in his tenure he delivered big tax cuts and a real reduction in state spending. Later years of his tenure saw rising taxes and spending, although he did leave office with fewer state employees than when he arrived.

Pataki was largely overshadowed by Rudy Giuliani in terms of leadership during the 9/11 terror attacks on New York, but most people give him substantial credit and praise for how he handled and helped to steer the state through the crisis. When his potential 2002 Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo criticized Pataki’s performance, the blowback to him was sufficiently fierce that he was forced to abandon his plan to challenge Pataki.

Although Pataki has won multiple impressive victories at the ballot box and hails from one of the largest states in the country, his campaign is seen as something of a long shot. His moderate views on social issues combined with low name recognition, middling-at-best communication skills, and a fiscal record that is likely to draw criticism from small-government conservatives pose real challenges to his candidacy.

Pataki has been at or near the bottom of the pack in terms of fundraising and polling so far during the 2016 nomination process and has yet to move up into even the third tier of Republican candidates. Since he is an experienced politician with a record of substantial political success, it could be that the skills and views that allowed him that success are specific to New York’s political environment and will not bring him a similar level of accomplishment outside of the Empire State. Without a series of major stumbles by candidates ahead of him or some other stroke of luck, it is difficult to see a viable path to the Republican nomination for Pataki.

Background dropdown arrow

George Elmer Pataki was born on June 24, 1945. He is the son of Louis P. Pataki, a mailman and volunteer fire chief, and Margaret Lagana Pataki, a homemaker. He was raised in the family’s farm in Peekskill, N.Y.

Pataki attended Peekskill High School, graduating in 1964. He received an academic scholarship to attend Yale University, graduating in only three years. During his college years, Pataki served as chair of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union.

He earned his J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1970. He went on to practice law at the Peekskill firm of Plunkett and Jaffe, P.C.

Pataki first ran for office in 1981, defeating the Democrat incumbent mayor of Peekskill by earning 70 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 1983 with 74 percent of the vote. Shortly thereafter he ran for the New York State Assembly, defeating a one-term Democrat incumbent with 53 percent of the vote in 1984. He increased his margin of victory two years later in a rematch, earning 63 percent of the vote, and was easily re-elected again in ’88 and ’90.

After being redistricted out of his state assembly seat in 1992, Pataki challenged a seven-term incumbent Republican state senator, winning the primary election 52-48 percent. He won a four-way race in November that included the incumbent, who ran on a third-party ticket.

Pataki ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1994 despite low name recognition, receiving a major boost when he was endorsed by popular Republican U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. He won the nomination to face heavily favored incumbent Democrat Gov. Mario Cuomo, narrowly winning by a margin of 48.8 to 45.4 percent.

He easily won re-election in 1998 and 2002 and elected not to run in 2006. After leaving office he joined the law firm of Chardbourne & Park, focusing on renewable energy issues. He would later go on to found an environmental consulting firm, the Pataki-Cahill Group, along with his former chief of staff John Cahill. He went on to work on climate change issues with the Council on Foreign Relations and former Gov. Tom Vilsak (D-IA).

In 2007, Pataki was appointed by President George W. Bush as a United States delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, with plans to focus on climate change and terrorism issues.

Pataki has been married to Elizabeth “Libby” Rowland Pataki since 1973. Together they have four children: Emily, Teddy, Allison and Owen. Allison, also a Yale graduate, is a published novelist. Teddy and Owen are serving in the military. Emily is an attorney.

Pataki is a Roman Catholic.

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Character dropdown arrow

Pataki’s administration faced several serious ethical charges, although none were tied directly to Pataki and there was no evidence he knew about the corruption that occurred. It should be noted that New York government is mired in corruption, and it would be virtually impossible for any governor in the state to not to have some corruption occur by their staff. Still, as governor Pataki bears the responsibility of his administration and campaign team’s actions.

One case close to Pataki involved the brother-in-law of his own brother-in-law. In 1998 and 1999, architect James Copeland received state contracts worth more than $200,000, and was on track to receive another worth more than $1 million from the State University of New York (SUNY). Copeland was Pataki’s next-door neighbor and his brother was married to a sister of Pataki’s wife.1 A report from the state inspector general found top Pataki appointees had intervened with SUNY officials on Copeland’s behalf, that one document relating to those events had been destroyed and another one fabricated, and that Copeland had routinely mentioned his relationship to the governor when seeking the contracts.2 Ultimately, two SUNY officials were fired for their roles violating procurement regulations and improperly awarding the contracts to Copeland.3

In another corruption scandal, a campaign aide, a fundraiser, and top parole officials exchanged campaign contributions for promises of early release for several violent criminals.4 According to the prosecutor in the case, there was no evidence Pataki had any knowledge of the scheme.

The state was forced to rescind a contract giving a Pataki donor exclusive rights to develop land connected to the Erie Canal after it was discovered officials had rigged the bidding process in his favor.5

In terms of keeping campaign promises, the general fund grew by 67 percent between 1994 and 2006 and state taxes increased by a net of $3 billion,6 contrary to his pledge to make New York’s government smaller7 (although the number of state employees did decline by roughly 4 percent under Pataki8).

Pataki criticized former Gov. Mario Cuomo for family use of state-owned planes and had pledged not to have family members use the planes if elected. Despite this pledge there were several instances in which family members did ride on the planes, although they all appeared to be connected to official state business or otherwise appropriate.9

Pataki appeared to have backed down on the issue of taxing tobacco sales by Native American sellers following protests and violence in the mid-’90s and allowed the problem to fester for essentially his entire term, leaving the issue for his successor.10 In his final budget proposal, he specifically requested a one-year delay in collecting the tax, citing concerns over further disruption.11

When Pataki left office, veteran New York Post reporter Frederic Dicker wrote a scathing editorial titled “Good Riddance – Why Pataki Won’t Be Missed,” in which he wrote:

“By the end of his second year in office, Pataki was abandoning the fiscal conservatism and promises of reform that he’d campaigned on – and he never looked back.

“While his many liberal political allies and plentiful media apologists delighted in portraying the betrayal as clever pragmatism in an increasingly Democratic state, Pataki’s abandonment of his supposed core beliefs wasn’t that at all…

“Pataki broke virtually every political promise he ever made.

“Before taking office, he said he wouldn’t put his name on state Transportation Department signs that greet motorists entering New York because it was wrong to use public monies for self-promotion. Instead, he put his name, face and voice in more than $100 million worth of state-financed TV and radio ads.

“He pledged to sell the state aircraft fleet, then expanded and used it like never before; said he’d send his kids to public schools, then never did; insisted he’d never have the state take over the Long Island Lighting Company, then did; attacked his predecessor for making paid speeches, then did so himself; said he’d never serve more than two terms, then did. ”12

Pataki recently reversed himself on the renewable fuel standard, a policy that requires refiners to blend a specific amount of ethanol, biodiesel, and other unconventional fuels into gasoline. After calling in March 2015 for its phase-out, he said in September 2015 that the policy should be maintained.13

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Leadership Skills dropdown arrow

Despite a long and successful record of winning elected office, Pataki lacks a reputation as an effective communicator. One public communications expert summarized him as follows: “Pataki is a horrible public speaker. He is bland, boring, flat and uninteresting. I lived in New York State almost the entire time Pataki was governor and I cannot remember a single interesting thing (good or bad) that he’s ever said.”14 Although probably a too harsh assessment for someone with Pataki’s very real political skills and past success, it suggests his communications skills are subpar at best. He was one of seven lagging Republicans to appear in a debate before the main event featuring the top ten GOP candidates, and his performance did little to boost his candidacy.15

Throughout his political career, Pataki has demonstrated considerable political skill, having scored a number of upset defeats of Democrat incumbents in heavily Democratic New York State. In winning a seat in the New York State Senate, Pataki defeated a seven-term incumbent Republican. In his first campaign for governor of New York, Pataki successfully closed a 10-point deficit against popular Democrat incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo to win by 3 percentage points.16 He was one of only three Republicans to win the governorship of New York since 1923, along with Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. He has never lost an election.

Pataki enjoyed a generally positive reputation for coalition building during his three terms as governor. Andrea Bernstein of The New York Observer wrote of the amazing feat of Pataki’s “endorsements from Democratic-leaning unions, Hispanic groups and environmentalists, who talk as if the once-conservative Governor has been a friend to them all along.”17 And James Dao of The New York Times described “Mr. Pataki’s ability to win endorsements from his onetime labor adversaries typifies his success in building a well-financed and surprisingly diverse coalition.”18

Pataki’s leadership following the 2001 terror attack that brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was generally well regarded, although overshadowed by Rudi Giuliani’s leadership as mayor of New York City.19 In addition to his leadership following the 9/11 attacks, Pataki’s other major achievement in office was the significant income and corporate tax cuts made early in his first term, dramatically lowering taxes for New Yorkers.

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The libertarian Cato Institute described Pataki’s tenure as a “tax-cutting, small government governor” who became a “big spender.”20 Cato’s fiscal report card on Pataki went on to add:

“Among his leading first-term accomplishments were his $3 billion, 25 percent income tax cut and a substantial cut in the capital gains tax and inheritance tax. But by his second term, he was proposing multi-billion dollar bond initiatives for roads and pork-barrel environmental projects. He raised the cigarette tax to $1.50 per pack. He raised taxes, on net, by more than $3 billion his final term in office.”

In a 2011 interview on the Fox Business Network, Pataki called for extending the payroll tax cut because “it helps families and it helps the economy.”

Pataki was named by current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to co-chair his Tax Relief Commission in 2013.21 The commission’s final report called for a focus on “providing property tax relief for New York homeowners and businesses and enhancing the State’s economic competitiveness.” It also recommended lower the corporate tax rate and providing even lower taxes for manufacturers in the economically stagnant Upstate region.22

Pataki has recently proposed rewriting the federal tax code to eliminate most deductions while lowering the tax rates of most Americans. He has been ambiguous on whether he supports a single flat rate, but has said he would keep the mortgage interest, charitable giving, and other unspecified deductions.23  He asserts that this plan would make everyone pay their fair share of taxes and would “put the lobbyists out of business.”24

He said he would like to have America’s tax rate on manufacturing be 12 percent, which would be the lowest in the world.25


Early in his first term as governor, Pataki established the Governor’s Office of Regulatory Reform (GORR). The purpose of the office was to lessen “the mountain of bureaucratic red tape and regulations that had severely damaged the State’s economic climate and job creation efforts.” During Pataki’s three terms as governor of New York, GORR “eliminated or significantly reformed more than 2,900 regulations.”26

Pataki was characterized by The New York Times as a “deregulator” who believes that “competition and the free market, not regulators, should make decisions.”27 He has called the FCC’s attempts to regulate the Internet through net neutrality “utterly ridiculous.”28

After first trying to eliminate New York’s rent control law, Pataki in 1997 signed legislation extending it with only minor reforms.29

He has criticized efforts to raise the minimum wage, arguing that it would reduce jobs and opportunities for low-income workers.30

Budget & Spending

The libertarian Cato Institute has characterized Pataki as a “big spender.”31 During his three terms in office, Pataki increased the size of the New York State budget by 79.5 percent — from $63.3 billion to $113.6 billion — and the state’s debt by 61.3 percent — from $31 billion to $50 billion.32

He has spoken in support of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to reform public pensions by 401(k)-style retirement programs or reduced pension benefits for new New York state workers.33 On the 2016 campaign trail, he has said the federal workforce should be reduced by at least 15 percent.34


Pataki “approved billions of dollars in new pension benefits for government workers after lobbying from politically connected unions” during his time as governor.35 He also received endorsements from “Democrat-leaning unions” during his re-election bids.36

Energy & Environment

In 2003, Pataki helped to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program between states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region aimed at reducing carbon emissions in an effort to fight climate change. The New York Times has reported that the states involved the RGGI program have reduced their carbon emissions by 18 percent since 2009.

He was appointed in 2007 to co-chair the Independent Task Force on Global Climate Change for the Council on Foreign Relations.37 The task force cautioned against embracing emissions caps without “strong commitments to actions from the major emerging economies.”38

Pataki has been supportive of the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce gas. In a 2011 New York Daily News op-ed, Pataki wrote:

“The benefits of these natural gas reserves for our economy would be enormous, even transformational. Domestic natural gas waiting to be unlocked will give us the opportunity to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while making our air cleaner through the use of more natural gas in electric power generation and transportation. Then there’s this not-insignificant point: The development of the Marcellus Shale formation means jobs and investment throughout New York.”39

He has also been supportive of the Keystone XL pipeline project, criticizing President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation that would have given a green light to the pipeline’s development.40

Since departing the governor’s office, Pataki has focused on environmental issues. He joined the law firm of Chardbourne & Park, focusing on renewable energy issues,41 and founded an environmental consulting firm, the Pataki-Cahill Group, along with his former chief of staff, John Cahill.42


Pataki has stated that he was “fully supportive of President Bush’s ambitious agenda for trade liberalization.”43 In 2005, he led a trade mission to China to promote foreign investment in New York State.44 He was desirous of opening up a trade office in China but was unable to secure funding for the office in the following year’s budget.

Health Care

Pataki has called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, “the worst law of my lifetime.” He has asserted that it is unconstitutional and should be repealed.45 In April 2010, Pataki founded the nonprofit political action organization Revere America to advocate for the repeal of Obamacare. The organization was defunct as of 2014.46

During his time as governor, Pataki expanded access to care to for the state’s poorest citizens, including a significant expansion of Medicaid.47 He created Family Health Plus in 1999 for lower-income adults who do not have health insurance through an employer, and Child Health Plus for low-income families with children under 19 years old who did not qualify for Medicaid.48 He would later expand Family Health Plus further, making free insurance available to families and single adults who had too much income to be covered by Medicaid.49

Entitlements & Welfare

Early in Pataki’s gubernatorial administration, he tightened welfare requirements in the state, instituting work requirements for able-bodied welfare recipients,50 helping to reduce welfare rolls in the state by 1 million.51 In a 2011 interview in The Fiscal Times, Pataki suggested raising the retirement age for Social Security benefit eligibility for those not born yet.52 And, in a 2015 meeting with New Hampshire Republicans, Pataki suggested that Medicaid and Medicare and other federal welfare programs “need to be scaled back.”53


Pataki supported legislation in 2002 that would have allowed illegal immigrants residing in New York State to enroll in and attend the New York public university system schools at in-state tuition rates.54 He has expressed support for a “pathway to citizenship at the back of the line” for illegal immigrants already in the country. He also expressed skepticism of political candidates who suggest mass deportations as a solution to the nation’s immigration problem,55 and he opposes efforts to end birthright citizenship.56

Corporate Welfare

Pataki originally proposed eliminating the tax subsidy for ethanol57 and in March 2015 called for phasing out the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). He changed his position in September 2015 however, saying the RFS should be continued because people have made investments based on the policy and ‘when government tells people, ‘If you do this, we’ll do that,’ government does not just have a moral, but I think it almost has a legal obligation to keep their word.”58

While governor, Pataki signed into law the New York State Film Tax Credit. The legislation, which was a part of the budget bill approved by Pataki, provided $100 million over four years — $25 million annually — to cover tax write-offs for film and TV produced in New York state. The bill also allows New York City to provide as much as $12.5 million in annual tax credits for production in the city.59

Pataki was a promoter of the West Side Stadium, a proposed football stadium in Manhattan that would have been the new home for the New York Jets NFL franchise. The stadium later became a centerpiece of New York City’s failed bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. If realized, the stadium would have received more than $1 billion in public taxpayer funding.60 He also put millions of taxpayer dollars into renovations for the Buffalo Bills stadium and a minor-league ballpark.61

He was also supportive of the construction of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.62 The sporting arena received more than $1.6 billion in public taxpayer financing, and the project frequently used eminent domain to acquire the land on which it is constructed.

Banking & Finance

Pataki criticized Dodd-Frank for its impact on the financial industry, saying it had caused firms to hire overseas instead of in the U.S.63

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International Relations

Pataki has said he would provide military weapons and training directly to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists.64

Pataki has affirmed his support for the state of Israel as recently as April 2015, also expressing criticism of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, saying, “BDS is not a human rights movement. It is an anti-Semitic movement.”65

Pataki has diplomatic experience, having been appointed by Bush to serve as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.66

He disagrees with Obama’s efforts to normalize foreign relations with Cuba, calling the country a “Stalinist state.”67

War on Terror

Pataki’s governorship was, in many ways, defined by his handling of the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York City. Along with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Pataki was widely praised for his handling of the aftermath of the attacks.

Pataki has been critical of Obama’s handling of the war on terror and has advocated for putting U.S. troops on the ground to fight and destroy terrorist groups like ISIS. In a Fox News interview in February 2015, Pataki stated:

“First of all, we have to acknowledge that Islamic terror is an enemy of the United States. Call it by its name, whether it’s ISIS, or al Qaeda, or Boko Haram … if it takes boots on the ground for a limited period of time to destroy ISIS, they must be destroyed there, before they attack us here.”68

In an April 2015 speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Pataki said, “Iran can never be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”69 Despite his opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran, Pataki was critical of the open letter to Iranian national leadership organized by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 47 Republican senators. Of the letter, Pataki said:

“Foreign policy, negotiations with foreign states, has to be conducted by the president and his team. We don’t have to agree with the decisions. I have grave reservations about the deal that appears to be negotiated with Iran, but I don’t think Congress independently reaches out to another government to express a different standpoint.”70

Military Preparedness & Budget

At the 2015 Republican Leadership Summit, Pataki called for increased military budget spending, saying:

“The first thing I would do is rebuild our military. We should not have a military smaller than it was before World War II when the world is as dangerous as it is today. We should strengthen it. We should expand it. We should make it more powerful. Not because we want to use it, but so we don’t have to use it.”71

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American Exceptionalism

In a 2007 speech at the Naples/Fort Myers Town Hall, Pataki spoke of his views in American exceptionalism and how “he believes in the greatness of America even more now than he did when he was a college student studying history.” Pataki added:

“After September 11, everyone was united like I have never seen in my lifetime … we were united understanding that when our freedom is attacked we will do anything we can to defeat those who attack it.”72

Judiciary & Crime

During his time as governor of New York, Pataki had a large impact of the make up the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, by appointing five Republican justices to the bench.73 His appointees have been described as “moderately” conservative to “staunchly” conservative,74 and the court voted against recognizing a right to same-sex marriage.75

Pataki has said he opposes judicial activism, saying that you don’t what “unelected judges, unaccountable judges declare by dictate what they believe policy should be.”76

Pataki criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling in King v. Burwell (Obamacare tax credits)77 and said he believes that same-sex marriage is a states’ rights issue but did not make a statement on the Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.78 Pataki does not support overturning Roe v. Wade.79

Pataki made getting “tough on crime” a focal point of his gubernatorial campaign. During his time as governor, New York went from being the sixth most dangerous state in the nation to the seventh safest.80

During his campaign, Pataki also promised to reinstate the death penalty in New York State. He was able to deliver on this promise in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1995.81 This reinstatement of the death penalty was later suspended by the New York Court of Appeals. In 1998, Pataki signed legislation eliminating parole release for all violent felony offenders in New York.82


Pataki said that as president he would submit legislation to grant statehood to Puerto Rico.83

Free Speech & Religious Liberty

In 2003, Pataki granted a posthumous pardon to comedian Lenny Bruce, who had been convicted of obscenity in New York in 1964. In granting the pardon, Pataki said:

“Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”84

On political speech, Pataki proposed dramatically reducing campaign contribution limits in New York and more tightly regulating issue ads,85 both of which would have been serious setbacks for First Amendment rights.

Pataki criticized Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in April 2015, saying “No private sector business should be allowed to deny service, to discriminate, on the basis of sexual orientation. I urge Governor Pence and the Indiana Legislature to amend the bill to ensure these protections are made.”86 He said that if she had worked for him he would have fired a Kentucky clerk who stopped issuing marriage licenses following the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, explaining “I don’t think she should have been put in jail. But to stand up there and say I’m going to refuse to do perform my duty because I disagree with the law?  …You have to obey the law. … You cannot have a clerk that refuses to follow the Supreme Court.”87


Pataki is opposed to the Common Core education standards, calling them a “terrible idea” and adding, “I’m for standards, but those standards should be imposed locally and at the state level.88

He was an early supporter of charter schools in New York. He criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 when the mayor reduced city funding for charter schools, saying:

“This is about empowering the educational monopoly and the bureaucracy at the expense of the children. They see charter schools as a threat to their monopolistic power.”89

He has expressed the view that the federal Department of Education should function more as an information gathering operation and clearing house, rather than as a federal entity determining education policy.90

Social Issues

In 2000 Pataki supported and helped the legislature pass gun control legislation that included a ban on large-capacity gun magazines, increased the age for handgun ownership to 21, required background checks for purchases at gun shows, and mandated that all new guns sold have trigger locks.91

More recently, Pataki stated that he thought federal gun laws were “fine,” and criticized those on the political left who “don’t understand that the Second Amendment matters.”92

Pataki is generally pro-choice on abortion, stating that he “[does] not think the state of New York should take away the right of a woman to choose.”  He did support a ban on some late-term abortions as governor,93 and also vetoed legislation allowing access to emergency contraception — the so-called “morning after pill” — without a prescription.94

Pataki has said he believes same-sex marriage should be left to the states, explaining in a 2015 interview “I believe it should be left to the states. Honestly, I think marriage should be between a man and a woman…. I think that states should have the decision power and the ability to decide themselves. Marriage has never been a federal issue. If New York state and New Hampshire want to have different laws from Texas and Utah, that’s perfectly fine. That’s America.”95

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Vulnerabilities dropdown arrow

Pataki’s primary vulnerability is his reputation as a moderate on social issues, which is likely to make him unappealing to many in the Republican Party’s more conservative base.

Pataki also lacks any significant grassroots support. He has been out of political office since 2006 and, as such, has largely been out of the national spotlight since then.

He is also vulnerable to charges that he is a product of a corrupt political culture. While there were no serious allegations that he directly participated in or even knew about corruption in his administration, a few high-profile scandals did occur during his office involving top administration and campaign officials.

Pataki will also have to deal with a reputation from his years as governor that he is a big-spending Republican at a time when fiscal issues are at the forefront for many Republican voters. After his campaign promises to rein in spending and taxes in New York, Pataki was admonished by critics for failing on these counts. During Pataki’s tenure as governor, state spending grew by 79.5 percent between 1994 and 2006, and state taxes increased by a net of $3 billion.

Pataki is also the oldest candidate in the race. If he won, he would be the oldest person ever elected to the presidency.

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