What Makes Tom Run?

Independence Party candidate Tom Golisano is setting campaign-spending records in his latest bid to become governor of New York.

The Rochester billionaire--founder of the payroll-processing company Paychex--has spent more than $40 million on feisty ads attacking his rivals, GOP incumbent Gov. George Pataki and his Democratic rival, H. Carl McCall. Golisano's signature theme: that by spending his own money, he is the only candidate free from the special interests of political contributors.

In spite of Golisano's high-profile campaign, Governor Pataki remains a comfortable front runner with a 9 to 10 point lead in most polls. But McCall, burdened by a cash shortage and at risk of having his party funnel resources into more winnable races, has slipped to the point where he is running neck and neck with Golisano in the suburbs and counties outside of the Democrats' stronghold in New York City.

Golisano spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz about his campaign, the growing importance of third parties--and why he's willing to spend so much of his money on a race nobody expects him to win. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: This is the third time you're running for governor and you're spending more than $1 million a day of your own money. Why do you do it when the polls give you no chance of winning?

Tom Golisano: Which polls don't give me any chance?

All of them.

We've gone from zero in this campaign to the point where we're passing Carl McCall. With two weeks to go, and our numbers surging and Governor Pataki's numbers coming down, it looks like we're in great position. I think our campaign is reaching a level of critical mass that's going to be very surprising to a lot of people. We knew getting to 20 percent was one of our important plateaus, and we flew right past that, right past Carl McCall, so we think we're in great shape.

But it's Governor Pataki, not Carl McCall, who's the clear front runner.

Pataki's the front runner; that doesn't mean we don't have a chance. That's kind of ridiculous, isn't it?

Do you seriously think that you have a realistic chance of winning?

I'll say it four different ways. Yes, we have a realistic chance of beating Governor Pataki. Of course. When you have two candidates who are just within 8 or 10 points of each other--and you look at the undecideds, where the challenger usually gets the bulk of [the votes], we're very close.

Assuming you don't win, will it have been worth it?

Of course it will have been worth it to me. This is about competition, this is about bringing better state government. That's why I'm in this campaign. If I don't win, I will feel very gratified that it looks like we beat the No. 1 party in the state and [that] we brought forth a lot of information and ideas and concepts that are going to require serious consideration by whoever's governor and whoever's in the legislature.

So whatever happens you've helped to set a political agenda?

Absolutely. That's the minor reason we're running. The major reason is we think we have a chance to win this. I think I would make a much better governor than the other two candidates. Basically, the reason for that is they're all tied to special interests, they all get large campaign contributions from unions, from corporations, from individuals that all want special benefits from state government. I'm the only candidate that has a chance here that can govern independently of these special interests. That's what's so appealing about my campaign to the people in the state.

It was reported today that Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has warned that his party will not channel large sums of money to McCall unless he can close the gap with Pataki.

It almost sounds like a financial concession on the part of the Democratic Party. When you consider the fact that the Democratic base is so large in New York state and he can't seem to get over 30 percent in the polls, that doesn't look very good for his campaign.

Are you drawing support away from McCall?

The political pundits say we're drawing support away from both candidates, and that's obviously what I'm trying to do if I'm trying to win the election. I don't know how else you win it, other than to have voters vote for you instead of the other candidates. That's part of the competitive process.

Who's voting for you? Democrats or Republicans?

Our polling numbers indicate that we're drawing equally from both sides.

Where do you put yourself on the political spectrum?

From a fiscal perspective, I would consider myself to be most conservative. On other issues I'm fairly moderate. We have some very tough imprisonment laws for drug users, the Rockefeller laws [which impose mandatory minimum sentences]--they're far too punitive. Politicians are making decisions on how long criminals are going to jail for, and I think that's wrong. It's very hard to put me under a label. I think I try to make objective decisions based on the issue.

You also want to legalize marijuana.

No, I don't. New York State in 1980 passed [a law approving the use of] medical marijuana. We have never put in an administrative process for medical marijuana. And we should do that. I am not for legalizing marijuana. That's just another mistruth that the Republicans would like you to believe.

But you do want to legalize it for medicinal use?

That's right. As long as it's under a doctor's prescription.

Although you're said to live fairly modestly for someone with your wealth, you're still a billionaire CEO at a time when the perks, salaries and misdeeds of corporate leaders are making headlines. Is that an issue on the campaign trail.

I've gotten a few questions about that. One fortunate event was that Forbes magazine has ranked me the No. 1 CEO of the year based on executive compensation versus shareholder return. At the same time, Fortune magazine rated our company the 42nd best company to work for in the United States. So we've not only served our employees but also our shareholders.

Are third-party candidates playing a more important role in national politics?

I think so. Whenever you have candidates who get involved in the process and are either successful, like [Minnesota Gov.] Jesse Ventura or Angus King, the governor of Maine, the more of these people that we have involved in politics from the third-party perspective, the more people it's going to encourage to do it ... Obviously it's a reflection of people's general discontent in the two-party system, in the gridlock it creates and the forced ideologies by party bosses.

What about the argument that third-party candidates can act as spoilers, pulling votes away from the candidate that's closest to them politically.

The other two [parties] like to perpetuate that theory.

You don't agree?

[Party leaders] do it because they want to diminish our chances and our opportunity to win. In business, we call new entries into an industry competition. In politics, they consider new entries into the fray as spoilers.

Wasn't that theory lent some credence in the 2000 White House race, when Ralph Nader drew votes that would otherwise have gone to Al Gore?

I believe that the two-party system, the Republicans and Democrats, don't own our country, they don't own our politics and they don't own our votes. What this country is supposed to be about is free choice. They don't have the franchise to political office ... Remember the Republican Party was a third party back in the mid-1800s, and it became a dominant party. Why shouldn't that opportunity exist today for other parties?

Do you see yourself at the forefront of a grass-roots political trend?

I don't know if I'd say I'm in the forefront. If I end up inspiring or encouraging other people to get involved in this process by running for office--not only as an independent but also as members of other parties--that'd be great.

And now a really important nonpolitical question. Are you still negotiating to buy the Buffalo Sabres hockey team?

Yes, we are in the negotiation process with the Sabres. The Sabres are very valuable asset to western New York; we're going to do everything we can to keep them there.

How much are you prepared to pay for the team? More or less than you've spent on your campaign?

[Laughs] Allow me not to comment on that.