By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Tom Golisano, the three-time New York gubernatorial candidate and billionaire Rochester-area native, is becoming the spokesman for the National Popular Vote campaign, bankrolling an effort to get states to move to a popular-vote system for electing a president.
Golisano, the founder of Paychex Inc. in Penfield, Monroe County, will announce his role at a news conference in Washington D.C. today. The announcement comes on the same day his sale of the Buffalo Sabres, which he has owned since 2003, is set to become official, a deal worth a reported $189 million.
In an interview with Gannett's Albany Bureau on Monday, Golisano said his role in the national push will be to meet with legislative leaders and governors across the country. The measure has already passed six states and is being actively considered in dozens of others.
Golisano wouldn't say how much he is contributing financially to the effort, which will include an advertising and lobbying campaign, saying only "it's not an inexpensive proposition."
"The real essence of the issue is in a democracy the person that gets the most number of votes should win. And everybody's vote should count equally," Golisano said. "When you have the winner-take-all rule that you have in the Electoral College, all the votes don't count equally. So that's why I'm involved."
Over the years, Golisano has sought various reforms in New York state government. He led the effort to create the state's Independence Party in the 1990s and ran as the party's gubernatorial candidate in 1994, 1998 and 2002, spending close to $100 million on his unsuccessful third-party runs.
In 2008, he started Responsible New York, in which he spent more than $4 million to back candidates for the state Legislature, mainly Democrats, in a bid to elect reform-minded candidates. The effort led Democrats to take control of the state Senate for the first time in more than 40 years, but Golisano soon after criticized the Democratic leadership for its failure to change a state government that he had long criticized for its high spending. He backed a coup to overthrow the Democratic leadership in the Senate, which led to a monthlong stalemate in the chamber but ultimately Democrats retained power.
In 2009, Golisano announced he was changing his permanent residence to Florida, saying he could save $5 million a year in taxes.
Golisano said he has no plans to take an active role in New York politics.
"Obviously I'm very concerned what happens in New York, but geographically I'm quite removed from it now," Golisano said. "And Florida is like a new home for me, but I think I'm thinking more broadly than that now."
He said he likes what he's hearing from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has made cost cutting a centerpiece of his administration, but he waiting to see if Cuomo can produce results.
"I think some important decisions have to be made in New York state, the type of decisions I've been talking about for 20 years," Golisano said.
Golisano said the announcement wasn't timed to coincide with the Sabres sale, but instead with George Washington's birthday, which is today.
The National Popular Vote group has been trying to build support among state legislatures to win enactment of the bill.
Golisano, 69, a Republican, plans to go on a multi-state tour to push for the measure with John Koza, a Democrat and computer scientist who started the National Popular Vote effort. Koza is also known as a co-creator of the scratch-off lottery ticket.
Golisano's long-time advisers, former Independence Party chairwoman Laureen Oliver and Steve Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman, are helping him with the effort.
The group has targeted 43 state legislatures to enact the bill that would give the presidency to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, essentially scrapping the Electoral College system in which designated electoral votes in each state are tallied to pick a winner.
The effort isn't to pass a new federal law, but to get enough states representing 270 electoral votes to pass the bill, therefore allowing enough states to elect a president based on the popular vote. The group said that the measure has been passed in Hawaii, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington D.C., about 27 percent of the votes needed for the initiative to take hold.
The measure, however, does not appear to have enough support in the Democratic-controlled Assembly in New York after it passed the state Senate last year.