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Mehiel looks to bring new duties to lt. governor spot

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On paper, the lieutenant governor’s official duties don’t eat up much ink.

Aside from presiding over the state Senate — a role that is largely ceremonial — and stepping in if the governor leaves before his term is up, the lieutenant governor holds a malleable post that can change drastically from one administration to the next.

“The office itself has no constitutional responsibility of any meaning,” said Dennis Mehiel, 60, the Democrat from Westchester County who is running for lieutenant governor on the same ticket as gubernatorial hopeful Carl McCall, who now serves as the state controller.

But where the Constitution has left room for creative interpretation, McCall and Mehiel have filled in the blanks.

During a recent campaign stop in Queens, Mehiel said he and McCall have formed a clear vision for the post that designates him the governor’s point person on economic development and job creation. He would serve as one of a few core advisers targeting a range of key issues like education and health care, who would together form a cabinet that reports directly to the governor.

“Politically, as the second highest elected official in the state, I would work closely with the governor in his responsibility to set the agenda for the state of New York,” Mehiel said last week as he sat down at the Bayside Diner for an interview requested with the TimesLedger. “But he’s the boss.”

Mehiel, a native of Washington Heights, founded the Four M Corporation — now Box USA — and is chairman of Sweetheart Cup’s parent company.

The post of lieutenant governor has faced criticism from political pundits who consider it a wasted office that never lives up to the promises of the campaign trail. Historically, they say, candidates for governor have held the hand of their running mates and proclaimed a partnership in government that all but dissolves when they reach office.

But Mehiel insists that McCall is sincere when he describes them as a team.

“The governor and I will have a common point of view of where we want to go, a coherent view of how to get there and an understanding that he’s the leader and that my job is to do those things that he believes I can do best,” Mehiel said.

To be an effective lieutenant governor means standing on the sidelines, Mehiel said. He believes lieutenants with political ambitions of their own inevitably make poor teammates, because they try to establish a name for themselves instead of supporting the governor. But he has other goals in mind.

“Because I’m not seeking the office as a stepping stone to the next office — that is to say, I’m not looking to run for anything else in the future — I don’t have that pressure,” he said. “If you work for three years to get a factory to open in Queens, and the governor swoops in and cuts the ribbon, makes the speech and takes a bow and you hold his coat, but you know you helped get a job done, I’m completely comfortable with that.”

At a time when the state is facing an enormous budget crisis, Mehiel’s post would likely be one of the most challenging in McCall’s administration.

To help push the state out of its economic slump, he plans to perform an inventory of employers in the state and evaluate what his administration can do to promote their productivity, whether that be removing regulatory barriers or providing incentives to them. He also wants to form centers of excellence that would encourage industries to stay innovative and competitive.

“We’re going to have to grow out of the problem,” he said. “We’re going to have to begin to grow the economy again.”

At the same time, McCall and Mehiel would bring a knife to the government itself, excising fat in an effort to produce as efficient an operation as possible.

“What Carl has demonstrated as controller is whenever he sends his people in to help other branches of government manage their affairs more effectively . . . he’s been able to save an awful lot of money,” Mehiel said. “What we want to now do is bring those initiatives across the board to the state administration and to many other governments that rely on the state in various ways.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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