And on the crucial area of the death penalty, Mr. Paterson’s stance is even more complex. He has been described in the press recently as disagreeing with Mr. Spitzer, who supports the death penalty. “I think that the human life and why it exists is something we don’t understand, so to cut it off—I just get the feeling it’s out of our realm as other human beings,” he said. He’s also said that he sheds no tears for executed cop killers, for example. (Although, it should be noted, nobody has been executed in New York in years, even though the State Legislature and Governor George Pataki brought back the death-penalty statute in the mid-1990’s.)
In a 2002 interview on WROW-AM radio, however, he seemed to say that his opposition to the death penalty was linked to how it is enforced, not to spiritual principle. As a member of a jury, he implied, he would vote for the death penalty.
“So what is it that you’re opposed to?” the host, Fred Dicker, asked.
“Oh, I’m opposed to the distribution of the death penalty,” Mr. Paterson said. “I don’t think a person should or should not get the death penalty based on their ability to afford counsel …. I think if you’re going to have something as serious in terms of its moral and legal ramifications as the death penalty, it has to be administered scrupulously, and I don’t think we do in this country.”
Mr. Paterson may not, in fact, have stood on two sides of the issue. But he certainly stood close to each side. It’s a pattern that is, among his friends on the local political scene, almost a joke: In races from Surrogate Court to President of the United States, different candidates have felt—from his warmth, his encouragement—that they had his endorsement, and then felt betrayed when he turned up beside a rival.
A longtime chief of staff to Mr. Paterson, Woody Pascal, who now works for another legislator, recalled his boss’s difficulty in saying no.
“He is a kind, gentle person and does not want to see anyone hurt,” Mr. Pascal said of Mr. Paterson. “One of my favorite duties was—somebody has to be the bad guy. Sometimes you have to tell people no. That’s what I used to do.”
It’s a pattern that’s held, even in the current campaign for Lieutenant Governor. Leecia Eve, a Buffalo-born lawyer and former counsel to Senator Hillary Clinton, was running for Lieutenant Governor with the blessing of Basil Paterson and the junior Mr. Paterson’s wife, Michelle. Ms. Eve’s supporters thought they had Mr. Paterson’s support, and the Harlem leadership was furious when he decided to come in on his own.
The decision was not, of course, Mr. Paterson’s. It was Mr. Spitzer’s. And that decision came after two months of semi-serious offers from the Attorney General, Mr. Paterson said. The two men had met on a television talk show in late 1995 or early 1996, said the Senator (whose memory for dates and figures is legendary), before Mr. Spitzer was elected State Attorney General. They debated the merits of the police use of high-school yearbook photographs.
“Boy, did we have it out, and yet I thought, ‘Boy, this is the most prepared person I think I’ve ever debated,’” Mr. Paterson said. “He really moved me.”
They became friends, and began talking about the Lieutenant Governor position last fall. Finally, in January, Mr. Spitzer pushed harder. “He said, ‘I want to be able to look people in the eye and say, “God forbid, should anything happen to me or if I were to leave, [the Lieutenant Governor] could run the state,”’” Mr. Patterson recalled.