Newly Rehabilitated O’Byrne Tells Paterson to Clean House

patersonobyrnenee Newly Rehabilitated OByrne Tells Paterson to Clean HouseCharles O'Byrne had some pointed advice for his former boss David Paterson during their Feb. 21 meeting.

Off with their heads.

According to a well-placed source, Mr. O'Byrne, the former chief of staff and powerful consigliere who left the governor's office under the cloud of a tax scandal, told Mr. Paterson to act quickly and decisively after the disastrous Senate selection process, get rid of some advisers and institute a wholesale change in staff. 

Despite some initial departures in the past few days—a communications director, a fund-raiser and, on the evening of Feb. 24, the consulting firm Global Strategy Group—the wholesale housecleaning hasn't happened yet. Nor, despite very public appeals by the governor, has another staff change: the return of Mr. O'Byrne.

Apparently, the Feb. 19 New York Post editorial calling for his return-and Mr. Paterson's subsequent advocacy for what he told reporters was a "fascinating" idea-took Mr. O'Byrne completely by surprise.

Only after the editorial appeared, according to the source, did Mr. Paterson and Mr. O'Byrne—who was in Israel at the time—even agree to talk about the possibility. And when the two finally did sit down and talk on the evening of Feb. 20 in New York, Mr. O'Byrne informed the governor that he had no intention of leaving his post-public life, settling instead on a for-public-consumption compromise in which he agreed to volunteer on the Paterson reelection campaign.

"Charles is very much enjoying his new career and has offered to work as a volunteer in a leadership position with my 2010 campaign," Mr. Paterson said in a statement released Feb. 21.

In all of this, Mr. O'Byrne, who was chased out of the administration by a mocking press corps after the New York Post reported that he missed paying income taxes for five years—he cited clinical depression as a reason for his missed payments—now emerges as the Paterson administration's only possible savior. It's a most improbable—and almost impossibly rapid—public rehabilitation. And it has as much to do with the Paterson administration's current state than anything else.

"The narrative's changed because the narrative of the Paterson administration has rapidly deteriorated," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.

Mr. O'Byrne is currently working as a political consultant for the Gill Foundation, a Colorado-based gay rights group, and, according to a source, is also working with at least one City Council candidate and is in conversations with some multi-national firms, including one specializing in crisis management. And he hasn't completely withdrawn from Paterson-world: His name came up during the governor's disastrous process of appointing a replacement for Hillary Clinton in the Senate, when Mr. O'Byrne lobbied vigorously for his friend Caroline Kennedy and emailed associates, right up to the end, that the Kennedy nomination was on track.

 

Mr. O'Byrne's career in government started unassumingly enough in 2004, when he became a mid-level communications staffer in Mr. Paterson's Senate minority leader office. His political experience was thinner than many others in the office, but he was older, and his life résumé was rich.

By the time he joined Mr. Paterson, he had already worked as a corporate litigator, taught at a Catholic High School in the Bronx, become a Jesuit priest, led the funeral mass for John F. Kennedy Jr. (he became a confidante of the Kennedy family after forming a close friendship with Stephen Smith Jr. in Columbia Law School), left the Catholic church, become an Episcopalian and worked on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

Fully formed and mature as Mr. O'Byrne was, he came with relatively few political strings attached, a rarity in Albany.

"He never really worked for anyone else," said a consultant who knows Mr. Paterson and Mr. O'Byrne. "He was his own. And he was a true believer, something that David Paterson never had."

Mr. O'Byrne quickly developed sharp elbows and rose through the ranks.

"He created a mutual dependence by boxing everyone else out," said a former legislative staffer. "Charles was more than a chief of staff. Charles was David's main source of information, and he began to rely on Charles for everything from setting up his appointments to making sure he had lunch."

Mr. O'Byrne's die-hard loyalty to Mr. Paterson made an impression on many of the jaded political professionals Mr. O'Byrne came into contact with as he rose up the ranks in the Senate office from speechwriter to communications director to deputy chief of staff, and then in the lieutenant governor's office, to chief of staff.

After Mr. Paterson was sworn in as governor on March 17, Mr. O'Byrne quickly established himself as his gatekeeper and most trusted adviser. 

During the Democratic convention in Denver, favor-seekers and reporters representing the cities major daily papers descended on Mr. Paterson when he arrived at an ice cream social he was hosting at the Sheraton hotel. Before taking any questions or entering the ballroom, Mr. Paterson twice retreated to a bathroom to confer with Mr. O'Byrne.

By that point, according to several sources, some of the most powerful people in government were referring to Mr. O'Byrne as "governor."

(The office of the actual governor declined to comment for this article.)

 

Some officials who quickly grew frustrated with what they saw as Mr. Paterson's wavering style as governor say they appreciated Mr. O'Byrne's intelligence and decisiveness.

"For me, he was a gentleman to work with," said State Senator Tom Libous, the deputy minority leader. "Always responsive to me, always there when I had any issues with the conference. I think the problem now is that it's extremely unclear as to who you communicate with if there's an issue."

One veteran Republican legislator recalled that the day after he complained in the local press about a state enforcement agency cracking down on a bar within his district, Mr. O'Byrne called his office to offer support.

"He wanted to know how he could help," the legislator said. At the time, Mr. Paterson was seeking support for his spending cuts in a special legislative session.

The politicos who got boxed out by Mr. O'Byrne, naturally, were left with a different impression.

"He made sure the trains ran on time, although I didn't have access," said Bill Lynch, the governor's former political consultant who lost favor soon after Mr. Paterson took office. 

"There was a very, very strong belief that David only got the information, he was only told about the requests, he was only told about the calls, he was only given to see what Charles chose to show him," said one former member of the governor's executive team.

The underlying reason, the source said, is one the media has, for the most part, been skittish about addressing: Mr. Paterson's visual disability.

"He can't read," said the former member of the governor's executive team. "I don't know whether a blind person who cannot read is an illiterate, but David cannot read Braille. And because of that he only knows what he is provided. If you can control access to him, you can provide him with what you want to provide him. If this is being provided by a very open and diversified team, that is one thing. If there is one person, that is another thing."

If the extraordinary publicity attending the suggested return of Mr. O'Byrne is any indication, the governor feels as reliant on his former right-hand aide as ever.

As veteran Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf put it, "People's images tend to blossom when they are needed."

-additional reporting by Jimmy Vielkind