Paterson’s Bucket List

If it hasn't already arrived, the moment is fast approaching when David Paterson, who now trails Andrew Cuomo by 50 points in a 2010 Democratic primary match-up, realizes that his dream of winning election to a full gubernatorial term is a lost cause.

And, given the disastrous turn his stint as acting governor has taken, this recognition will almost certainly be coupled with a second epiphany—that there will be no other opportunities in the future to seek major office. With his exit from the governorship, Paterson's political career will be over.

As disappointing as it surely will be for Paterson to reach this conclusion, there will be a potential silver lining for him: With nothing left to lose politically but plenty of time left to govern, he could wind up an unusually liberated and active lame duck. Paterson figures to enjoy an extended period of relatively care-free governing, an opportunity that Eliot Spitzer, his immediate predecessor—who banished himself from office days after his sex scandal broke last year—didn't get to enjoy

Whether Paterson will grasp and seize the possibilities afforded by such freedom remains to be seen. But we don't need to look far to find an example of another doomed governor who managed to leave a mark on his way out the door.

That would be James E. McGreevey, the onetime governor of New Jersey who remains best known for telling the world, with his wife by his side, "I am a gay American." McGreevey, a boundlessly ambitious politician who believed the State House in Trenton would catapult him to the White House, made that admission in August 2004, two and a half years into his first term.

He was under duress—the man he'd appointed to a top homeland security post despite his complete lack of qualifications for the job had been threatening to go public with word of their affair, along with accusations of sexual harassment—and already facing an ominous federal criminal investigation into his fund-raising activities. (Just a few months before his "gay American" speech, McGreevey's voice had turned up on a federal wire, uttering a code word—"Machiavelli," ironically enough—that seemed to signal his participation in a bid to shake down a farmer seeking assistance from the state for a hefty campaign contribution.)

Dealing with all of this would be traumatic for any politician, or any human being, for that matter. But it was particularly wrenching for McGreevey because he had devoted virtually every minute of every day since his youth to a grueling, often cutthroat climb up the political ladder. He had no life outside of politics, no apparent interests, hobbies, aspirations or dreams that had to do with anything other than the pursuit of fame and glory on the national political stage. He'd come remarkably close to his goal—weeks after he'd won the governorship in 2001, McGreevey was off to Iowa to pay an introductory call on labor leaders in the lead-off caucus state—but on that hot August day, it had all come to a crashing halt, instantly and permanently.

Because he didn't have the faintest idea what to do with his life, or how to pay for whatever he decided to do, McGreevey resisted calls to resign on the spot. Instead, he set a departure date of Nov. 15, making him a lame duck governor for just over three months. In the end, this period was marked mostly by its awkwardness—McGreevey made a handful of public appearances, always with the press kept at a distance—but McGreevey also managed to make one significant substantive contribution that, absent the curious circumstances, he (or any governor) would never have made.

The subject was campaign finance reform, an issue for which McGreevey was the world's most unlikely champion. Oh sure, as a politician, he'd always paid lip service to the idea; one of his campaign refrains in 2001 was a promise "to change the way Trenton does business."

But this was mere window-dressing, something to make the good-government suburbanites weak in the knees. Even by New Jersey's depressing standards, McGreevey's addiction to political money, almost all of it raised by implied threats and promises, was astounding.

When he finally reached the governor's office in January 2002, McGreevey had sold off every bit of his independence to the state's various party bosses, fund-raising bundlers and labor leaders. His governorship, it was said, was a throwback—the first time in decades that New Jersey's old Democratic machines had installed their own governor.

Not surprisingly, his pre-August '04 tenure was defined by efforts to appease these power brokers. With his popularity sagging, McGreevey was facing a possible primary challenge in 2005 from Senator Jon Corzine. By the spring and summer of '04, McGreevey needed the bosses and party chiefs more than ever. Without them, he'd be doomed.

This explains why, in June '04, McGreevey championed a laughably loophole-riddled "ethics reform bill" drafted by his party's Assembly leadership—an effort to claim credit for reform without actually enacting any. When he signed the worthless reforms, McGreevey branded them "the strongest ethics standards in the country," which might have been true had the country in question been Mexico.

But after August '04, with his lifelong dream destroyed forever, McGreevey realized that he no longer had to do the bosses' bidding. The fact that they'd so quickly disowned him as soon as he'd announced his resignation probably encouraged this thinking. In September, he decided to revisit the campaign finance issue, even though only two months before he'd pronounced the Assembly's lame effort a complete success.

As a lame duck, McGreevey had no clout with the legislature, but he retained broad powers of executive order, and he decided to use them. In the middle of September, he called a press conference to announce that, with the stroke of his pen, he'd banned all vendors doing business with the state from making contributions of state and county political parties and to gubernatorial candidates—a very meaningful change to New Jersey's status quo. The bosses seethed.

In making the announcement, McGreevey noted that his newfound freedom had liberated him "to confront challenges I have avoided in the past."

"I do not hold on to some hopeful notion that I will be known for much more than as the governor who resigned," he said, "and I am at peace with that. I ask: If not now, when, and does timing really take away from the merits of the action itself?"

David Rebovich, an incisive political scientist from Rider University who passed away in 2007, summed up McGreevey's move perfectly: "What McGreevey is doing is taking his own political crisis and trying to put it to good use. The man who became governor because he understood the game and promised to return old favors found himself swallowed up by the system and wants to correct it. And so it's payback time."

Of course, it wasn't all a happy ending. As sweeping as it was—national watchdog groups declared that McGreevey's reforms brought the state to the forefront of national reform efforts—the executive order contained numerous loopholes, many of which persist to this day. The new rules had an impact, but, four years later, it's clear they didn't fundamentally change New Jersey's political culture. Still, McGreevey's action represented the boldest campaign finance reforms enacted by any Garden State governor in the modern era. And it never would have happened if McGreevey had believed he had a political future.

We'll soon see if Paterson has any similar instincts.