For Paterson, a Chorus of Qualified Support in the Senate

ALBANY—State Senator Craig Johnson was milling around his chamber Thursday when I approached him to ask about David Paterson.

His eyes widened. His head shook. He refused to go on record. I asked why.

"I'm here today to address certain Senate needs, and we are going to have a lengthy debate," Johnson, a Long Island Democrat, said. "My focus right now is on what the Senate accomplishes."

After that embarrassing coup, Paterson threw bombs at legislators, calling them lazy and delinquent in a calculated move to bolster his own political standing. Now, the Democratic senators seem to feel themselves at liberty to express less than full support–or, at least, to defer the decision–for their party's highest ranking official as he heads in 2010 facing a likely challenge from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The default public position among the senators at the moment is that they support the governor in tackling the current problems confronting the state–a $2.1 billion mid-year budget imbalance–but aren't ready to talk about next year.

"We're nowhere near there. We'll see what the situation is when we get to 2010," said Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan. "I support him, I hope he does well, for all of our sake that he succeeds and gets the coalition together to fix the state budget. There's no hesitation. I think a lot of us are just focused on how you make it through the next couple of months and close the budget gap. You know, we're in the middle of the '09 elections, we have a primary on Tuesday, I know you guys like to have the permanent horse race, but the reality of state government is that can be crippling to efforts to govern."

"He's got a lot of work to do, and I'm trying to focus on doing that work with him," said Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat. "I think I was saying to you is that we are working together to focus on what really has to be done, and the governor, you know, has my support."

Several weeks ago, the Times ran a story in which several freshman Democrats in Congress expressed concern that Paterson would hurt their electoral chances if he were atop the party ticket. Representative Eric Massa, a freshman representing the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions, wasn't quoted in that story but told me last week it would be "presumptuous" and "arrogant" to endorse Paterson's election. He had no problem endorsing Kirsten Gillibrand's election, explaining that "she asked me."

Senator Eric Adams, a Brooklyn Democrat who during the coup was more critical of Paterson than Breslin, Schneiderman, Stewart-Cousins or Johnson was, said that despite Paterson's public insistence to the contrary, he was not even sure Paterson would run.

"What I could say is I don't support anyone else," Adams told me. "Right now, the way I'm viewing it is that he's the governor, I'm 100 percent behind him right now because I believe that we need to be united as a state right now, so I'm 100 percent behind him, and once he makes a determination about what he's going to do next year then I can make that determination on what I'm going to do."

Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Paterson's 2010 campaign, reiterated that the governor was running.

"Governor Paterson is familiar with legislators who seem resentful of his difficult decisions," Sefl said. "But what matters more to the Governor is that he make his decisions in the best interest of all New Yorkers.  That's his priority.  In the meantime, he remains grateful for the support of those who understand this, and he's confident those numbers will continue to grow."