Paterson Also Rises: Former Governor Claims a Victory, at Last

paterson and cuomo Paterson Also Rises: Former Governor Claims a Victory, at LastBuried in the New York Post‘s exultant coverage of Andrew Cuomo’s on-time budget agreement with the Legislature in Albany was a remarkable, easily missable tribute to a governor whom the Post, in general, likes somewhat less.

Despite a “dismal” record in office, David Paterson (along with another predecessor, George Pataki) “helped blaze the path that Cuomo followed,” wrote the Post’s state editor, Fred Dicker, who had previously accused Mr. Paterson of lying about everything from smearing Caroline Kennedy to accepting free World Series tickets.

The ironic circumstances of this minor correction to the legacy of the former governor–who left office with a 32 percent approval rating–by one of his fiercest critics is not lost on Mr. Paterson himself.

“Oh my Lord, there is a God,” Mr. Paterson laughed upon being told of Mr. Dicker’s grudging praise on Tuesday afternoon.

Last year, long after Mr. Paterson had ceased to be a credible candidate for governor–but while he still had seven months left in the term he was serving as Eliot Spitzer’s replacement–he and his budget director stumbled upon a strategy for forcing its budget cuts upon the recalcitrant Legislature: If legislators wanted the money to keep state government afloat while they debated their own budget well past the April 1 deadline–through the so-called “extender bills”–they would have to approve Mr. Paterson’s reductions.

For four heady weeks, Mr. Paterson was on the offensive against a Legislature that had taken to ignoring him, and was able to ram through a package of corrective cuts, followed by a big omnibus extender that finally prompted the Legislature to write its own budget, much of which he selectively vetoed.

It was an amazing thing to be a part of, apparently.

“It was a game-changer,” Mr. Paterson said. “It really shocked everybody.”

And it had come about because of a miscommunication, after his budget director, Robert Megna, suggested that his stopgap measures were already stripped down.

“So one time I said in a radio interview–about a month and a half late–that people shouldn’t worry because it’s a bare-bones budget and we’re getting cuts now,” Mr. Paterson explained. “In other words, we’re already reducing spending even though we haven’t passed a budget yet.

“So Megna calls me up and says, ‘You can’t say that because that’s not exactly what we’re doing.’ He said, ‘We’re just not adding anything.’

“So I said, ‘In other words, we’re continuing the same spending level?’

“He said, ‘Yeah.'”

This bothered Mr. Paterson, who would now have to squeeze a year’s worth of cuts into almost 10 months.

“I said, ‘Well, why can’t we put the cuts in?'” he recalled.

Mr. Megna, according to Mr. Paterson, cautioned that the tactic had never been tried before.

“In my interpretation of Albany, when someone says that, it means it’s time to do it,” Mr. Paterson said.

The administration vetted the idea through their legal counsel, which researched the history of extenders in the context of the broad authority granted the governor under the Silver v. Pataki decision in 2004.

It looked legal enough.

So, emboldened by a prior win in his fight to appoint a lieutenant governor, and having already decided not to run for reelection, Mr. Paterson began including them.

 

On Sunday, in the Red Room of the Capitol, Mr. Cuomo announced his deal to close a $10 billion budget deficit, an agreement he was able to compel the Legislature to accept in no small part because of the threat of using the Paterson-conceived budget-extender trick to threaten a government shutdown for which the lawmakers would almost certainly be blamed.

“It’s almost like [Paterson] snuck in this strengthening of the governorship, right at the end,” said Doug Forand, a longtime adviser in Albany, who is now working on behalf of rent regulations. “And this is his legacy item. This is the thing above all else, coming off his tenure as governor, that is going to change how Albany does business, and I’m not sure it was intended to be that.”

This year, in the hands of a powerful executive with staggering poll numbers, the game of chicken devised by Mr. Paterson wasn’t much of a game.

In private conference meetings, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver urged his members to take the meager restorations Mr. Cuomo was offering rather than test the mettle of the popular governor.

Some legislators objected to the strident focus on such a hard-and-fast deadline.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that timeliness is not the most important thing about a budget,” said Dick Gottfried, one of the longest-serving members of the Assembly. “I think the substance of the budget is at least as important.”

Although Mr. Gottfried said he planned to vote for the budget, he worried about the shifting power dynamic.

“I think 200-plus years ago, the Founders had a pretty good idea about balancing power in the government,” he said. “I think the Silver v. Pataki court decision and its aftermath has really undermined the checks-and-balances concept.”

Mr. Paterson said he agreed with that kind of criticism, at least in theory.

“I actually think, believe it or not, as the architect of this, that they’re right,” said Mr. Paterson, who cited the chronically late budgets as a “catalyst” for the public’s negative opinion of Albany. “This isn’t the best government; I actually think it’s a blunt instrument. … But these critiques are coming out of the mouths of people who were willing to let the budget go until August of last year. And now they’re going to give us a lecture on government?”

“It’s kind of nuclear deterrence,” said Carol Kellerman, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, who said Mr. Paterson would be an “unsung hero” if Mr. Cuomo’s budget deal does get certified on time.

Whether history will sing Mr. Paterson’s praises is another matter.

“Someone is floating that it’s all Cuomo’s idea,” noted Ms. Kellerman, “which shows how great it is, that now everyone is trying to take credit.”

Ms. Kellerman was referring to Monday’s New York magazine cover story, which reported that the current governor had been working through Mr. Paterson even before taking office, and had “quietly encouraged” the outgoing governor to set a precedent he could use to balance future budgets.

That was news to Mr. Paterson.

“Nobody knew that we were going to do this,” he told The Observer. “Nobody suggested this to us. This is just something we did.”

For his part, the former governor says he found Mr. Cuomo’s new-and-improved use of his extender tricks to have been masterful.

“He’s gone through the entire budget process, which usually cuts everyone down to size and he’s still prevailing,” Mr. Paterson said.

The two have spoken a handful of times since Mr. Cuomo took office, and Mr. Paterson insisted there are no hard feelings, even though the two were briefly rivals.

Now that the “rumors and innuendo” have faded, Mr. Paterson sensed that people might be able to begin considering his own record as a government official, “rather than as a cartoon character in the newspapers.”

“When there’s a great deal of scrutiny on a lot of things, as there was with me, it blurs some of the areas that you would like people to focus on,” he said. “And you know, perhaps with risking a second glance, there were a number of things that we were able to accomplish that will stand for a long period of time.”

Mr. Paterson said he began to feel a growing goodwill even before he left office. In the fall, he was at the Crossgates Mall in Albany with some longtime friends who were surprised at the number of people who wanted photographs and autographs, despite all the governor’s bad press.

“This one kid comes up and he’s looking at me and he shakes
my hand, and I don’t see anybody with a camera,” Mr. Paterson said. “And he says, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m fine how are you?’

“And he says, ‘You’re Mr. Cuomo, right?'”

rpillifant@observer.com