Didn’t David Paterson Know Who He Was Dealing With?

ALBANY—Fred Dicker, the combative state editor of the New York Post, caught David Paterson off guard.

“Governor, have you ever been accused of being a child of the Enlightenment?” Dicker said toward the end of a 20-minute radio interview with Paterson on the morning of Nov. 18. “Because children of the Enlightenment believe that rational persuasion can actually make a difference. That somehow, if you explain a case to somebody and you really have right on your side, they act accordingly. Because you are dealing with the State Legislature, you know.”

Paterson paused, then finally responded, “This is more like children of the damned.”

About two hours later, he would find out how right he was. With the media looking on at a meeting with legislative leaders in the Red Room of the Capitol, the governor held his hands in the air as two Republicans—the Assembly minority leader, Jim Tedisco, and the Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos—staged an exercise in mockery, going back and forth with suggestions of spending cuts they knew would not be implemented anytime soon.

It was supposed to be a grand denouement for Paterson, who has enthusiastically been playing the role of Chicken Little in New York’s storybook fiscal crisis for months. Legislators were supposed to enact some compromise package—based on the governor’s leadership—that would bridge the state’s fiscal gap for this year of $1.5 billion, and lock in some savings for next year’s budget. There would be pain, but Paterson would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his legislative counterparts, all of them having dutifully absorbed a political hit for the good of the state.

Instead, he was handed his first major defeat. (Whether it could actually be called a victory for anyone is another story.) And the special session of the Legislature he had so dramatically announced had amounted to nothing.

There were no floor votes— Paterson never even introduced a bill to vote on. He was backed into a corner when Skelos vowed to take him up on his charge and bring his draft bill to a floor vote, a vote he knew would fail, and one that would force quite an awkward situation for Democratic lawmakers caught between party loyalty and screaming interest groups. So Paterson blasted Skelos for “playing politics” and called for a public session.

It went downhill from there.

Reporters tried, with varying success, to stifle their snickering. Tedisco—whose enthusiastic presentation belies his minimal sway—pounded the table and held up a blank sheet of paper for dramatic effect. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sat with characteristic staidness. Skelos, Paterson, and the leader of the Democratic Senate minority, Malcolm Smith, joked about the size of Smith’s almost-majority conference. Smith yelled at Mr. Tedisco to “grow up!” Paterson finally cooled things down when he told the cameras, “This is the closest that I’ve ever seen in public to an actual leaders meeting.”

“It is a horrible situation that our state has been put in,” Paterson said. “This will not yield the result that we want today.”

But Skelos was all smiles. “Moving forward, the governor now has agreed with my position, and the position of our conference that, give us your budget, and then we can start the hearing process, we can start reviewing your budget jointly as a legislature, and get a conclusion.”

Senator Tom Duane, a Manhattan Democrat who served under Paterson during the governor’s days as Senate minority leader, said afterward that he thought the outcome was a draw, with only the fiscal health of the state coming out with a loss. “It’s hard for anyone to look good with things so bad,” he said. “I could sort of understand where everybody was coming from, even the Republicans, but I think that public service required that additional effort to step up, and that didn’t happen.”

But that was the point. Paterson was betting on being able to coax—or force—cooperation that never actually materialized. His case was made soundly on fiscal grounds—cut now or we’ll run up a greater debt that could hurt our bond rating; we might run out of money and need to borrow; if action is taken now, we’ll accrue greater savings over a longer period—but it was always doomed to fall into the Albany trap.

“There’s no incentive for the Republicans to participate,” said Gerald Benjamin, a dean at SUNY New Paltz. “They’re almost certainly not going to be in the majority in January, so what incentive do they have to collaborate.”

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat, agreed. “I think that he looks to a changing political landscape in January. And the question of whether or not, under these circumstances, the Senate was going to be helpful or hinder him in his effort has been shown,” he said. Republicans, in turn, argue that the Democrats, who control the Assembly and, barring defections, will soon control the Senate, were the ones who had let their leader down.

“I would say that the fact that he had to regroup shows that he’s vulnerable and maybe he won’t be listening to some of his comrades as much as he had in the past,” said State Senator Tom Libous, the deputy majority leader, of Paterson. “I think in many cases he was looking out for Smith and maybe Shelly, and I think the governor needs to look out for the governor.”

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, was saddened by the defeat. But he saw a silver lining in the remarkable spectacle of Paterson being sabotaged by the Legislature in plain view of the public.

“At least we saw the can getting kicked instead of just hearing it,” Horner said. Didn’t David Paterson Know Who He Was Dealing With?