David Paterson Needs a Friend, Fast

ALBANY-A week before the process to appoint New York’s junior U.S. senator reached its messy end, Governor David Paterson stood onstage at an event with Hillary Clinton and compared his experience in the state’s highest office to a dirty movie.

“I’ve been governor for nine and a half months,” Mr. Paterson jokingly told the crowd at the Town Hall Theater on Jan. 15. “And it feels like it’s been 9 1/2 Weeks.”

In the subsequent weeks, many Democrats have taken to another characterization.

“The words ‘shit show’ are being thrown around a lot,” said one Democratic operative.

Mr. Paterson’s admitted mismanagement of the Senate appointment and his bleak but sometimes inconsistent rhetoric about the budget have alienated the governor from his allies and angered the state’s most powerful players.

Legislators in Albany see him as weak and erratic. Members of Congress feel spurned by the way he led them on in the Senate-seat sweepstakes. The Kennedy family thinks his handling of the situation helped snuff out the future of their brightest light. The hospital workers union is running a television advertising campaign-featuring a blind man-to attack his character and discredit his budget. Saturday Night Live is turning him into a caricature of ineptitude. The New York Post has taken to calling him, without condition, a liar. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing him on education.

Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver is defying him on tax policy. And all the while, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo-well, he’s just waiting.

“There’s nobody on his side,” said Joe Mercurio, a political consultant.

“He didn’t win any friends by not consulting with or uniting the political leadership of New York behind his choice,” said Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat, referring to the selection of Kirsten Gillibrand as U.S. Senator.

“Politically, the governor seems to have gone out of his way a number of times to stick his finger in the eye of the people in the Legislature who want to support him and who want him to succeed.”

Mr. Paterson is clearly aware that the grace period that accompanied his sudden, post-Spitzer elevation to the state’s highest office is over.

Speaking to reporters after a press conference at the Council on Foreign Relations on Feb. 2, Mr. Paterson responded to a question about the 1199 S.E.I.U. ads running on television and depicting him as a heartless enemy of the sick.

“I have absolutely no problem with their ads,” said Mr. Paterson, speaking in measured tones, with his hands placed on a wooden podium. “I think they are articulating correctly the feelings of people around this state. But the question is, ‘Where are the leaders right now?’ If anybody thinks that this is an opportune time to take advantage of me, it is not, because this issue is not about me. This issue is about the welfare of the people that live in this state. And I’m the last person standing warning us that we will be in economic crisis, if not bankruptcy, if we don’t act now. I’m going to keep saying it. Whatever happens to me is immaterial next to what will happen to 19 million people in this state.” 

But already, there is much talk across the state about what will come of Mr. Paterson.

As of Feb. 3, Democratic operatives and elected officials were trafficking in rumors that Mr. Paterson might be contemplating not running in 2010.

“There is a tremendous physical and psychological toll being imposed on him, and next year there will be a heated campaign that without question will be contested in the general and maybe in the primary,” said one Democratic elected official. “And maybe it’s something that he doesn’t want to pursue. Or at least they have begun the conversation of how difficult it is going to be next year, that if it’s difficult this year, it’s going to be more difficult by multiples next year.”

Whether true or a creation of Mr. Paterson’s enemies, who suddenly seem to be legion, the rumor is potentially problematic because it is credible.

“The problem is less his standing today,” the elected official added. “There is plenty of time for him to recover, but the problem he faces is that nobody has any confidence that he has the skills to recover.”

“The governor has made it clear repeatedly that he intends to run in 2010,” said Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for Mr. Paterson. He added, “New Yorkers are looking to this governor to address the most severe fiscal crisis that the state has ever faced, and throughout his term in office, he has been sounding the same note about the need for the state to get its fiscal house in order. He’s led on that repeatedly.”

“People in Albany tend to overreact to both positive spin and to negative spin,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who advised Mr. Paterson during the governor’s Senate days in his successful coup against Marty Connor, the former minority leader. “I saw people going from being the most merciless suck-ups imaginable to Eliot Spitzer to being the most sanctimonious denouncers of Eliot Spitzer. You know, we all of us go through this process. David, Eliot, all of us have strengths and weaknesses.”

Mr. Paterson can still charm a crowd, particularly one composed of people outside the Albany bubble.

He displayed his strengths, an impressive command of facts and figures and a self-effacing sense of humor, during a talk about fiscal policy to the Council on Foreign Relations on the afternoon of Feb. 2.

“I was extremely impressed by his mastery of some very difficult issues,” said Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, who was in the audience.

But people who have more exposure to Mr. Paterson tend to focus more on his sometimes maddening tendency to fail to return phone calls, back out on promises and, lately-as when he said he didn’t know who in his office was trashing Ms. Kennedy to reporters-contradict the word of even his closest staffers.

“Being governor means that people kiss your ass, and there are a lot of things people aren’t willing to say about you,” said one Democratic operative. “But as you get weaker, people’s willingness to say how David Paterson lied to them or was otherwise baffling, I’m sure that spreads. That is the moment that we’re in.”

And there doesn’t appear to be any sign that the pressure on the governor will relent, or that anyone will step up to help him out-least of all the people who benefit from his floundering.     

The greatest potential beneficiary of Mr. Paterson’s vulnerability is Mr. Cuomo, who is widely regarded as the default front-runner for governor should the current holder of that position flame out before next year’s election.

Mr. Cuomo ran for governor once before-against former comptroller Carl McCall, the first African-American gubernatorial nominee-to disastrous effect. This time, he is being much more careful and much less obviously ambitious about whatever designs he may have on replacing the first black governor.

“Cuomo’s play is to watch, and to prepare for reelection,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for Mr. Cuomo’s Democratic opponents in 2002 and in the 2006 attorney general’s race and reveled in calling him “Andy.”

“If it appears in any way that he’s putting a stumbling block before the governor, he’s going to be in trouble,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “But every stumble Paterson makes on his own makes Cuomo more viable for governor. He just has to let Paterson stumble on his own.”

Mr. Paterson has few safe ports.   

Mr. Bloomberg, who has both the standing and means to provide political cover for the governor, now seems distinctly disinclined to do so.

The mayor, who said especially kind things about Caroline Kennedy during the Senate-appointment process, called the leaks accusing her of dropping out due to concerns about her taxes, her housekeeper and her marriage “as good as an example of cheap, dirty politics as you could ever find. And I thought it was reprehensible. I have no idea where it came from.”

Most reporters who received the calls had a pretty good idea, and when they subsequently asked Mr. Paterson about it, he denied the leak came from his office while simultaneously admitting that “there have been leaks coming from my administration during this entire process of choosing a senator.”

Meanwhile, the mayor has blamed Mr. Paterson’s proposed budget cuts for potential layoffs in the city and called the governor’s reductions in education spending “wrong” and “very devastating to the future of our city, our state and our country.”

(Bloomberg spokesman Matthew M. Gorton said in a statement: “The Mayor is sympathetic to the situation the Governor is in and he applauds the Governor for making tough choices and aggressively confronting the State’s budget problems. But our job is to explain the impact of the Governor’s budget on New York City, and from our perspective, this budget, from education to revenue sharing, is not fair. We can separate the policy from the personalities.”)

On television, viewers around the state are watching ads in which an apparently blind man faces the camera and asks the legally blind governor, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s with real heavy heart that we end up in this place,” said Kevin Finnegan, political director for 1199 S.E.I.U., which is funding the ads. “We’re quite shocked, really, at the way he’s approached the budget deficit and hope he will come around.”

Mr. Paterson’s allies sound pretty heavy-hearted, too.
“I do support the governor,” said State Senator Bill Perkins.  “That’s one thing. But now you’re talking about the budget process, that’s another thing.”

And Mr. Silver is showing no intention of backing down in a budget fight with Mr. Paterson over whether to include a personal income tax for the state’s wealthiest residents.

Mr. Paterson has wavered on the issue. First he called it an “addictive” last resort to be avoided, then he suggested it couldn’t be avoided, and then, on Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations event, returned to his initial hard line.
“I don’t think that taxing the rich is the best way to go right now,” he said.

The following morning, on Feb. 3, Mr. Silver made an apparent show of strength and argued that the hike, which he has consistently supported, should be permanent.
Mr. Paterson, for his part, is at least outwardly confident about his ability to persevere.

“You have to keep working, you have to keep trying,” Mr. Paterson told reporters after an event in Hyde Park last week. “You have to keep doing what’s best, and if you conduct yourself ethically, I think over a period of time people see that there are periods when large amounts of publicity change the polls back one way or the other. But it’s who is able to perform over a long period of time, which is what I’ll try to do.”

David Paterson Needs a Friend, Fast