Approaching the End of Session, Paterson Aims Everywhere

ALBANY—Lawmakers are scheduled to meet in Albany for 13 more days before the close of this year's legislative session, and David Paterson is hoping to do it all.

"I would say that the one that we're here to discuss today would be a priority," Paterson said Tuesday, announcing a restructuring of ethics oversight, when asked for his end-of-session list. "The spending cap would be a priority. The property tax cap would be a priority. Mandate relief would be a priority. Marriage equality would be a priority, that that would be passed. I would like to, perhaps, find paid family leave. IDA reform. That's all I can think of right now. A lot of priorities."

Even for seasoned observers, it's hard to keep track. In an attempt to convey a sense of urgency and purpose, Paterson has been starting each week by unveiling another initiative—usually the word "reform" makes its way onto the press advisory—since the passage of the budget. First there was mandate relief (4/27), then a spending cap (5/4). Then came a proposal to post calories at chain restaurants (5/18), and finally the ethics restructuring. Which was followed a day later with a threat to legislators for not focusing on the spending cap. To say nothing of school governance, which has rapidly become the issue sucking all the air out of the room.

Joe Mercurio, a Democratic consultant, chuckled at the litany.

"We seem to be distracting everybody with press releases about new initiatives every few days, and not a lot of actual stuff is happening," he said. "They should be focusing on the economy, and they're just changing the subject constantly to try and get him out of his polling slump. And it's not working: voters have pretty much stopped listening."

A poll released last week shows that Paterson's numbers haven't improved since  a survey April 20: His job approval rating is 18 percent, and his favorability rating is 27 percent.

"Bouncing all over the map is not going to help him," said Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena. Paterson's strategy, Greenberg said, makes it "hard for the voters to focus."

Bob Ward, a longtime Albany observer who is now deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, said there are two competing philosophies for executive leadership: one modeled after Ronald Reagan and one after Bill Clinton.

"There's the Reagan school, that says you focus on a very small number of priorities and have a better chance of accomplishing something, and then there's the Bill Clinton school of thought, which says that a lot of things are important and you need to try and work on all of them," he said.

Paterson is taking the latter approach. Ward noted that Clinton, like the governor, did so when he was not in a position of popular strength.

"Clinton and Pataki did those sorts of things in part to improve their political standing, so it kind of works both ways," Ward said.

When I called Paterson’s office to ask whether Paterson was stretching himself somewhat thin, a spokesman responded by pointing out that there were lots of agreements in the waning days of last year's session, including an overhaul to the brownfield cleanup laws and a foreclosure prevention bill.

Still, the analogy between that version of Albany and this one, in which individual legislators can (and frequently do) thwart the governor's agenda, isn't quite perfect.

"I think there may be more focus on the governor because of the absence of the traditional tensions between the Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate, but I think that the frequency at which new things are being announced is a bit counterproductive," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, a Democrat. "And the Senate is a wild card because of the realities of mathematics. Any majority member has a de facto veto."

Approaching the End of Session, Paterson Aims Everywhere