Paterson on Governing Amid Senate Chaos, Circling ‘Sharks’

Ask David Paterson about Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and he will respond, without naming names, by talking about people who are “half-governing.” He does not mean this in a good way.

“I am the only one who is governing the people of this state. Others, who comment, half-govern,” said the governor, in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview on June 15.

“Let’s take this crisis,” he continued. “You haven’t heard anybody other than the governor suggest how to solve this problem. Because anyone who would be interested would know they can’t win making a suggestion here. So that’s the difference between governing and half-governing.”

Speaking in the Capitol’s second-floor executive chambers, in the midst of a State Senate power struggle, Mr. Paterson discussed how his attempts to get Albany back up and running could affect his fortunes in 2010, when he’s up for election to a full term.

He chided the erstwhile leaders of a coup in the Senate—Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada Jr., the pair of Democrats who sabotaged their party’s grip on the chamber by voting for Republican leadership—but also took some credit for subsequently getting Mr. Monserrate back into the Democratic fold.

He touched on the evolving loyalties of the black voters—his would-be political base—and on the possibility of White House intervention to avert an intraparty fight for the nomination for governor. 

And Mr. Paterson road-tested what sounded very much like a developing campaign message: That while he was angering a broad array of interest groups by resolutely enacting a series of painful but necessary austerity measures, his potential opponents—“sharks that have been swirling around me,” he called them—were merely doing what people do when they lack real responsibility.

“I would suggest that, be it Andrew Cuomo or Rudolph Giuliani or Peter King or whoever it is,” he said, “that even though there might be some disagreements on ideology, that when a budget is that prohibitive, ideology goes out the window. Governors have to balance the budget.

“Now, I paid a price for it,” he added, referring, perhaps, to the extraordinary 18 percent approval rating he scored in a recent Siena Research Institute poll. “And yet, what I would say is that anyone who is telling you that they have a substantially different way to do it than the way I would have is not telling you the truth.”

In one regard, at least, Mr. Paterson is looking forward to a primary.

“In any election, whichever one it is,” he said, “now those on the outside who have been picking their spots have to get in the pool.”

Mr. Paterson said that he was not referring specifically to Mr. Cuomo, and still maintained that he didn’t think the attorney general would run against him. Yet he characterized Mr. Cuomo’s office’s criticism of his spending cap—Mr. Cuomo said at the time, “We have to talk about cutting taxes, reducing cost, not just capping growth”—as “a salvo that sounds good to people who like it.”

“But if that were said in a campaign,” he added, “then all of a sudden, all of the people who don’t want to see themselves cut and who were mad at me—someone is saying that it should be more severe than what I said?

“I have taken responsibility,” Mr. Paterson continued. “But I haven’t blamed anyone for these circumstances. And I haven’t come here to be a caretaker to wait for the next governor—I’m trying to do what is right by the state. The half-campaigning and politicizing of government action by those who are antagonistic to it because they don’t want to share in the sacrifices clearly has been difficult, but what I have sustained myself in thinking is, if you make the right decisions, when the time comes, people will see it.” 

 

AT THE MOMENT, certainly, no one is watching.

A full week after the Senate coup, on June 15, the Capitol was still convulsed. Outside, more than a dozen television news vans idled with their satellite dishes in the air. Protesters walked around with bullhorns, and supporters of the now-disbanded coup leaders wandered lost around the Capitol's halls in shirts that said “Reform Coalition, Espada, Monserrate, Skelos, Is Here to Stay.” On the third floor, the New York Post crew had taped their paper’s “Let’s Get Serious” front page—the one with a picture of a clown at the Capitol—to their office door.

That morning, the governor had called for an unprecedented meeting of warring conference leaders at 3 p.m. Later, satisfied that the two sides were obeying a judge’s order to at least talk to each other, Mr. Paterson canceled the meeting. It was never clear that the leaders planned to attend.

At exactly 3 p.m., the governor walked onto the green carpet of his executive chamber and exclaimed, “You wouldn’t believe it!”

Wearing a gray pinstriped suit and red-striped tie, he ambled past some family photos, two framed pictures of him and Barack Obama and a desk that was mostly bare except for his nameplate and a jar of Twizzlers.

He sat on a side chair and complained that events had disrupted the rollout of his latest initiative: a plan to create as many as 50,000 clean-energy jobs by converting 45 percent of the state’s electricity needs to renewable energy sources by 2015.

“The media likes it, the companies like it, the universities like it,” he said, pausing. “And there was a coup in the Senate.” 

A 21-year veteran of the Senate himself—he rose to become minority leader before being plucked by Eliot Spitzer to run for lieutenant governor in 2006—Mr. Paterson stressed how important the last days of the legislative session were. He said that instead of being motivated by a sense of duty to the public, Mr. Monserrate and Mr. Espada were now animated by “almost the enjoyment of the fact that they could do it. Like victory in a spy movie or something.”

Mr. Paterson acknowledged that in the short term, they had presented him with a big fat public-relations challenge.

“The temporary situation is a political problem for me because people don’t understand government,” he said. “This is the legislative branch of government, and how many times did I read, ‘Governor Paterson is weak; he’s not doing anything.’ Well, what am I supposed to do? I can take the State Police over there and beat everybody up.”

He also said that undue interference in the legislative leadership struggle would amount to a “violation of ethics. And it’s what the whole reform movement is supposed to be about, to restore ethics around here.”

“What I think I have to do,” he added, “is not panic and start inserting myself in ways that would be questionable in terms of my constitutional role, and recognizing that even if it’s a 31-31 split, that could be a great opportunity for me. Because the Senate I’ve been working with has not put my spending-cap bill out, they have not put my property tax bill out, they seem to be engaging my ethics reform, but so have the Republicans, and I’m hearing, at least promised from the Republicans, that they are going to be a lot more open on legislation coming to the floor, which I think would force the Democrats to join with them.

“So in that sense the confusion and the chaos can crystallize in some great work when we can get them back,” he said. “And if that happens, then I’m going to get to pass a lot of my agenda, because I think most of the senators agree with me about this.”

 

WHILE MR. PATERSON has been mocked for not doing enough—the headline on a Daily Politics post on June 15, after the governor called for the Senate leaders meeting: “Paterson Gets Involved (Finally)”—he also said that the crisis would give him an opportunity, ultimately, to demonstrate leadership.

The governor claimed some credit for Mr. Monserrate’s confusingly reasoned decision to flip back to the Democrats, saying, “Monserrate and I—I saw him yesterday. And I don’t want to get into the private conversations—that’s been done to me a few times in the last week.” 

He also claimed credit for sending his counsel to the court to “offer ourselves as an arbiter,” which he said had resulted in a meeting planned for later that afternoon between Republicans and Democratic leaders.

“We have been able to generate some movement today,” he said.

Ultimately, that meeting went nowhere. The next day, a judge dismissed a Democratic motion to restore the pre-coup leadership of the Senate. Thirty-one to thirty-one, and continued paralysis.

Still, Mr. Paterson considered his actions as the beginning of a necessary break with his image as a nice-but-helpless guy caught up in the vortex of forces beyond his control.

I asked when he felt he needed to start knocking heads together.

“I think that point was today,” he said, “when I realized that I may not have jurisdiction, but I can make their lives very difficult if they continue to do this.”

He said he could dispatch the State Police, if necessary, to force the senators to attend a special summer session. “So they will be spending their summer with me here, not with whoever they planned on spending it with,” he said.

 

WHILE THE GOVERNOR attempts to come to grips with the actual business of governing, his handful of allies have begun to marshal a defense against the subtle predations of Mr. Cuomo.

Charlie Rangel, the dean of the New York Congressional delegation and a longtime friend of the governor’s father, Basil Paterson, forced the attorney general’s office into a temporarily awkward spot earlier this month by telling The Observer that Mr. Cuomo had assured him that he wouldn’t run a primary against Mr. Paterson. (Mr. Cuomo’s office responded by issuing a substance-less denial about how “his current plan is to run for re-election as Attorney General.”)

Mr. Rangel subsequently told NY1 that a bid by Mr. Cuomo—who ran and lost in a primary for governor against New York’s first black statewide elected official, Carl McCall, then the comptroller, in 2002—would cause “racial polarization.”

Mr. Paterson said that he wouldn’t deploy a similar message in a primary, if it came to that.

“We’ve had primaries between minorities and whites before, and they haven’t divided the party,” he said.

He added that issues other than race contributed to Mr. Cuomo’s past failure.

“I don’t know that in 2002 that all the problems that Andrew had were racial,” Mr. Paterson said. “He had never run for office before, and the first office he runs for is governor, and he runs against a person who had worked up through the system who was now comptroller and was the odds-on person to run for governor. And it didn’t work out. But I don’t know that’s an entirely racial issue because the two candidates were of different races.”

Since taking office, black support for Mr. Paterson, the first black governor in the history of New York, has eroded to such a degree that surveys now show a majority of African-American voters preferring Mr. Cuomo. (Early polls in 2002 also showed Mr. Cuomo with the support of a majority of black voters.)

Asked if the apparent disintegration of support surprised him, Mr. Paterson said, “I think there are some issues that are strongly felt in the African-American community. One related to marriage equality, for instance. Also that the African-American community, among others, are the hardest hit by the deficits. And so there’s this sense of disappointment of whoever is in charge.”

Mr. Paterson, a scion of Harlem political royalty who nevertheless identifies himself with the post-civil-rights generation of Barack Obama and Cory Booker, also said, “I think there may have been a stronger sense of loyalty years ago because of the adverse sense of discrimination that was felt years ago. Clearly, young black and white voters have demonstrated in 2008 that they are more involved and more open-minded, meaning that our society is moving in the right direction.”

Asked about the possibility—much speculated about in Albany—of the Obama White House intervening between now and next year to ease him out of the race if his numbers don’t pick up, Mr. Paterson said, “I’m making up my own mind, and I’m going to be a candidate next year. And I think they know that.” Paterson on Governing Amid Senate Chaos, Circling ‘Sharks’