The Asset David Paterson Can’t Wait to Deploy

ALBANY–David Paterson named Richard Ravitch his lieutenant governor to solve a leadership dispute in the State Senate. But he’s hoping for a lot more.

“The lieutenant governor, like a vice president, is an extension of the governor,” Mr. Paterson told the Observer. “I would think that because of his acumen on subjects and his well-tested decision-making capacity that he might direct some policy and even some action, but it will always be understood by he and I that he’s doing it at my behest. In other words, he’s doing it on my behalf.”

During a 30-minute phone conversation on July 19, Mr. Paterson recounted the details of a discussion he had completed over steak sandwiches and corn at Mr. Ravitch’s house in Wainscott in the Hamptons. He said it was determined that Mr. Ravitch, the 76-year-old former head of the MTA, will focus on managing a growing budget deficit that Mr. Paterson says could reach $800 million and require action by September, in addition to formulating a capital plan for the M.T.A. and working to coordinate high-speed rail service across upstate New York.(That's the plan, at least, pending resolution of the legality of Mr. Ravitch's appointment.)

These areas are “critical,” the governor said, and Mr. Ravitch is a “tremendous asset.”

It is not a coincidence that Mr. Paterson is urging his lieutenant to assume an active and visible role as his surrogate. He brought in Mr. Ravitch earlier this month in order to break up a 31-31 deadlock in the Senate—the lieutenant governor gets the tie-breaking vote.

But there was a serious political calculation as well: Mr. Ravitch was a trusted veteran who was taken seriously by the press and the public. Mr. Paterson wasn’t.

Since the governor appointed Mr. Ravitch earlier this month, he has enjoyed a modest hot streak, winning positive press for taking on the dysfunctional Senate and helping bring about a resolution to the leadership struggle, and seeing his low public-approval rating inch upward for the second month in a row.

In a separate interview, Mr. Ravitch insisted he had “no agenda other than to help the state in the next 18 months.” He will not seek re-election–both he and Mr. Paterson have insisted as much since the moment of his appointment–but he didn’t preclude campaigning with Mr. Paterson.

“When I was in public service before, I did not endorse candidates,” Mr. Ravitch said. “Obviously I’m all for the governor, there’s no ambiguity about that– but I don’t intend to endorse other candidates for public office or make political contributions. I can’t be as effective, and besides, I know too many people and I can’t afford it.

“But I mean, if there’s a dinner where the governor has friends, or anything like that, I have no ambiguity about being a wholehearted supporter of David Paterson.”

I asked if he would attend a campaign rally for the governor.

“I hate to say absolutely not because if it was important to him it would be difficult for me to say no,” he replied. “But that’s not what I’m here for.”

Mr. Paterson hopes that with Mr. Ravitch in place, he will be able to focus on policy, and on rebuilding an administration beset by lingering vacancies, while his partner takes charge of budget and transportation initiatives. Good politics through good government.

“Well if they’re successful, and the governor, obviously, points these things out in his reelection bid, it does have a political aspect to it,” Mr. Paterson allowed. “But obviously if it was just politics I might have thought to have done this when I first became governor. The reason I did it now is there is really no known successor to the governor.”

The matter of the successor isn’t quite cleared up.  

On July 6, two days before Ravitch’s designation, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a statement declaring an appointment to the lieutenant governor post was “not constitutional,” saying “we understand the apparent political convenience of the proponents’ theory due to the current Senate circumstances.”

A Republican-brought suit challenging the constitutionality of Mr. Ravitch’s selection is currently wending its way through the courts, with a final decision not expected until August at the earliest. But a state supreme court judge dealt a blow to Mr. Paterson on July 22 by issuing a restraining order blocking Mr. Ravitch from officially assuming the duties of the office, saying, "For an illegally appointed lieutenant-governor to act as governor of the state would clearly constitute irreparable harm.''

Mr. Paterson said in the interview that it’s “a very close argument,” but that “the only alternative to this, and this goes for all the people who have made the arguments against it, is chaos. And I don’t think my constitution, and the people who wrote it, would appreciate that.”

He said he spoke with Mr. Cuomo—his de facto rival for the Democratic nomination for governor next year–about the appointment, and said, “He knew that I was in a very difficult position when I took the action that I took–he just doesn’t think that the constitution permits it.

“People can quibble about what the constitution means, but when a real crisis occurs they wonder why someone didn’t try to cure the problem. No attorney general has issued an opinion on how to cure this problem. I’m the one who took definitive action to establish a criterion that would solve the problem. I just hope that it meets the constitutional test of propriety.”

The governor’s legal advisers say the Constitution authorizes the legislature to fill vacancies, and spells out exactly how in the Public Officers law. While the office of lieutenant governor is not specifically mentioned, a catch-all provision in the statute says “if the office be elective, the governor shall appoint a person to execute the duties thereof.” 

Republicans argue in their suit that the lieutenant governor’s post is not “elective” since “no one can be elected lieutenant governor on his own or as an independent elected office.” The Constitution provides that the senate president “shall perform all the duties of lieutenant- governor during such vacancy or inability.” This, the Republicans argue, provides a constitutional framework for filling the office that trumps the catch-all provision in the Public Officers Law.

Mr. Cuomo has not weighed in publicly on the case since his initial statement. John Milgrim, his spokesman, said the statement of July 6 “remains the position of the office” and offered no further comment.

Mr. Paterson said the situation in the State Senate–which triggered the crisis about the line of succession, since the body’s president serves as the acting lieutenant governor–is still “fragile” and “actually augments the argument that I was trying to make.”

“It is temporarily cured, but we have 18 more months to govern, as an administration, and we know that if there would be no lieutenant governor we’re always on the brink,” he said. “Even if they have leadership, if the governor became incapacitated, would that leadership hold up? In other words, now it’s a free-for-all, so whoever made the most promises to be acting governor could, you know, theoretically win the leadership?”

As the courts deliberate, both Messrs. Paterson and Ravitch have agreed that the lieutenant governor will not spend any taxpayer money (Mr. Ravitch is accepting only a token salary) and will not hire a staff until the case is resolved. Mr. Ravitch has spent the past several days getting briefed on administration programs and the budget.

“I’m trying to keep a low profile until the courts adjudicate that I’m here legally,” Mr. Ravitch told me. He sees himself more as an adviser, anyway. “The governor understands that I am not part of the day-to-day operations of the government.”

But Mr. Paterson is eager to get Mr. Ravitch working. He has already dispatched him once to meet with officials in Washington (a constitutional crisis might ensue if Mr. Paterson crosses state lines) and will likely take him there again this week.

“The only way in which, even perceivably, we would be acting improperly would be if we were spending a lot of money, particularly in this financial crisis, on a lieutenant governor who is not–where there’s no debate over the viability of this post,” Mr. Paterson said. “So that scenario we’re going to be careful not to abuse, but at the same time, to take advantage of a magnificent public servant in these areas for as long as we can. We’re going to access that right away.”


The Asset David Paterson Can’t Wait to Deploy