Paterson Runs Like He’s Ahead

ALBANY—It was supposed to have been the summer of David Paterson.

Battered in the polls from his mishandled appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand and a brutal budget cycle, the governor was going to go on a restorative tour, shaking hands at upstate cookouts and eating sausage at county fairs and block parties, reminding voters that he’s a likable guy. At the same time, he’d be hammering home a grimly consistent message of fiscal alarm, using frequent public appearances to decry the irresponsibility of the dithering state legislature.

For a brief period of time during and after an ugly partisan fight for control of the State Senate, the governor followed the plan, rhythmically denouncing the Senate bunglers in the press and positioning himself as a voice of responsibility in Albany.

On July 8, he announced the unilateral appointment of a lieutenant governor in an attempt to remove the buffoonish state senator (and coup instigator) Pedro Espada Jr. from the line of gubernatorial succession, and the very next day, the month-long stalemate in the Senate came to an end.

“What we are aiming to do is bring our government back into the boundaries of workability and sensibility, and we need someone who has great experience doing that,” Mr. Paterson announced, impressively.

For the first time, his dismal poll numbers twitched upward.

And then, after a brief victory lap and some initial, tentative signs of political momentum, the governor took a break.

A review of his public schedule over the days following the coup resolution–obtained by The Observer under a Freedom of Information Act request—shows that Mr. Paterson spent the following weekend in Long Island taking “private meetings” at the Bridgeview Yacht Club in Island Park and dining in Sag Harbor. He attended a party that weekend at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, and flew back to New York for the centennial of the N.A.A.C.P.

The subsequent week was fairly busy, with visits to Syracuse and Utica, and more trips than usual to his New York office. But then he promptly fell off the radar, taking a week of vacation at home in the city and in the Hamptons. His poll numbers froze in place—where they’ve been ever since.

“I’d say this was the summer of lost opportunities for Governor Paterson,” said Kyle Kotary, a political consultant who served as Mr. Paterson’s communications director during his tenure as minority leader in the State Senate.

The schedules, as well as conversations with elected figures and former Paterson staffers, make one thing abundantly clear: his tolerance for the exhausting grind of campaign-style politics is limited.

The contrast is particularly clear when Mr. Paterson is considered next to his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, who kept the dawn-to-dusk hours of a manically driven white-shoe lawyer. (“In Albany, Life Has Seeped Out of Night Life,” proclaimed a Times headline toward the end of Mr. Spitzer’s first legislative session.)

A look at Mr. Paterson schedule from August 2008 to the present suggests, for example, that Mr. Paterson rarely takes formal breakfast meetings, and generally arrives at the office or begins his first event around 10 a.m.

“He’s not in the office a lot,” said one former Paterson staffer. “The gripe was that the staff worked harder than the governor.”

 

THE WEEK OF July 27, for example, was a pivotal one.

The leaders of the state’s largest unions and Democratic leaders from the largest counties were about to meet upstate in Kingston to express “concern” with the prospective Paterson-topped ticket for 2010. Mr. Paterson fired back for one day, and then disappeared. His message was irretrievably lost.

On the 29th, the day after the leaders’ meeting, Mr. Paterson was in the car by 9 to drive to Starrett City, where he told reporters that “a lot of people are voicing concerns when they should be focusing on the fact that this state overspends.” (No one focused on the bill Paterson signed to refinance Starrett City, which comprises 46 buildings and houses thousands of voters.)

Mr. Paterson then was driven to J.F.K., flew to Buffalo and signed a new bill offering a tax credit for historic preservation, and then drove to another bill-signing in Rochester, recording interviews for two radio stations on the way. He did another interview on the way to the airport, and according to his schedule arrived at his Harlem home around 6 p.m.

Pointing to the fiscal crisis—and his conspicuous burst of activity to address it—should have been the perfect rebuttal to the union concerns, as newly named budget director Robert Megna held a conference call with reporters July 30 to report that the state budget, less than four months after it was adopted, was $2.1 billion out of balance. Mr. Megna did not offer details of a plan to bridge it, saying they would be offered by the “early fall.” (The plan has yet to materialize.)

But Mr. Paterson was nowhere to be found that day, except in reports that he had been hanging out until 2 a.m. that morning at west midtown’s Taj with his daughter and Rhonda Cowan, an executive at BET. Mr. Paterson’s schedule shows just one meeting, at Henry’s Restaurant on the Upper West Side, at 1 p.m., after which he was driven home. (The attendees are not specified.)

His night out at the Taj became the dominant story.

Mr. Paterson left New York that Friday, July 31, after a phone interview with the Caribbean News. He attended “private events”—meaning political events—that evening and Saturday as the Democratic Governors Association convened in Saratoga Springs. Mr. Paterson attended some of the races at the track, and according to the Daily News “looked relaxed and jovial during the day, even posing for pictures with a pair of ushers in the clubhouse.”

August also turned out to be an oddly light month, even as labor leaders’ displeasure simmered, elected officials and party leaders refused to support or defend him, and he caused a furor by accusing the media of being racist in its coverage of him. An Aug. 24 poll showed his approval rating once again trending down.

Mr. Paterson had no public schedule at all on 17 days of that month, and while he traveled to the State Fair in Syracuse and visited flooded areas in Chatauqua and Cattaraugus counties, he spent weekends and long weekends in the Hamptons, appearing occasionally at fund-raisers, making calls to prominent Democrats and studying up on state affairs while staying out of the public eye.

“If he’s out there doing fund-raising with city folk, that’s great,” said Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant. “If he’s just doing the social scene trying to campaign in Suffolk–a guy who’s in as much trouble as he is, he’s really got to go back to his core constituencies and build them up.”

 

MR. PATERSON’S office defends his work-rate by pointing to what they contend are his under-reported accomplishments.

“Governor Paterson is working tirelessly on behalf of the people of New York,” said Peter Kauffmann, the governor’s communications director. “Thanks to the Governor’s commitment to fiscal discipline, he has closed approximately $30 billion in deficit — more than the previous five highest annual deficits combined.  This past year, he achieved historic reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted the first increase in the basic welfare grant in two decades, introduced landmark civil rights legislation that will end legal discrimination against same-sex couples in New York State and helped craft an M.T.A. bailout plan that ensured commuters would avoid painful service reductions.”

Privately, Mr. Paterson’s staffers also say that the schedules don’t show a full picture of the governor’s work load because they don’t reflect the extra effort he invests to make up for his disability.

The governor is legally blind and cannot read. Whereas any other elected official could take a list of names of people to thank and scan the crowd or dais for anyone they may have missed, Mr. Paterson cannot, and often takes several precious minutes memorizing them. Most elected officials can skim a packet of news clips in about 20 minutes, but they must be summarized and read into Paterson’s special voice mail system–around the Capitol it’s referred to as the “Bat phone.” To be up to speed, Mr. Paterson has to listen, a non-trivial process.

 

AS OCTOBER BECKONS, Mr. Paterson insists he will seek election, despite a statement of non-support from the White House and an ever-smaller circle of allies. Some Democratic officials have openly written him off. (“He’s low in the polls, the president doesn’t want him to run, and even beyond that, I think the numbers in the polls are indicative of what the public thinks,” State Senator Martin Malave Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat, said. “I don’t see how he could be the nominee.”) But others say, gamely, that Mr. Paterson does best when he’s down.

For his, part, Mr. Paterson says he’s still planning to work toward reelection.

“I have spent a whole life being told I couldn’t do things,” he told David Gregory on Meet the Press this Sunday. “I was told by guidance counselors I shouldn’t go to college. I was told when I was a minority leader of the Senate we couldn’t win the majority; we won eight seats in four years and won the majority. And so I think that the court upholding my appointment of lieutenant governor—the message to me was that you don’t give up. You don’t give up because you have low poll numbers. You don’t give up because everybody’s telling you what the future is. If everyone knew what the future was, why didn’t they tell me I was going to become governor? I could have used the heads-up.”

It was Mr. Paterson’s only public appearance of the weekend.

Paterson Runs Like He’s Ahead