Paterson on His Legacy, Governing Blind, And Kirsten Gillibrand

In this morning’s Observer, I wrote about David Paterson’s budget extender brinksmanship and the lasting impact it might have on

In this morning’s Observer, I wrote about David Paterson’s budget extender brinksmanship and the lasting impact it might have on how business is conducted at the state Capitol.

While most Albany observers seem to consider the new tool to be his administration’s lasting legacy, the former governor said he was most proud of his stewardship over the state budget in the years leading up to last year’s show-down.

Paterson noted that, despite a fiscal crisis that hit Wall Street disproportionately hard, New York never quite plummeted as far into the fiscals depths as California and some other states did, and never had to downgrade its all-important credit rating.

“In terms of saving the public grief, that’s what I consider to be, I guess you could call it, my best legacy,” he told me.

Paterson listed a number of accomplishments he counts with pride–the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the Rockefeller Drug Law reform, the addition of Tier V–but he also lamented the fact he didn’t have time to properly assemble a staff upon taking office, and that he never paused to do a complete “diagnostic” of the team he inherited.

“My regret is that if I had to do it over again–coming in on March 17–first I passed a budget, so I was living crisis to crisis,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to stop the clock, do a review of who wants to stay and who wants to leave. Because some people, quietly, they were just shattered. They had devoted themselves to Governor Spitzer, and then in a flash he was gone, in such a high-profile way. And they tried, but in a month or two, they were gone. So my inner staff was changing, I’d say month to month.”

Paterson rejected the notion–advanced by some–that his blindness might have plagued the management of his administration, though he conceded that some of the obstacles, like having to memorize his speeches, made his job more difficult.

“There was one period in 2009, when in a 30-hour period, I made 17 presentations,” he said. “After that, I was almost incapacitated. And you know, it took a long time, the State of the State was 63 minutes and I took–I don’t know–50 hours to do that.

“You know, I’m sure there were times when my blindness got in the way, it certainly did. But if there were problems with my management style, maybe I just had problems with management,” he said.

“That was exactly what I would resent: Anything that went wrong got blamed–it was almost like they were saying, you all should never have picked a blind lieutenant governor in the first place. All these people who say this will go out and campaign like they want equality for the disabled. So I think they’re actually hypocrites.”

The withering attacks on his disability spurred some of Paterson’s post-politics endeavors.

“Nobody likes to be criticized and often bashed, and I was so shocked at the way I thought I was treated by Saturday Night Live, that I actually went to work consulting for the National Federation for the Blind when I left office just so I could lend my voice to those who are trying to even the playing field for that segment of the disabled community. That actually stunned me,” he said.

Paterson has never been involved in blindness advocacy organizations before, but said he’s enjoying it. He recently appeared at the office of Brooklyn Congressman Ed Towns for a press conference with the N.F.B., and said his own experience serves an inspiration.

“The idea that I ever served as governor, it’s explosive to them,” Paterson said. “It really heightens their morale. The National Federation for the Blind really uses that to encourage people.”

Asked about his appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate–a controversial pick that was ratified by voters in November–Paterson rattled some numbers off the top of his head. According to Paterson, governors have made 41 Senate appointments since 1960, with 22 losing and 19 winning.

“Gillibrand is in the top five of being appointed by the governor and having it ratified by the public, in other words her percentage victory was in the top five,” Paterson said. “And I was able to replace Hillary Clinton with a woman–which if there wasn’t a woman capable enough, I wouldn’t have–but since I had one, I thought that was a great idea. And she was from upstate, where we hadn’t had a senator from in 43 years. So I think the public vindicated me on that one.”

What Paterson’s level of political involvement might be going forward is a question that remains unanswered. He attended the Inner Circle dinner on Saturday night, where he got a chance to chat with old Albany friends, and said he very much enjoyed Mayor Bloomberg’s performance alongside the cast of Mamma Mia.

“I’d seen previous mayors, they’d have a couple of cast members come on, and that kind of thing, but that was a production,” he said.  “I was tired, and I almost left. I’m really glad I stayed. I felt like I had gotten a free ticket to something, and you know how I don’t really like to get free tickets.”

As for whether he might stand for office again, should his legacy ever come to be viewed in a suitably positive light?

“You never say never,” Paterson said, before citing how much he’s enjoying his work with the N.F.B., his teaching at N.Y.U., and the possibility of getting involved in energy policy. “At least right now, that’s what’s exciting. But you really never know what’s going to happen. I didn’t know I was going to be governor until a couple hours before.”

Paterson on His Legacy, Governing Blind, And Kirsten Gillibrand