Paterson: Will He Tame The Twin Tigers
Eliot Spitzer came into office 14 months ago with high expectations. His successor, David A. Paterson, who was sworn in Monday, engenders no such aura. A surprise choice by Governor Spitzer as his running mate back in February 2006, Paterson gambled that an office which had previously been a pit stop on the road to oblivion (except for Mario Cuomo) would be a better career path than competing to be majority leader in the event of a Democratic takeover of the state senate.
Paterson won his gamble in a way no one predicted, with Spitzer’s premature departure over issues of the flesh. He has now been thrust into office just two weeks before the 2009 state budget is required by law to be adopted. That may be Albany’s excuse for postponing the legal deadline.
How will the rookie governor deal with the two powerful men who have spent years in “The Room,” deciding state issues, adopting state budgets, and providing pork aplenty? Joseph Bruno and Sheldon Silver have now served with three governors. Will Paterson develop his own priorities, or will he stick with Spitzer’s choices? Will he support the tax increases that the Assembly proposes and the Senate opposes. Spitzer said no to higher taxes, but what will Paterson say? He does have a good personal relationship with Senator Bruno, stemming from the years they served together. Last year, Spitzer sought to have Democratic senators complain about Bruno’s tax returns, but Paterson balked at the request.
Assuming that Paterson’s amicable and ingratiating manner is the counterpoint to Spitzer’s high handed ways, will that produce any better results in negotiating with the surviving Big Two? Incumbents of both parties, in both houses, often have multiple obligations to special interests, their lobbyists, pork recipients, other worthies desirous of receiving state funds for themselves, their entourages, and the people they purport to serve with a variety of good works. Some intermediaries have for years been picking the people’s pockets, with cycles of campaign contributions followed by public appropriations to their causes, or obedience to their legislative wishes.
Now many of these causes are worthy, and their sponsors honorable. Members’ items are not inherently fraudulent.
But no one studies their merits, or makes judgments based on programs’ achievements. The institutional corruption symbolized by the pork barrel is not in violation of existing law. Spitzer tried to restrain the practice, and succeeded for a year. Will Paterson continue the assault on the predators, or go along in order to get along with the system, and receive whatever largesse he may be awarded?
The chances are that Paterson will do better than expected.
First, he will not arouse the personal animosity that Spitzer was so quick to arouse both by his language and by his obvious contempt for the lesser mortals around him. Second, after the disputatious year of 2007, legislators will want to settle down and show that they can get along with each other and with the governor. While it is too early to predict an Era of Good Feeling, state officials will try to avoid public bloodletting, at least for a while. There is an unexpected opportunity for a second honeymoon, the first, with Spitzer, wasextremely brief.
Still, the real David Paterson is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union. He was not a lifelong resident of Harlem but was born in Brooklyn on May 20, 1954, where his parents lived. Later they moved to Hempstead, and his father became a partner in a high-powered law firm in Mineola. After graduating from Columbia University and Hofstra Law School in Hempstead, he worked for the Queens district attorney as a criminal law investigator. He has not passed the New York State bar examination, a problem he attributes to the failure to make adequate accommodation for his extremely limited eyesight, so that he could finish the six-hour examination on time. He is legally designated as totally blind, although he has limited sight out of one eye, a condition he has had since birth. Paterson has an excellent memory, and gives compelling speeches on substantive issues. His achievements, despite his disability, are inspiring, and he will be a role model for many others with similar issues.
A great deal will depend on who the new governor chooses for his staff, whether he picks new commissioners, and on what basis they are selected. We have read that he has hired Bill Lynch Associates to assist with his transition. Lynch was deputy mayor and political advisor to Mayor Dinkins. David Paterson’s father, Basil, was once a state senator, deputy mayor under Mayor Koch, then secretary of state under Governor Carey, the first African-American to hold that office. He then went into private practice. He is highly regarded as a labor mediator. Other political leaders in Harlem who are influential are Congressman Charles E. Rangel and former Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton. David Paterson is the only scion of this group to be elected to public office. It remains to be seen what influence the four leaders will exercise.
His colleagues in the legislature praise Paterson’s skills in dealing with people, which he certainly showed when he lined up 15 Democratic votes for himself to displace Senator Martin Connor as minority leader in 2002. He was minority leader for four years, until he ran with Spitzer in 2006. While a Senator, he ran unsuccessfully for Public Advocate and Manhattan Borough President, showing a desire for higher office if not the ability to persuade others to support him. But as long as your term is not expiring, each candidacy can provide helpful exposure.
No one speaks ill of David Paterson, and in my own limited experience with him, he has been kind and thoughtful. I really like him. He is not cavalier in dealing with people of lesser importance. People respect him even if they do not understand exactly what he means. Years ago, he proposed that police officers be permitted only to shoot to wound, not to kill, but withdrew that notion in the face of public disapproval. He is pro-choice and supports gay marriage. His positions are what one might expect from a liberal Democrat from the Upper West Side and Harlem.
Now, for the first time, Paterson will have to confront budget issues, choose among priorities, and disappoint people who do not get what they want, appropriations, jobs or contracts. The forces of the status quo, emboldened by the departure of Governor Spitzer, will press heavily to maintain their privileged positions. Will the new governor challenge them, or will he go along to get along. Time will tell, but we believe that we will find out his attitude towards reform sooner rather than later. We hope that he will choose his staff for their ability, and weigh their commitment to him, not to other politicians or those who recommended them, or who they hope will employ them when their public service ends.
New York’s new chief executive will face all the problems Governor Spitzer had, without the supporting cadre Spitzer had built up in private practice and as attorney general for eight years. But all the governor’s horses and all the governor’s men could not save him from the consequences of his own behavior. Let us hope that Governor Paterson will have the intelligence, the strength and the courage to provide leadership for New York State. His adversaries will be numerous, and they are entrenched, both in wealth and power. We do not know whether he is fully aware of who they are, and that they rejoice in his ascension because they believe that it will enhance their own influence.
Most New Yorkers, bitterly disillusioned by the last 14 months of upheaval, are rooting for our new governor. We join in their hope that he will not let us down.