David Paterson always had a plan. It just wasn’t to become Governor of New York.
Leading up to 2006, he was the top Democrat in the State Senate, and doing a surprisingly effective job chipping away at the Republican lead in that house.
Paterson, who was representing Harlem, did this by letting his affable nature mask his intense desire to wage strategic campaign fights against Republicans.
“If they had an event they had to go to and they wanted us to stop debating…I would always stop,” Paterson recalled in a recent interview. “I think it got them to take their eye off the campaign.”
It worked in 2004. But a surprise attack like that only works once. He hadn’t “figured out how to beat them in ’06.”
So, Paterson did what he did before: make an unexpected move. He offered himself as a lieutenant governor candidate to Eliot Spitzer, the wildly popular and hard-charging state Attorney General whose march into the governor’s mansion seemed inevitable.
“It was almost like I made a trade,” Paterson said. “I traded myself to Spitzer to get the kind of organizing we needed in ’06.”
Paterson joined Spitzer’s ticket, and in turn, he says he got a commitment from the soon-to-be governor to abandon Albany protocol and become an executive who actively worked to help his party take control of part of the legislature.
It nearly worked. The Spitzer/Paterson team won in a landslide. And the new governor lured one Republican state Senator into his administration and then promptly campaigned for a Democrat to win the vacated seat.
Paterson, sitting in the empty press room on the 38th floor of his midtown office, says there was another reason he joined Spitzer in 2006.
“I thought if Eliot is asking me to be lieutenant governor, than I’ll have a good shot of him asking me to be the US Senator, which might have been a childhood dream of mine,” Paterson says.
“I would say we had an understanding but the understanding was not that he promised it to me,” Paterson says of the loose agreement he had with Spitzer about the senate seat.
The seat was Hillary Clinton’s who was going to run for – and win, right? – the presidency. But by the time she left the Senate, to become Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Paterson had other things on his mind.
For 15 months in office, Spitzer went “out of his way” to antagonize the legislature. Then Spitzer was caught with a prostitute and had no goodwill built up in Albany. He resigned, and Paterson’s Senate plan took a sharp detour.
He was now governor. And true to form, Paterson does what few expect.
After a rousing speech in front of the joint legislature as the new governor, Paterson gave an interview with a Daily News columnist and admits to extra-marital affairs. With his wife, Michelle, by his side, he elaborates on it at a press conference later in the Red Room inside the capitol.
During a television interview with NY1 News, he admits to experimenting with cocaine in his youth.
The hardest lift, though, came when he began warning that the financial world as New York knew it, was collapsing.
It was 2007, years before such warnings were embraced as a reality. Paterson says being the first to raise the issue was costly.
“I am greeted with jeers, compared to Chicken Little, labeled an alarmist and even called incompetent,” Paterson recalls.
He recalls lawmakers writing lengthy op-ed articles dismissing his warnings. The pushback from legislators was stiff, but not unexpected. Legislators usually resist an executive's call for fiscal restraint.
In fact, it's the exact kind of resistance Paterson himself employed years earlier.
"I used to ridicule Governor Pataki and then I realized,” he says, “that I never really thought about what it's like to be the person that, in a sense, has to be the adult in the room.”
It's a striking admission for a number of reasons.
First of all, it’s this kind of comment that fuels some of his biggest critics. They say Paterson never focused on the job he was supposed to be doing. He was, you’ll recall, a “legislative leader” who was, in theory, playing a meaningful role in the budget.
He told newspaper reporters this week that after just a few days on the job as governor, he realized "there was so much going on that I didn't know about."
And the resistance he got from legislators to be fiscally responsible hurt.
Paterson was a state senator for more than two decades. He was also a legislative leader, dealing with the budget directly. His strongest asset as governor was that he had relationships with assemblyman and senators. He was their friend. He was, literally, one of them.
No governor in recent memory had that. Nelson Rockefeller came from the private sector (and his family’s personal fortune). Hugh Carey served in Congress down in Washington. Mario Cuomo was a smart lawyer from Queens. He served under previous governors, but never in the legislature. George Pataki was a mayor from Peekskill with a Yale degree. He served in both houses of the legislature, but they were brief pitstops. Eliot Spitzer came charging out of the Attorney General’s office and actively worked to antagonize the legislature.
Then came Paterson.
So, when legislators rebuffed his calls for spending restraints, it hurt.
"I knew them and I thought they would have trusted that I wouldn't create this as a publicity stunt. This is a real problem,” he said. That’s when he started to realize how hard this was really going to be. “I started feeling more like a governor and not like an ex-legislator,” he said.
He thought because he was a Democrat, Democrats would support him. They didn't. He thought because he was once a legislator, legislators would believe him. They didn't.
It's similar, he says, to what's happening in the White House.
"President Obama is going through right now exactly what I went through,” said Paterson. “He's shifting and is expecting Democrats out of loyalty to shift with him, but some people see it as principle."
Calling for spending cuts was particularly hard, since Paterson's political identity was as a progressive. Paterson’s ascension to the governor’s office wasn’t well-planned, but it was the culmination of years worth of aspirations.
"People waited for years to see a progressive to become governor,” he recalled. “People waited for years to see maybe a woman or an African American or a Hispanic become governor. And so here’s a person who embodies the concepts and even the image of something, you know, people wanted to see one day; maybe people wanted to see when my father was running for lieutenant governor. Now it happened. And this guy is walking around talking like he’s been in consultation with Luis Rukeyser.”
“I got the feeling I was treated more like a traitor,” he said. “You know, we worked so hard to get somebody there, you got there, and you are…disappointing. You’re talking about all this stuff that Governor Pataki used to talk about."
Using the threat of a government shutdown, Paterson did get the cuts he wanted. But he took a beating. For example, the union representing health care workers and the hospital association ran ads blaming Paterson for two hospital closures.
"They supported it and then they put it in a tv commercial as if I just went and did this and I don't like hospitals all of a sudden and I just shut them down,” he recalled.
The ad hit Paterson on a personal level too.
"Then they had a blind man rolling around in a wheelchair complaining about me,” he said. “Who's the last blind person you saw in a tv commercial?
Eliot Spitzer got hit with similar ads, but Paterson says they didn't compare.
"Governor Spitzer, he didn't get a sip of the character assassination that I had to gulp in gallons,” said Paterson.
Paterson says another major problem was simply the staff. He inherited Spitzer's staff, but they were traumatized by the Spitzer scandal. Paterson never had a transition team and was always in crisis mode.
Former aides say the governor didn’t listen to them and wound up making poor decisions. They also say that no executive ever makes this kind of argument, pointing to, for example, Mayor Bloomberg. (If anything, Bloomberg is criticized for defending his staff long after he should have.)
To be fair, Paterson did have a staff. But it wasn’t the lack of an inner circle that hampered him. The people he actually did bring with him were his undoing.
Two of his closest aides were Clemmie Harris and David Johnson. They started out as low-level aides and through battlefield promotions, became his advisors, gatekeepers, and all-round go-to-guys.
Both were criticized by investigators for the role they played in getting state police to discourage a woman who sought an protective order against Johnson after what she described in court as a violent attack against her on Halloween.
When I asked Paterson about the trouble his hand-chosen aides caused him, he took a moment to answer, and when he did, he chose his words carefully.
"Because of this transition period that never took place where there were vacuums of leadership,” he says. “At times, different people stepped into that vacuum because they were willing and because they cared, but, by experience they may not have been the right people to do it. But there were other people who should have been assuming that leadership that didn’t because of a lack of assertiveness or a lack of professionalism sometimes."
Paterson himself was criticized in another report for giving inaccurate statements about how he obtained tickets to a World Series Yankees game. He's now declining to release information on a deal he struck to let an out-of-state Indian tribe open a casino here.
Before leaving, I asked him what the world looks like through his eyes.
"Well, I don’t see anything out of my left eye,” he says, “I’m legally blind in my right eye. My vision in my right eye is about 20 over 400. So, if I look across the room I know there are a bunch of chairs there and there are florescent lights that probably go all the way back in the room.”
I ask if he knows this because he can see the chairs and the lights, or because he is just familiar with what’s in the room (this is, after all, a place where he’s appeared countless times).
“Well, this is a room that I’m familiar with. There’s a great deal of interpretation in vision. So, a person like me will appear to have much better vision let's say if you were at my apartment and were just, talking there. Then if we went to your apartment I probably would appear I have less vision than I really even do because it’s an adjustment."