David Paterson: The Voter Revolution Is Not Here

This is the second in a new five-part series called "The New York Vote," a partnership between WNYC and Capital New York. We will be painting a portrait of the New York electorate in 2010, as explained by a diverse cast of political players.

Today, the vantage point of Governor David Paterson. As he prepares to leave office after a career in politics, the former state senator and lieutenant governor says the election of a single individual isn't going to change Albany.

Don’t get David Paterson wrong. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of Andrew Cuomo, especially since the advent of Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino, who Paterson says doesn't understand "how the systems of government actually work" and is "not fit to serve."

He does not, however, think that Cuomo—or anyone—can deliver the change in Albany that voters say they want.

"There's something magical about campaigns," the governor said in an interview last  week at his executive office in Manhattan. "It's almost like the first game of the season in baseball, when all the teams think they're going to be in the World Series, and then in the end, the Yankees always are.

"And the reality is that there's that hope that springs eternal in the human breast, that somehow Albany's going to change because one person got elected, and it's just not true."

In saying so, Paterson spoke with the jaded wisdom of someone who has spent a long time in public office, and with the freedom of someone who is about to leave it.

If his contention that the incoming governor won't in fact be able to deliver on his promise to "clean up Albany" is mildly off-message, his position on the underlying reasons for this borders on downright impolitic: The people who really need to change their behavior if Albany is to be made a less terrible place, Paterson says, are the voters of New York.

For one thing, he says, they send mixed messages to candidates and elected officials about what they want.

"It's very difficult for the candidates to read the public anger because the public has made it clear that they are against excessive spending, and they don't want to be taxed, and they don't want the government borrowing money," he said. "But at the same time the voters have also made it clear, overwhelmingly in polls, that they are very protective of costs, of expenditures for health care and education, which they see as a priority.

"So that, of  and in  itself, may be an anger, but it's also a contradiction, because 55 percent of the budgets constitute spending for health care and education, and unless you cut those areas, you can't realign spending. So how the voters will be voting is very confusing to the candidates because you don't know when the voters get in the ballot box which will be the priority: the need to preserve health care and education, or the need to reduce spending and prohibit borrowing."

Another problem, Paterson says, is the palpable disconnect between voters' highly negative feelings about the Legislature, and their wont to keep returning their own individual legislators to office.

"I read somewhere that three legislators lost their primaries this year, and that this really sends a message to the legislators in Albany," he said. "I really want to find out who wrote that and take their pen away forever. Because there were 212 legislators running for reelection--only three lost? So that's 99 percent won? How is that sending a message to anybody? That's the regular number of incumbents being reelected."

Paterson, a former state senator and lieutenant governor who replaced Eliot Spitzer in 2008, watched his limited leverage with the Legislature evaporate once it became clear that he wasn't in a political position to run in 2010. He said that lawmakers’ lack of accountability is not only a problem in New York, but in state capitals across the country.

"Forty-eight of the 50 states were in deficit over the past few years," Paterson said. "Their governors, Republican and Democrat, fought admirably, tried to keep their budgets balanced. The legislatures, not having any real accountability in that process, continued to try to spend, Republicans and Democrats.

"They'll do TV commercials telling you they're cutting spending--they're all spending. But the reality is that with that overwhelming number of incumbents being reelected, the public, who has the tendency to hate legislators, but loves their own individual legislator, are actually feeding the process. Governors around the country don't have the unilateral authority to stop a fiscal crisis. And the reason? Legislators don't cooperate with them. And the reason: because not enough legislators have paid the price for ignoring the economy and the responsibility that it incurs."

Asked whether there was any practical way to make voters change their ways--this habit of reelecting incumbent members of poor-performing legislatures, after all, is nothing new--the governor essentially argued that voters needed to improve their ability to detect nonsense from candidates.

"Well I think people campaign and say. 'I'm going to lower your taxes and I'm not going to cut your health care and education,' and people have to awaken to the fact that you can't do both," he said.

Voters say they want change, but they keep electing the same people, says Gov. David Paterson. As he prepares to leave office after a career in politics, the former state senator and lieutenant governor says the election of a single individual isn't going to change Albany.

As for what would happen in New York this year--with voter dissatisfaction and anti-incumbent outrage at a high point, and control of the State Senate, at least, up for grabs--Paterson said he thought that the party in power might just catch a break.

"You had two dynamics working against my party, the Democratic Party," he said. "Number one, mass anger nationally, and number two, that Democrats are in control not only of two houses of government and the presidency, but were also in control of the executive branch and all of the statewide elected offices and the two legislatures. So it really put the Democratic hopefuls in a very difficult situation this year.

“But,” he continued, “if there is a silver lining around Carl Paladino's fog of confusion, it's that it is giving Democrats a chance to demonstrate that we have governed in a fashion that befits the time we are in."