Chris Smith on Paterson’s One New Friend and Many New Enemies

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'Whe I raise my eyebrows like this, that's how you know I am SERIOUS.' Photo: Getty Images

The shouting about alleged marital affairs and blatant liars is over — for now, anyway. But just how much damage has Governor David Paterson done to himself by messing up the choice of a new senator? And, more important, what is the fallout going to cost the state?

One of Paterson’s primary goals was to show he was in charge, a legitimate leader instead of an accidental governor, and he failed miserably. His image has taken a beating — though less than the volume of media uproar might suggest. Polls in the immediate aftermath of the Paterson-Kennedy-Gillibrand fiasco show the governor’s approval rating down, but only to a not-disastrous 55 percent statewide. Paterson’s larger problem is that he’s still not very well known by voters, and the sense that he bungled the selection process isn’t a helpful introduction. His next act? Cutting services and raising taxes to close a $15 billion state budget deficit, never a crowd-pleaser.

Politically, Paterson has made himself a new best friend in former senator Al D’Amato. (Kirsten Gillibrand was a summer intern in D’Amato’s office and her father is one of D’Amato’s closest friends.) D’Amato has already been shaking the money tree on Paterson’s behalf; on the negative side, he’s an ethically dubious Republican lobbyist in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. A handful of women's groups have also praised Paterson.

Yet Paterson has collected many more new enemies, including donors loyal to the Kennedy family, Latino activists, and important segments of the political media. His weakness has handed even more legislative power to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and he’s invited a Democratic primary challenge from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in 2010. But Paterson’s greatest immediate hurdle is the anger emanating from Washington. Yes, the Obama camp is disappointed and mystified by the governor’s humiliation of Caroline Kennedy. It’s in Congress, though, that Paterson and the state stand to pay a real price. Part of the hostility flows from the (short) record of our new senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s at odds with her New York colleagues on issues ranging from gun control to her opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants to her introduction of a balanced-budget amendment that could have bankrupted the state. (“That budget amendment wasn’t about her district,” one state pol says. “That’s about someone who believes in it.”)

Yet even though Gillibrand claims a newfound willingness to, um, modify what she believes, that won’t soothe all the bad feelings. “David has done himself real damage with Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel,” says a Democrat — one who considers himself a Paterson supporter. Pelosi, the speaker of the House, is unhappy with the promotion of Gillibrand for both personal (the two haven’t gotten along) and political reasons (fighting to retain Gillibrand’s seat in 2010, which is likely to be a rough electoral year for Democrats, is a headache Pelosi doesn’t need). In 2004, she’d done Paterson, then a mere state senator, a major favor by helping him land a coveted speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. That’s probably the last time she’ll be doing anything nice for Paterson.

Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is counting on Pelosi’s help to get through an ethics investigation. “So he has to tell Pelosi he wasn’t consulted, even though she knows Charlie is very close to Paterson,” a state political operative says. One irony is that Rangel had played the Senate sweepstakes deftly, largely staying out of it because he didn’t want to antagonize any of his fellow delegation members and because he knows Paterson’s capacity for surprise all too well. “It didn’t go unnoticed that the dean of New York’s delegation was not at Gillibrand’s announcement press conference with the governor,” a Democratic operative says.

And this morning, Paterson may have burned one of his few remaining — and most important — Democratic allies. A story in Politico portrayed Chuck Schumer as mounting a decisive last-minute push for Gillibrand. Washington insiders read the story as Paterson’s attempt to spread the blame for picking someone widely disliked by her colleagues. Schumer admitted liking Gillibrand, but he can’t be thrilled with being tied even tighter to her selection.

Fortunately some of the players in the drama have managed to stay focused on their day jobs — and won’t take out their disenchantment with Paterson by stiffing the state. Yesterday, for instance, Jerry Nadler scored a big victory, adding $3 billion in transit cash to the stimulus bill, with at least $214 million heading to New York (assuming the provision makes it through the Senate). And Schumer will remain his relentless self. Yet at a time when every state and municipality has its hand out, their governor hasn’t made the job of steering money to New York any easier. As he tries to survive, Paterson will have Gillibrand in his corner. But she’s about the only one he can count on.

Related: The Zany Adventures of (Senator) Caroline Kennedy [NYM]