Democrats Ponder Domino Strategy to Remove Paterson

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Old boys' club. Photo: Getty Images

Is it possible to use one embattled politician to save another? That’s the implausible but intriguing scenario that New York Democrats are considering as they try to persuade David Paterson to withdraw from next year's governor's race. The turmoil engulfing one of Paterson's oldest friends, Representative Charles Rangel, could point the way to a resolution.

The trickiest part about pushing Paterson out of Albany has been finding the proper cushion to soften the fall. An ambassadorship? That would require U.S. Senate confirmation and the intense scrutiny that comes with it. A post in the Obama administration? It's possible, but less likely after the governor's response to the president's request that he step down.

With the options appearing limited, Democrats are quietly floating an alternative exit strategy. Rangel, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House, has been mired in multiple tax scandals and legislative setbacks that have weakened his standing. The 79-year-old has vigorously fended off Republican attempts to strip him of his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee and has insisted he will seek a 21st term next year. But Rangel's Harlem clubhouse ties with Paterson and his father, Basil, which are as close as family, might help him reconsider.

Should Rangel and Paterson resign from their offices next year, party leaders in Manhattan could hand the seat over to Paterson in a special election that would be virtually uncontested. The scenario has surfaced in private discussions this week among prominent Democrats, according to a source involved in the talks. "If Charlie's going to walk away in a way that helps David save face, then Charlie might choose to do that," said a Manhattan Democrat.

The strategy has many moving, delicate parts. For one, other Democrats, including Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, have long eyed Rangel's seat. Rangel's successor would be chosen by party committee members beholden to several factions. The committee may not see eye to eye about designating Paterson as the Democratic candidate. The Democratic scramble in Washington to replace Rangel as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee would be messy. And it's impossible to know whether Rangel's seat, but not his powerful committee post, would be tempting enough for Paterson. Aside from all that, the plan is a cinch — and a sign of how desperate the situation around the governor has become.