Governor David Paterson's State of the State speech today was fine — a major improvement, stylistically, on last year's flu-addled effort. In substance it was right on target, too, with its calls for a comprehensive package of ethics legislation (which would restrict campaign contributions and require disclosure of outside business dealings) and cutbacks in spending to keep New York's budget out of bankruptcy. Yet Paterson's appearance before both houses of the state legislature felt like an anticlimax — for reasons that are both good and bad for the governor and for the state.
Beginning Sunday, with a series of leaks and conference calls, Paterson and his aides were able to generate three days of rare positive (mostly) media coverage, steering the Albany conversation into areas that make the legislature look (even more) self-interested and corrupt. Paterson learned from his rookie mistakes last year — instead of giving multiple chatty and confusing interviews himself, as he did last January, Paterson stayed home and practiced his performance while staffers prepared the public ground. He also has a more aggressive and disciplined team in place than he did in 2009, led by chief of staff Larry Schwartz and consultant Harold Ickes, and their influence is showing. Even a pre-speech detour to attend Percy Sutton's funeral in Manhattan this morning went fairly smoothly, and Paterson's speech three hours later is likely to boost his ratings.
Outside the Capitol, that is — which is where Paterson was really aiming. His advisers know that the chances of actually enacting sweeping ethics and budgeting reform are minute, but they're trying to keep Paterson's campaign chances alive by playing to public and editorial-page scorn for the legislature and "special interests." Sure enough, Paterson's in-person audience mostly sat on its hands as the governor beat up on them, bluntly comparing state legislators to drug addicts and sinners.
Interestingly, the bulk of the modest applause came from the Republican side of the aisle — a sign not only of the party's approval of budget cutting, but of its coordinated effort to make mischief for the fractured state Democrats. "I thought the governor was right on the button about cutting spending and taxes," said gleeful Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco on the way out of the chamber. "We're going to support him." Democrats, by contrast, greeted the speech with a collective shrug, and are clearly worried about Paterson following through on his vow to run for governor and dragging them down with him this fall. "The governor's broad themes are hard not to agree with," Manhattan's Eric Schneiderman said. "We'll see where he goes from here."
Which is why today's speech ultimately felt like a holding action. Paterson will return in two weeks with his new budget, and the bloodletting will really begin, as lobbyists and legislators fight over scraps and stall any real procedural change. The broad disdain for Paterson isn't personal or partisan; the legislature views governors loudly calling for reform the same way it sees the brutally cold weather outside: as an annoyance to be endured until it eventually goes away. Winter will be back again, as will the tough talk from the state's chief executive — maybe even from the guy sitting behind Paterson's left shoulder during today's speech, Andrew Cuomo. Governors come and go, but the legislature ain't moving.