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David Paterson vs. the Seventies

New York’s fiscal crisis requires something our new governor hasn’t had to show yet: disciplined leadership.

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Everybody loves David Paterson. He has an offbeat sense of humor and a talent for ingratiation. Now we’re about to find out just how much the warm feelings matter in Albany—and whether Paterson really has anything more to offer than an uplifting life story.

The fundamental causes of the state’s massive deficits—health care, pork, and deficit financing—were highlighted by Eliot Spitzer more than two years ago. But Spitzer couldn’t stoke any sense of urgency about the State Legislature’s chronic overspending, and his steamroller tactics quickly came back to haunt him. Now Wall Street’s meltdown has handed Paterson the policy crisis Spitzer failed to manufacture. Confronting the Legislature clearly didn’t work; will cajoling it accomplish anything more?

The early signs aren’t encouraging. Paterson’s rally-the-troops live TV address last week was greeted by a pre-speech stall (Sheldon Silver said he thought Paterson was overreacting) and a post-speech shrug (Joe Bruno’s replacement, Dean Skelos, declared that cuts in education spending were off the table). Paterson is smart to try to tackle the problems early, instead of following Albany tradition and waiting for the edge of default. He has summoned the Legislature for a special session, where he’ll attempt to extract an additional $600 million in savings. But less than 24 hours after mildly tweaking his colleagues, saying that the special session would “end the legislators’ vacations,” he was quickly stuffing the populist card back into the deck, insisting that “I am not going to have an acrimonious relationship with the Legislature.”

There is a real scare tactic available: the specter of the seventies. Some of the parallels are apt, like the confluence of federal, state, and local recessions. And while punk rock was cool and Reggie and Billy were a riot in the Bronx, the poverty and crime were decidedly uncool—as were the collapsing subway and school systems. Today there are some major, heartening differences—locally, anyway: The city’s finances under Michael Bloomberg are in sturdier shape than they were under Abe Beame. There is no middle-class exodus. And while crime is showing some revival, the NYPD appears better equipped to fight it. So enjoy your Ramones records. But nobody, especially nice-guy David Paterson, should want the rest of the seventies to come roaring back. Even if that’s what it would take to force real change in Albany.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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