David Paterson has the ball. There he is, our legally blind governor, on the court at a rec center in Harlem, on top of the key, playing three on three. He fakes right, then jumps in place for no discernible reason and does a balletic half-twirl, followed by a behind-the-back pass to a teammate.
Then he takes off again, whirling around the arc, into the paint, trying not to trip, all the time calling the action in a sort of parody announcer’s voice—“ … And Paterson has the ball!”—when suddenly he does have the ball again, senses an opening, and takes off. He’s charging down the court on a fast break, and he’s all alone, the reason he’s all alone is he’s dribbling the wrong way, and now he’s at the wrong rim, and he jumps off the wrong foot. But he scores.
It’s hard to say if it is a blunder—or joke. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This is Paterson’s game: charming, messy, disarming, and adaptive. In 23 years in public life, he’s been popular with his party, the other party, the journalists, the ladies, and pretty much everybody else. Unlike, say, his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, Paterson hasn’t spent his life honing himself into an exemplar of hard work and public-service rectitude. Instead, he was known among staff for playing “Secret Agent Man” on his guitar and his favorite drink—amaretto on the rocks, slice of lime.
He certainly wasn’t planning on becoming governor when he accepted the spot on the ticket as Spitzer’s No. 2. He thought the job might increase his national profile. And while he tried to be more aggressively involved in state policy, he’d still joke that the job of lieutenant governor was traditionally “to wake up very early and call the governor’s private line. If he answers, go back to sleep, your work is done.”
These days, he’s got to get out of bed early. “Five-thirty, six in the morning,” he complains the day of the game. “I never did that before. I’m not a morning person.” And he must inhabit the role of governor in a way that he has never had to for any job before, even as the minority leader in the State Senate—safely buried in the dysfunction of Albany. He now has to lead the state, and it’s got to be in the right direction. Six months into having the governorship thrust upon him, the state economy is teetering. Late last week, his budget people informed him that the worst is yet to come. As of October, the estimated hole in this year’s budget is $1.2 billion. That’s after he’d already cut $1.5 billion over the summer. On October 3, he called the Legislature back for an emergency session on November 18, seeking an additional $2 billion. There are no easy solutions, just difficult decisions.
Basketball is an escape. It’s the only sport the governor plays. “Occasionally, unlike other sports, I can actually see the ball,” he explains. He identifies his teammates by the shapes of their bodies and the blurred color of their T-shirts. He can only see the outlines of the backboard, hardly ever the rim. His game? “Dramatic, but with not many great results.”
“I’m not shooting,” he says. “I’m aiming.”
On March 17, the morning he was sworn in, Paterson was listening to the news on the radio when he heard that Bear Stearns was collapsing. So he asked his consultants at the Global Strategy Group—the powerful firm that also was employed by Spitzer and had helped bring him to the brink of political superstardom—to write in some new language to his speech.
“We are looking at the economy that is reeling,” he said in that address. His second day in office, he made $800 million in cuts to state agencies that didn’t require the Legislature’s approval.
But before New Yorkers could get used to the idea of there being a state-budget crisis, there came the much more sensational sideshow of his personal life. The affairs. Rumors of a love child. His attempt to preempt the scandal by talking to the Daily News, but then making it worse by—for some reason—riffing on how convenient the Days Inn where he’d cheat on his wife was. “Only four subway stops from my Harlem office,” he said, adding that he and Michelle had gone there, too.
Unlike most government officials, he comes across as adorable, almost, and the public seemed to be willing to forgive his foibles. The state hit a crisis that seemed to not be a particularly good match to his résumé. New York had disproportionately profited from the mortgage bubble, and as the summer went on, it became clear that now it was going to disproportionately suffer by its deflation. The state government, a vast, cumbersome entity that employs 200,000, is dependent on Wall Street for one-fifth of its revenue. According to the state’s financial experts, the number of lost jobs could grow to 40,000 on Wall Street alone, and as many as 120,000 once you count in everybody who depends on it for their income, down the economic-status food chain. The budget people still haven’t been able to determine how Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the most recent plunge in the markets would affect the state. Wall Street doesn’t hand out its bonuses until the fourth quarter—and they’re typically so big that they represent 30 percent of the state’s revenues for that period. This year, they’re now expected to shrink by 43 percent, or a total of $20.7 billion.
To deal with this, Paterson, who’s always been better at making friends than enemies, needs to become something he’s never been: ruthless and directed. But not too much like Spitzer. Shortly after he took office, Global Strategy put together a poll that found that what voters wanted in their new governor was the anti-Eliot, and that’s someone who was more open, not plotting; embracing, not pushy; a good listener, not a good screamer; someone who told the truth. So he’s been trying to.
He sought out former governor Hugh Carey, who ran the state from 1975 until 1982. “I’m finding myself in that same situation,” Paterson says. “Carey was a pretty liberal-minded person who was confronted with a horrible budget situation. He was a fiscal realist and seemed to maintain his personality.” They talked strategy. “He made the point to me that the economy is amorphous, and the public is not going to get fed up with the economy by itself. Someone has to tell them.” At the October 3 press conference, Paterson said legislators don’t understand how big the problem is. (Republican leader Dean Skelos said, “I don’t need to be lectured.” Paterson apologized for hurting his feelings.)
To the governor’s credit, he’s been early on this. For advice, Paterson has met with former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and had Columbia’s Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz on a panel of experts. He’s appealed to the public for help, putting together a campaign-style tour for his Economic Security Cabinet to host town-hall meetings throughout the state. “This is a new governor trying to create fiscal reality in the minds of those who are in decision-making capacities in this state,” Paterson told a crowd at the Association for a Better New York in early April; he then blamed Spitzer for “misestimated revenues” and called for an end to the “spending binge” in Albany. The numbers kept getting worse. In June 2007, the big Wall Street banks paid $173 million in taxes; for 2008, the state took in only $5 million from them. On July 29, after talking to Carey, Paterson went on television and summoned legislators back for an emergency session to ask them to cut $600 million from this year’s budget. They cut $427 million. To aid AIG (before the Fed stepped in), he swiftly acceded to the company’s request that they access assets from their subsidiaries. He dispatched state workers to set up emergency offices at Lehman. He’s trying to regulate the credit default market.
All the time, he’s grown in popularity. According to the August Quinnipiac tracking poll, his approval ratings were at 64 percent. That’s three points higher than Spitzer was ever able to achieve. “Eliot Spitzer’s nonproductive hostility paved the way for David Paterson’s productive congeniality,” says one insider who worked with both. “So strong is the Spitzer way that only after fifteen months of Governor Spitzer would a man who spent 21 and a half years in Albany seem like a breath of fresh air.”
Being the anti-Spitzer is only going to get Paterson so far. “Yeah, sure, he’s a popular guy now, but new guys are always popular,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Wait a few months, when he’s got to close the deficit and the budget is late and he’s closing down kindergartens and raising taxes. He won’t be so popular then.”
“The test is now upon us,” says E. J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative think tank that specializes in budget issues. “These baseline cuts are small change compared to what’s looming. This is not just another cyclical downturn. The state was relying on a business model that’s now defunct and it’s not coming back.” Which means doing some things that many regard as the provenance of right-wingers: leasing out the roads and bridges and the lottery and anything else he can come up with to private operators. Drafting a proposed new committee—chaired by Charles O’Byrne, his powerful chief of staff—to modify cumbersome state regulations in order to make the state more business-friendly. Much of which horrifies many liberals in his party.
That’s why its so important for Paterson to become a fiscal statesman—or at least appear to be one. Someone above the fray. “He uses his intelligence to form consensus,” says Eric Dinallo, the state insurance superintendent who worked with Spitzer as head of investor protection at the attorney general’s office. Working with both governors, Dinallo says Paterson doesn’t need to prove that he understands the complexity of every issue. “A big part of leadership is framing the dialogue,” Dinallo says.
“In a leader, there has to be an ability to manage the situation,” Paterson says. “Do I like making budget cuts? I hate them! And people say, ‘You changed!’ I didn’t change. But now I’m in a situation where … I didn’t have that responsibility as a legislator. I don’t know if I even fully understood it.”
Paterson has been dogged for years by the idea that he’s not dependable, or disciplined. That his leadership style is “jazz government”—all improvisation, no structure. His job now is to prove them wrong. “My favorite peeve,” he says, is the term “ ‘accidental governor.’ ”
And yet, that’s what he is. Paterson grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. His grandmother was Marcus Garvey’s secretary. His father, Basil Paterson, loaded trucks for the Port Authority, went to law school, and ended up in practice with David Dinkins. Together, they joined Congressman Charlie Rangel and Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton to form the Gang of Four, which would dominate Harlem politics for decades.
As a baby, David Paterson suffered an infection in his ear canal that left him without vision. With the right eye, he can see very little. (His prescription is 20/400.) At the time, he says, public schools in the city would not guarantee legally blind children like him placement in a regular classroom, so the Patersons purchased a home in the suburbs so he could go to school. He never learned to read Braille. He never used a cane or a Seeing Eye dog. He reads with an extremely powerful monocle, one letter at a time.
He tried to get along, like everyone else, and took his beating. “Once, this kid totally dressed me down on the playground, and I tried to fight him.” The other kids held him back. After recess, he ran into the kid again. “I went in the classroom, and right in front of the teacher I hit him in the face with my metal lunch box.” The other boy started to bleed.
David was suspended, but the crime paid off. “No one in the school ever messed with me again,” he says. “I told the principal, ‘I’ll take the punishment, but when I get out I’ll do it again—and make sure everyone hears that.’ ” When you’re legally blind, he says it can be difficult to be taken seriously, but this did it. “I was political then,” he says. “The idea that a principal telling kids, ‘We locked him up, but you all better watch it because when he gets out, he’ll do it again.’ ”
He learned best by listening to recordings. His heroes were the old talk-show hosts, and he recorded himself as the host and impersonated all the guests. It turned him into a great mimic, and he discovered he could make people laugh. He’s dabbled in stand-up and held his own on The Colbert Report last month.
Growing up, “he never had that hunger, that fiery ambition,” says Al Sharpton. “We just knew him as Basil’s son.” Basil was state senator in a district that stretched from Harlem to the Jewish Upper West Side. “Basil was the most realistic idealistic guy around,” the Sharpton says. “He loved great ideas, but if they couldn’t function, he wasn’t interested. He was always the mediator-activist, trying to figure out how to compromise with the opposition. He’d always say, ‘You got to win. It’s not enough to fight. People are remembered in history for what they won, not for what they fought.’ ”
In 1970, when David was 16, Basil was chosen by party leaders to run for lieutenant governor, alongside the former U.S. Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg. In doing so, he became the first black candidate for the office in the state’s history.
Asked to define himself as a candidate, Basil joked to a reporter, “I’m sly, devious, oily, and slick. I dress like a pimp and developed a good memory by hustling numbers in Harlem.” He and Goldberg won the primary, but in the general election Basil was shelved. “You wouldn’t see his face in any campaign commercial, only his name,” David says today. “They had this view that upstate isn’t ready for black people. They thought, ‘Paterson is Catholic. People will just think he’s Irish.’ ” (The pair lost by 700,000 votes to Nelson Rockefeller.)
After high school, Paterson’s grades, he says, “weren’t higher than a B-minus.” He got into Columbia University, the economic centerpiece of his father’s old district. He felt like an outsider there, so he hung out with his younger brother, Danny, in Harlem. They smoked pot (“It didn’t have a mammoth effect with me”) and moved on to cocaine. He’s not sure if he liked it. “You think you’re going to have this great euphoric sexual feeling. So because you think you’re going to have it, you have it.”
Paterson went to law school at Hofstra, and lived in Hempstead. He got a job with the Queens district attorney. While some of his legislative biographies have referred to his role there as assistant district attorney, Paterson’s actual job title had less cachet: criminal-law associate. That’s because he never passed the bar. “I didn’t miss by that much,” he says. “I thought that if the exam had been administered in a different way, I would have passed it.” Despite reading with great difficulty, he helped argue cases.
At night, his friends would drive him into the city to go out.
Paterson had his own disco move. It was born out of spite, he says, at a party in White Plains, at the home of family friends. He remembers the music was loud when he arrived, and his hosts led him by the elbow to a chair. He wanted to get up and mingle. But the host worried that if he tripped and hurt himself, he could get sued. “Let’s get out of here,” Paterson’s friend whispered in his ear.
Paterson didn’t want to go. He had an idea. He told his friend, “Go tell the hostess I’d like to dance with her.”
Yeah, do it.
So the friend went off and returned with the hostess.
“This is a party, isn’t it? Everyone knows there’s dancing. Why wouldn’t I want to dance with you?”
On the dance floor, a space was cleared. Paterson felt the beat of the music and everyone staring at him. He wanted to punch someone. Instead, “I bent down, jumped up, and did a back flip,” he says. “When I did that, the place went crazy. So then I started dancing on my hands.”
Afterward, partygoers wanted to know what the name of that dance was. He made up a name.
“That’s the Mandinka hustle,” he said.
It worked. He started doing the Mandinka whenever he went out. “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” by Sister Sledge, was his favorite song. “The champion of dance, his moves would put you in a trance / And he never leaves the disco alone.” In the club, they lined up—hands on shoulders, hands on hips—and chugged their way through the night. “I would walk down the line on my hands,” Paterson says. “That would be my thing.”
“Sure, he’s a popular guy now. Wait till he’s closing down kindergartens and raising taxes.”
The Gang of Four had a different hustle: taking over the city. In 1985, Basil Paterson was planning to run for mayor. Then he developed a cardiac condition and dropped out. Dinkins was running for borough president, and David Paterson quit his job at the D.A.’s office to work on the Dinkins campaign. “He would introduce me, and when he got through, I had nothing to say,” Dinkins recalls. “I used to tell him, ‘We have a rule: Nobody is supposed to look better, or sound better, than the candidate.’ ”
On the staff, Paterson was also known as a creative problem-solver. When there was a staffer who was difficult to be around when he got too sober, “David came up with the idea of buying a fifth of liquor every morning,” says one former Dinkins campaigner. “By noon this guy was wasted, so we could do whatever we wanted on the campaign for the rest of the day. That’s David. He just comes up with things.”
As the Dinkins campaign marched on through the summer, a State Senate seat opened up. Leon Bogues, who had held Basil Paterson’s old post, passed away, and more than a dozen people wanted his job.
Paterson never thought to run; he was still trying to pass the bar. “I was brooding over it,” he says. Then he received a call from Percy Sutton. “He told me, ‘If you think about running for office, the first $1,000 is on me.’ ” Sutton’s call “reignited a sort of self-esteem, like, you know, ‘People have spoken to me about running for office!’ Yeah, that’s accurate, one person did.” But Paterson talked about it with friends, one of whom was working for Bill Lynch, the consultant. Lynch agreed to become Paterson’s campaign manager and tried to solve their biggest problem.
“My father didn’t think it was time,” Paterson says. Lynch had a plan: an ambush. He called a meeting of the Gang, and didn’t say what it was about. With Sutton, Dinkins, and Basil in the room, Lynch walked in with Paterson and they announced his bid. How could Basil say no?
When he won, Paterson, 31, became the youngest state senator in New York’s history. “We had no idea what we were doing,” jokes Geoffrey Garfield, Paterson’s first chief of staff, who was then only 28.
Republicans controlled everything in the State Senate—the voting calendar, committee posts, office space, staff salaries. The only way to survive was to make friends. Paterson was good at that. “Now I know I’m not supposed to say that I like David Paterson, but I do,” says Dale Volker, a Republican senator and Codes Committee chairman. “He’s great to work with. I even passed a few of his bills out of my committee.”
As a legislator, Paterson says he’s most proud of co-sponsoring a bill with Volker to extend the statute of limitations for predators who sexually abuse children. “This had always been a personal issue for me,” Paterson says. “I have sometimes wondered if I wasn’t aware of something when I was younger … There is a little ring on that issue.” He continues to work on it, signing a bill designed to curb sexual predators access to social networking sites, and, recently, changing the rules so that underage prostitutes were treated as victims instead of criminals, as long as they cooperate with prosecutors.
He wasn’t known for his hard work. According to friends and former staffers, he was preoccupied with his own district and his dating life.
His staff was often in charge of juggling his social schedule. At one time, Paterson’s dating rotation could include as many as four women, one former staffer says. Eventually, he ended up with Michelle Paige, whom he first met at a Temptations reunion concert in 1982. Ten years later—and after she was divorced—they married.
With a baby on the way, Paterson wanted to move back to the city, and in 1993, he ran for his first citywide office—public advocate—and split the Harlem Establishment. Dinkins was up for reelection against Rudy Giuliani. Paterson ran anyway. He came in second to Mark Green, with 19 percent of the vote. (“He was long on personality, short on organization,” Green says, echoing a consistent critique.)
Paterson was a good debater on the Senate floor, though. His skills were such that in 1995, and under pressure from party elders to promote a person of color, Marty Connor, the Democratic minority leader, promoted him to become his deputy. It was a decision that made Connor uneasy. Paterson was then so undependable that Connor dispatched an aide to Paterson’s office before sessions started to make sure he got to the chamber on time.
In 1997, Paterson ran for Manhattan borough president but dropped out of the race because C. Virginia Fields, who’s also black, was the front-runner. Back in Albany, he seemed to lose direction. In the last six months of 2000, Paterson registered only $200 in contributions. (Paterson had previously planned to run for public advocate again and had raised more than $75,000 in a different campaign account, before abandoning that attempt at citywide office.) “The hagiography out there is that David is the scion of the Harlem Establishment,” says a party operative. “The truth was, David was the Fredo of the Harlem Establishment.”
But the whole Democratic caucus was a bit aimless. “We just weren’t getting the job done,” says Manhattan State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who, angry that the Democrats couldn’t gain seats on the Republicans, began plotting a coup to oust Connor. He convinced Paterson to help.
What did he have to lose? When rumors began circulating of the putsch, Connor demanded his deputy make his intentions public. On November 8, 2002, Paterson issued a statement: “I have not solicited support for this position from any other members of the conference,” he said, adding he was “supportive” of Connor. Five days later, he supplanted Connor.
Basil came for Paterson’s swearing in, and Paterson asked him what he thought of his speech. “You used the word ‘appraised,’ ” Basil said. “You meant ‘apprised.’ ”
As leader, Paterson’s management style seemed all improv. He was able to win back three seats from the Republicans in 2004 and put the Democrats within striking distance of taking the State Senate for the first time in decades. Yet he remained often unreliable. One former staffer recalls an instance where Paterson failed to show up at his own press conference. At night, he was often spotted at Elda’s on Lark, an Albany bar, joking around with female staffers and friends. He had separated from his wife. They both were unfaithful, but he seemed hurt by it and wanted revenge. “He’d be sleeping around and be like, ‘Make sure she knows about it,’ ” remembers a staffer.
There was drama in his office. “It was all of this Machiavellian bullshit,” says a former staffer. Because Paterson is legally blind, he depends on them more than most. It’s made it difficult for him to be confrontational. In some cases, he ordered subordinates to fire their own bosses. “I’m sensitive to people,” Paterson explains. “When I was younger, my perception about myself was that I needed everyone. I never knew when I was gonna wind up on a corner, and who was gonna be the next person to help me cross the street. So I never wanted to offend anyone because of that perceived need.”
As minority leader, he learned that he was too powerful to be left on a corner. Finally, after seventeen years in Albany, things were looking up. Once the Democrats took back the Senate, Paterson would became majority leader, one of Albany’s Three Men in a Room. He could control the legislative calendar and pass a host of progressive bills that were sidelined in the Pataki years, like extending rent control and reforming the Rockefeller drug laws. He could send millions in pork back to Harlem. His offices would be grand suites (with his own shower), and ball fields would get named for him. Then he started talking to Spitzer.
At first, the idea of Paterson’s running as Spitzer’s lieutenant governor was for political cover, a bluff. The Gang of Four were pressuring Spitzer to run with Leecia Eve, a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s been an aide to Hillary Clinton and is the daughter of former assemblyman Arthur Eve. But Spitzer wanted to choose his own candidate. He didn’t like the Gang telling him what to do.
Through the years, Paterson and Spitzer had been friendly. “He came to Eliot with this ingenious rope-a-dope idea,” says one former Spitzer aide: Tell the Gang that Spitzer had offered the gig to him and that he had turned it down. Spitzer would appear as if he was open to having a person of color on his ticket, get the Gang off his back, and pick whomever he wanted.
In the meantime, Spitzer looked for Eves who weren’t Eve: Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Pamela Thomas-Graham, who went to Harvard and became the first female black partner at McKinsey & Co. before going on to run CNBC; and Deborah Wright, head of Carver Bancorp. All declined.
Spitzer was frustrated, the aide says. “The more we thought about it, the more Eliot was like, ‘Why don’t I just ask David? Period.’ ” Spitzer’s people never thought he would go for it. But Paterson found himself considering it seriously. “Did I just like being asked,” he wonders, “and asked by someone I had such profound respect for?” There was also the chance that if Senator Hillary Clinton became president, Spitzer would be choosing her replacement. That could be him. “I saw in it a chance to have a national profile,” he says. “I just had this feeling that if I couldn’t enhance the position, I could make it relevant.”
He could also avenge his father’s loss. “Wouldn’t that be something if 36 years later I could come back and close the deal? I always had a reverence for lieutenant governors. Maybe I was the only one.”
On the trail, the two became close. Spitzer invited Paterson to his parents’ house, introduced him to his wealthy friends. Before he met Spitzer, Paterson says, he purchased his suits from Garage Clothing, a discount operation in Brooklyn. Spitzer took him to Hickey Freeman. “I really liked it,” Paterson says. “So I went back.”
Nonetheless, looking back at his campaign, Paterson says he felt shelved. The Spitzer campaign was not overtly racist, but there were undercurrents, he says, of the sort “that go on in a lot of Democratic campaigns.” He still sounds wounded. In one instance, Spitzer promised to run a television commercial with him. “They never did. They filmed one; they didn’t air it.” The campaign ran another spot. “They did the commercial that was in my school, and there’s a picture of me in my school, but Eliot’s doing all the talking. It was Eliot’s commercial. And somebody tried to tell me that was my commercial. Okay.”
It was personal too. “I got to feel a little bit of perhaps what my father felt,” Paterson says.
Once he was in office, Paterson took over certain projects: stem-cell research, energy policy, minority preferences for state contracts. He campaigned for Hillary in Iowa, where he was traveling with an aide who turned out to be his former lover, Lila Kirton, then on the state payroll for $154,000 a year.
“I bent down, jumped up and did a backflip. The place went crazy. So then I started dancing on my hands.”
Spitzer and Paterson haven’t spoken in months. Spitzer has fumed as Paterson has criticized his governing style, and through intermediaries, the former governor has demanded Paterson issue public apologies. They haven’t come. But for his part, Paterson says, he still has deep respect for Spitzer and vowed to make sure his portrait hangs in the Capital one day. “I’ll hang it myself,” he says.
On March 10, he was about to have lunch at his desk (curry chicken) when he learned from a staffer that Spitzer had been snared by the Feds in a prostitution scandal. If the charges stuck, he would be governor.
He wanted to hide. He called his wife. Paterson called up his father and asked him what to do. “Well,” Basil told him, “you say a prayer.”
“I did. I prayed for Eliot.”
“Well, actually, I meant that you need to say a prayer for yourself.”
He sent for Schneiderman, whom he’d betrayed in favor of supporting Malcolm Smith in another State Senate leadership struggle. The Spitzer news was too weird to hold onto grudges. Schneiderman rushed to David’s office.
“It was just me, Charles, and David staring into space, being like, Okay, now, what do we do?” Schneiderman recalls.
In the beginning, there was chaos. “Our office is getting these requests,” Paterson says. “Where is my love child? And they go to my brother’s basically ex-wife, and they ask, is my nephew really my child?” It was dizzying. “You’re feeling this kind of attack, like all of this gossip, and it’s a popular time to gossip because anyone will listen.”
He volunteered to talk to the Daily News. It didn’t tamp things down. But things were just getting weirder in Albany. Paterson feared that rogue members of the state troopers may have been spying on him. “There was obviously an element in the police force and it wasn’t Republican or Democrat, it was just out-of-control people who had power that were clearly monitoring elected officials,” he said in May. “I was kind of afraid of leaks of inaccurate information myself.” A trooper killed himself; there were investigations everywhere. Asked if he believes he was being spied on, he says, “Well, you know, I’d have to say, probably not.”
Not many knew about his private life. Now everyone did. “Michelle and I knew that we had separated, but we had not discussed it with anyone,” he says. “We did not want our children to be exposed to that kind of fractured family. They never knew. We thought that was the right way to do it because, as long as nobody gets elected governor, your family never even knows this happened.” He says that today they’ve reconciled, but at times he seems almost lonely when talking about her. He often gets back to the governor’s mansion before her. “She does her own thing,” he says.
Looking back, Paterson says he should have handled the scandal differently. “We should have let it go, maybe a month after you’re in office you have a press conference on a Friday afternoon and say, By the way … ” Instead, “We probably made it look more scintillating than it actually was.”
Other things changed when he became governor, too. The troopers escorted his kids to school. He was lunching with Rupert Murdoch. According to copies of his schedule book, Paterson also met with some of Spitzer’s biggest foes. On May 29, he met with Hank Greenberg, whom Spitzer helped oust as head of AIG, and Joe Bruno, another Spitzer enemy, for an hour, privately (Paterson’s spokesperson called it a “courtesy visit”). Public-relations big Howard Rubenstein invited him to special dinners with twenty or so of his most influential clients. After they introduced themselves, Paterson remembered them all by voice. Rubenstein was impressed. “He’s quite remarkable.” Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, was also impressed. “He’s a grown-up,” she says. “He knows how to listen.”
These are his new patrons, and Paterson isn’t shy about asking for support. “Most people are afraid to call the donors,” he says. “Like, you have to work yourself into it. I take direction well from fund-raisers—you know, just sit there and make calls. They’ve told me I’m as cooperative as anyone.” Paterson fired his old fund-raisers and hired Spitzer’s team. He’s been raising from all the usual suspects at a steady clip, and his war chest for 2010 has grown to over $3 million.
He’s eschewed Spitzer’s self-imposed limit of declining contributions higher than $10,000, which is understandable, considering he doesn’t have Spitzer’s wealth, but the good-government types have been on him for dropping Spitzer’s crusade of reform and transparency. “He doesn’t even talk about it,” says Blair Horner of NYPIRG. Paterson has also tweaked some rules that favor lobbyists, Horner says. “Every day, more and more, he’s beginning to resemble George Pataki,” says Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. She calls him secretive.
Paterson thinks that the good-government groups don’t understand that backrooms are necessary. “You can’t always negotiate everything in public,” he says. He’s trying to be practical and build a war chest that’s big enough to scare away any other Democrat (Andrew Cuomo, Thomas Suozzi) from challenging him in a primary. At least now he doesn’t have to worry about Bloomberg.
Paterson’s disability makes it difficult for him to micromanage. In some cases, his memory is all he has. His staff leaves him elaborate messages instead of memos, including the text of his speeches, and he begins each day memorizing every word. It takes up a lot of time.
When he was lieutenant governor, he had to memorize a speech a week. “Now I am speaking nearly every day,” he says. It takes Paterson roughly ten minutes to memorize five minutes of speech. “It’s the only way it gets done,” he says.
More than anyone else, he depends on chief of staff Charles O’Byrne. Other than both being Catholics who went to Columbia University, they would seem to have little in common. O’Byrne stayed on at Columbia for law school, but quit the legal world to join the Jesuits. Through friends, he became close to the Kennedy family and officiated at the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. But in 2002, he quit the priesthood too, unhappy with what he saw as its rampant hypocrisy. O’Byrne was gay, and as he wrote in an essay for Playboy titled “Sex & Sexuality,” “The reality of religious life was often masked from the rest of the world.” After confessing to having “my share of casual sex” before entering the Church, O’Byrne goes on to call many of his fellow priests “boyologists.” He wanted to live more openly. “I have been at more than one funeral for a priest where his lover was in the front row,” he wrote.
After leaving the Jesuits, he joined the Howard Dean campaign. Once Dean’s effort ended, his New York campaign chief, gay activist Ethan Geto, got him an interview with Paterson, who was looking to hire a policy analyst. Soon Paterson promoted him to chief of staff. O’Byrne has a quality Paterson doesn’t: He can tell people no. “David needs someone to be his id,” says one person who worked with them in the Senate, “and Charles revels in being his knife.”
Early on in his administration, Paterson issued an executive order to recognize gay marriages from elsewhere; many saw this as more immediately O’Byrne’s agenda. O’Byrne got special permission to have a state driver (and black SUV). “For all intents and purposes, Charles is the governor,” says a party operative.
O’Byrne sees his role as facilitating the governor’s wishes—nothing more. He doesn’t like to talk on the record.
Paterson is changing—adapting, improvising. He learned from Spitzer where to shop, he hired his consultants, and his new drink is Merlot. He even holds meetings sometimes in an old Spitzer haunt, the Three Guys diner on Madison Avenue.
His party, and many of his advisers, including Stiglitz, think that if he continues to cut the budget, he’ll cause more problems for the state. “In recession,” Stiglitz argued in a letter to Paterson, “you want to raise (or not decrease) the level of total spending—by households, businesses, and government—in the economy.” He does have options. The “economically preferable” choice, Stiglitz wrote, is “to raise taxes on those with high incomes [rather] than to cut state expenditures.” But on October 3 Paterson said he wasn’t raising taxes, not even on the rich. And with the Democrats likely to take back the State Senate this November, he might have more headaches, with the unions and special interests ready to push their agendas when he’s trying to rein in spending.
His endgame isn’t so much a charge to the finish line but a fox trot across the political spectrum, a move he’s developed over the years in Albany. “He’s the Fred Astaire of New York politics,” says Hank Sheinkopf, the Democratic consultant. “He can sing and dance at the same time, while telling a good joke, and you never know where the next move is coming from.”