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Gov. Nice Guy

Everybody likes David Paterson—maybe because he never asked them to take him too seriously. But can New York’s decidedly unusual governor keep the state from becoming a wreck?


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.


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