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Gov. Nice Guy

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Democratic candidate for New York State lieutenant governor Basil Paterson appears with his family in campaign headquarters in New York, June 23, 1970. From left, son Daniel, wife Portia, and David.  

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.”


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