Jesse Jackson is a tough act to follow. Especially today, one day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. As Jackson preaches in his trademark mumbly-mouth South Carolina drawl, it’s impossible not to be transported from the drab midtown-Manhattan hotel ballroom where he’s speaking to that tragic motel balcony in Memphis.
Yet David Paterson surpasses the master.
New York’s governor gobbles some chicken and rice, then takes the podium to address the annual lunch for Jackson’s RainbowPUSH Coalition, which pressures mainstream financial firms to hire minorities and do business with minority-led companies. Paterson, an inveterate joker, immediately has the crowd laughing with a sly reference to the prostitution scandal that promoted him to the governorship. But then Paterson quiets the room and stirs the audience to tears. He turns the preservation of the African Burial Ground, and its proximity to Wall Street, into a parable about how African-Americans need to remember their ancestors’ sacrifices and never stop striving to break down the barriers they face. It’s a moving moment, one in which Paterson himself becomes a symbol of that striving, and as he finishes, he’s bathed in loud chants of “Four more years! Four more years!”
After a mostly brutal 2009, in which he’d often seemed overmatched, Paterson has lately taken strong stands that are both principled and politically advantageous. Now, with the crowd standing and cheering, it’s possible to believe in a full Paterson comeback.
At least until his next momentous lunch. Two days later, on a Saturday when he has no public events scheduled, Paterson turns up in Edgewater, New Jersey, at a suburban-swanky restaurant called the River Palm Terrace. Someone calls the Post: New York’s governor is eating alone with a woman who is not his wife. Soon a Post photographer is ambushing Paterson and the episode is splashed all over Sunday’s front page.
Never mind that Paterson, his wife, the woman in question, the woman in question’s husband, a waiter, and the restaurant manager all strenuously deny any improprieties, or that the Post has long had its knives out for the governor and that the paper’s parent company recently donated $4,000 to Paterson’s political nemesis, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. It’s a dumb choice for a man who rose to New York State’s top job thanks to his predecessor’s sex scandal and who has admitted to extramarital affairs of his own. Not to mention the comic touch of Paterson’s wearing a shiny purple shirt.
David Paterson has always been a paradox—an outsider by virtue of his blindness, he’s also the scion of one of the city’s elite black political families and has spent his entire adult life on the public payroll. Now, as he tries to save his political career, the governor is embracing the underdog side of his identity and positioning himself as the only responsible adult in Albany.
“I didn’t know a lot about myself until I’d come through this last year—the most difficult conflicts I’ve faced, at least in government,” Paterson tells me one recent afternoon as we ride through Manhattan in the back of a state-owned SUV.
His hard-won self-knowledge, though, remains mixed with a penchant for unpredictability. Paterson’s past three months as governor have been his best. He has shown spine by introducing a comprehensive Albany ethics-reform package and withholding state payments to keep New York out of bankruptcy. Yet every step forward is followed by another one back. Paterson’s ethics push alienated some of his few remaining supporters. Less than a day after delivering a forceful State of the State speech declaring an end to irresponsible state spending, the governor equivocated, telling a radio interviewer he should be judged on the goals he sets, not whether he accomplishes them. He mounted a belated public drive for $700 million in federal “Race to the Top” school funding only to be outmaneuvered by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the teachers union, who wanted to clamp down on charter schools.
As Paterson has slowly progressed as governor, projecting leadership though still struggling to assert his will on crucial issues, the personal and political toll on him has been striking: A man who only two years ago was one of the most popular in Albany is now reviled by his former colleagues. Those are good enemies to have, but one result of Paterson’s calamitous time in office is that he has become more isolated, trusting an ever-smaller cadre of aides even as he’s desperately in need of allies. The day after Paterson’s energetic Jackson-lunch speech, his latest campaign filing showed a paltry $3 million in the bank, a war chest dwarfed by his putative rival’s $16 million. Calls by state Democratic politicians and union leaders are mounting for him to bow out of this year’s governor’s race in favor of Cuomo. Paterson’s campaign staff, already skeletal, took another hit two weeks ago when its Washington-based spokeswoman quit.