Those who know Paterson well won’t predict how his drama ends—whether in unexpected triumph, baffling implosion, or pride-fueled fight to the bitter end. The only guarantee is a large helping of weirdness.
The St. George Theatre on Staten Island is an architecturally riotous vaudeville-era masterpiece. The three-hour ceremony inside it on this Saturday morning is nearly as baroque as the theater itself: The swearing-in of new City Councilwoman Debi Rose features appearances by African dancers, bagpipers, Girl Scouts, Senator Chuck Schumer, enrobed state judges, and a children’s choir singing a Styx hit, capped by a bloated 45-minute speech by Rose in which she name-checks everyone she’s ever met. The occasion is indeed worth celebrating—Rose is Staten Island’s first elected African-American official—but the pomp is out of proportion.
Paterson, after performing the official raise-your-right-hand duties, sits patiently through Rose’s numbing opus and still manages to emerge smiling. On his way out, he encounters an elementary-school group that has been freezing in a stairwell for an hour, waiting for its turn onstage. Paterson yells, “First one down the stairs gets a prize! Just kidding!” The kids laugh, warmed by his humor.
No one dislikes Paterson—at first, anyway. Even at the age of 55, with gray hairs spreading across his scalp, he exudes a magnetic, boyish charm. Paterson is quick with a joke and has a ready anecdote for every occasion. The facts of his life are irresistibly sympathetic. When he was 3 months old, an ear infection spread, robbing Paterson of nearly all his sight. He nevertheless graduated from Columbia and then Hofstra Law School before entering the family business, politics, first as a campaign aide to David Dinkins and in 1985, with the crucial sponsorship of his father Basil’s Harlem allies, winning a special election for a State Senate seat. He spent twenty mostly unremarkable years as part of the State Senate’s Democratic minority except for pulling off a coup and becoming minority leader. Then, in 2006, Eliot Spitzer shocked New York’s political class by picking Paterson as his running mate.
That, of course, was nothing compared with the shock in March 2008, when Spitzer quit. Paterson arrived in the governor’s office at a singularly awful moment in state politics. The state budget was dangerously out of balance and the economy was slowing. The State Legislature, already an uncontrollable force, was emerging from the Spitzer era both traumatized and emboldened. Paterson initially enjoyed an extended honeymoon, even after admitting to his own extramarital affairs and drug use. The Legislature was thrilled to be dealing with one of its own, especially when Paterson effectively surrendered his first budget to its control. “I said, ‘Look, the governor did not have me working on the budget this year. I have no idea what the issues are,’ ” Paterson says now. It’s a startling admission—even if Spitzer kept a tight rein on the specifics, a lieutenant governor should have been better equipped on the rudiments of the state’s finances. To his credit, though, Paterson, in July 2008, was one of the first major elected officials to warn loudly of the nightmarish impending recession.
He has also been trying to dig out of a substantial hole of his own. Paterson bungled the choice of a senator to replace Hillary Clinton, crowning the months-long mess with the late-night trashing of the leading candidate for the seat, Caroline Kennedy, and the last-minute pick of Kirsten Gillibrand. The governor became the target of often cruel ridicule, with Saturday Night Live mocking his disability and Brooklyn state senator Kevin Parker scalding Paterson as a “coke-snorting, staff-banging governor.” During last summer’s stalemate that paralyzed state government, legislators alternately ignored Paterson or cursed him.
“Some of them are just nasty people,” Paterson tells me, as we ride from Staten Island. “They just are. I knew that when I was minority leader and half the time spent too much time trying to keep them out of trouble.”
Paterson knows he’s still saddled by the Kennedy-Gillibrand debacle, so one year later he’s eager to try to explain—taking responsibility, casting himself as a bystander, and claiming it could have been even worse. “Everyone says the appointment should have been made earlier,” he tells me. “That’s probably right, because it became like appointing a vice-president—it became like a circus. You get one super-high-profile person in the process and it changes the whole process. But what happened was that our senator had not stepped down. All of these other quick appointments, like Governor Patrick appointing someone to replace Ted Kennedy—well, Ted Kennedy had passed away before they picked the person. Senator Clinton was still there. And if people think that was a misstep, think about what would have been written about the misstep had I appointed someone and she doesn’t wind up leaving. So I’ve annoyed twenty people that think they should have replaced her, and to know that they weren’t my choice? Plus the fact that if she never left, then there’s one person who is designated and doesn’t serve. That would have been a train wreck.”