Perhaps there’s a more personal explanation for the mess, and for his ambivalence about being the state’s chief executive: Senator is the job Paterson always wanted. He accepted Spitzer’s offer to run for lieutenant governor partly because Paterson believed Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2008 and he’d be perfectly positioned to replace her. But when Spitzer’s disgrace and Obama’s rise foiled that scheme, Paterson, as governor, considered naming himself to the vacancy created when Clinton was picked as secretary of State. “Andrew [Cuomo] has always dreamed about being governor and president; David has always dreamed about being U.S. senator,” says a New York Democrat who is a friend of both. “We had an opportunity for it to work out that way. We had a small threshold where if David had named himself senator, we could have had some time with Malcolm Smith as interim governor while putting together a process to give Andrew an opportunity in a special election to run for governor. It would have solved a lot of problems. We said to David, ‘Look, we’re in a bad situation, not caused by you. Your dream job is open. Go get your dream job, and we’ll put New York State back together.’ But David did the responsible thing.”
His reward? Being stuck with a terrible, probably impossible hand as governor. Spitzer succeeded just enough—by helping to elect a narrow State Senate Democratic majority for the first time in 44 years—to destabilize half the Legislature, magnifying the might of labor unions and real-estate lobbyists. Then the economy collapsed. Paterson scrambled to close billions in new deficits as legislators refused to cut a dime for education or health care, the two biggest pots of state spending. “Why is everything so much harder for me than everybody else?” Paterson says he sometimes asks himself. “Why do these things happen to me? My way of reconciling it was spiritually, that God is not punishing me, because I haven’t done anything wrong, but that God is testing me.”
Divine plans aside, Paterson frequently compounded his difficulties with indecision. “He makes a better first impression than anybody I’ve ever met, but the second impression is a doozy and it’s more telling of his character,” says a New York political strategist who has known Paterson for many years. “The guy doesn’t have a steady compass, at all. At all.”
“God is not punishing me,” Paterson says. “God is testing me.”
Paterson has made fitful progress in righting the ship. Last February, he installed a new chief of staff, the no-nonsense Larry Schwartz, and Paterson has won some real victories, like the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws and the stiffening of anti-domestic-violence statutes. Yet his public-approval ratings cratered through most of 2009, and in September, while the president was in town to deliver a speech on Wall Street, Obama’s domestic-politics chief, Patrick Gaspard, met with Paterson and told him the White House believed he couldn’t win in 2010. Paterson, furious and hurt, dug in his heels. He now counts the episode as a positive turning point. “I was walking in the Columbus Day Parade, and you go over to the side and see people, and they’re like, ‘If you want to run for governor, you run,’ ” Paterson says. “They respect that I held a position and there shouldn’t be any outside influence in what goes on in New York. And that gave me a boost of encouragement.”
His polling encouraged a comeback plan: standing up to the Legislature and “special interests.” Paterson finally began seizing the initiative last July, naming Richard Ravitch to the vacant lieutenant governor’s office despite the threat of a court challenge. Last spring, he held the increase in state spending—aside from the infusion of federal stimulus money—to a mere .7 percent. In Albany, any governor who holds the increase in spending below double-digits normally qualifies for canonization. Paterson has received some pats on the back from newspaper editorialists. But the “millionaire’s tax” he opposed then accepted hasn’t met revenue projections, and now Paterson must figure out what to do when the stimulus money disappears next year. Or he can keep blaming the Legislature for refusing to agree on a solution.
In November, Harold Ickes, the combative Clinton strategist who is a law-firm partner and decades-long friend of Paterson’s father, joined the thin Paterson campaign team after informally advising the governor for months. “The thing I pinpointed early—and he’s gone a long, long way in this direction—is discipline, discipline, discipline,” Ickes says. “The governor really now understands the challenge, or challenges, on a number of fronts, and he’s really come to understand that discipline is the watchword here.”
What took so long? “When you look back over his history, I don’t want to say they were shoo-ins, but they were not really tough elections,” Ickes says. “Over the past months, he has really come to understand that this is a tough election. As you look at the past three or four months, the evidence is there that he understands that and he’s really working on it.”