Lately he’s been all over the radio dial, from joshing about the Jets on WFAN to commiserating about the Haiti earthquake with former mayor David Dinkins on WLIB. His public-approval ratings have rebounded slightly. “Clearly the governor’s base is African-Americans,” Ickes says. “I think Hispanics are going to have a strong identification with this governor. He’ll have a real appeal to average working New Yorkers, no matter what their ethnic or racial background is; they’re hurting, and they want to know that somebody in Albany is concerned about their plight.”
Paterson’s adherence to that blueprint is sporadic. Ickes is only one of many voices in Paterson’s ear—in 2009, the governor paid at least fourteen political consultants, and Charles O’Byrne, his former chief of staff, still keeps in touch. The greater problem is that Paterson listens to everyone and no one. “It’s as if there’s a dialogue in his head that supersedes all other voices,” one exasperated adviser says. “He is an extraordinarily unusual politician. His degree of thinking aloud; his degree of openly and verbally changing his mind; his ability to argue passionately to do something two completely different ways; his belief that he is his own best advocate and strategist and handler and adviser.”
Two mysterious aides have outsize influence. Clemmie Harris, a former state trooper, and David Johnson, the omnipresent “body guy,” have been with Paterson since his days in the State Senate. “A lot of things have changed in David’s world, but those two are constants,” a Paterson operative says. His bond with them is part loyalty and part proximity. Harris and Johnson—known as D.J. to minimize confusion because he shares a first name with the boss—frequently spend nights in the governor’s mansion. But the duo are viewed with enormous suspicion by Paterson’s other allies and associates, for how they shape the flow of information and feed Paterson’s belief that he’s been a great governor. There are also significant stretches of Paterson’s workweek in which he has no public schedule. It is those days that make his aides most nervous, because even top staffers are often clueless as to what Paterson is doing.
Maybe black voters will save Paterson in September’s Democratic primary. But lately New York’s black leaders—including such supposed friends as former state comptroller Carl McCall and Reverend Al Sharpton—have been flirting conspicuously with Cuomo, raising the chances of something unprecedented: that a sitting governor might not receive enough support at this spring’s party convention to gain a spot on the fall ballot. The other leg of Paterson’s long-shot strategy is to draw Cuomo out of hiding. “I think with most candidates you never really know until they’re really in a big fight,” Paterson tells me. “It’s like the way they train boxers: Keep jabbing, keep jabbing. Then they get hit once, and they go right back to swinging like they’re back on the playground in junior high school. So you never really know until the time comes with anyone, whether they’ve actually changed.” Lately the taunting has grown frantic and overt, with Paterson accusing Cuomo of hiding in the “candidate protection program” while Paterson wrestles with the tough issues. So far Cuomo has been content to methodically assemble support without engaging Paterson publicly, confident that his advantage in money and polls can withstand a few weeks of carping.
Some of Paterson’s remaining high-profile backers—most prominently his Harlem-apartment-building neighbor, Congressman Charles Rangel—have suggested Cuomo risks antagonizing black New Yorkers if he challenges Paterson in a Democratic primary. “No, I’m not really comfortable with that argument,” the governor says—before making it himself, in a roundabout way, reviewing how McCall patiently waited his turn before running for governor in 2002. “And here comes Andrew Cuomo, who was from hud,” Paterson says. “He’s the governor’s son. He’s never held an elective office. And he just kind of zooms in. I remember he called me up and said, ‘Hey, are you ready to get these old guys out and bring in some new leadership?’ And I’m thinking, ‘So we have to have two Cuomos before we can have one black governor? Is he kidding?’ ”
Paterson seems genuinely wounded by Cuomo’s threat. “In candid moments, what David says about Andrew is, ‘He’s getting a free ride, and it’s ridiculous,’ ” a veteran Democrat says. “The other thing Paterson believes about Andrew is that he’s a mean, tough son of a bitch, and that this image of the new Andrew, Mr. Nice Guy, who is mature—David says, ‘Anybody who thinks he’s changed his stripes is nuts.’ ”
Typically, Paterson’s only references to his blindness are jokes meant to put people at ease. Near the end of January’s State of the State speech, however, he included an unusually personal description of how he draws strength from his handicap. Riding uptown, he elaborates. “I remembered the alienation of disability, being ridiculed as a child, that kind of thing, being left out of things,” Paterson says. “In school they’d tell us to read something, and it would take me an hour to read a couple of pages. And because I was in public school and I was one of the first legally blind students in public school, the message I got was, ‘Don’t say anything and you won’t get into trouble.’ Times like that, there’s a tremendous feeling of loneliness, a tremendous feeling of isolation. I’d go to birthday parties, and the parents seemed very apprehensive about having me there. Those were the real struggles in my life—not being governor. Not being reelected as governor? If you told me, when I was feeling that ridiculed and alienated, ‘Here’s the deal: We’ll get you out of this, but you’re not going to get reelected as governor.’ Hey! That’s not bad. I’d sign for it.”