Last week, a desperate Paterson brought O’Byrne back from exile—though, in classic Patersonian style, he did so with maximum messiness. O’Byrne is kind-of, sort-of back, allegedly a mere “volunteer” in the governor’s reelection campaign. “Nonsense,” an Albany insider says. “O’Byrne is running the show again. Charles is not the kind of guy who would come back and do a half-assed job. And unless he’s completely in control, he’s not worth it.”
O’Byrne orchestrated an administrative shake-up last week, installing a new Paterson staff director and political consultant, among others. But all the political-class chattering about O’Byrne and personnel moves obscures a more serious problem. O’Byrne and the other aides are essentially mechanics, organizing Paterson’s life and controlling the flow of information to him; no visionary has been installed to solve the larger questions of where the state should go from here. “Charles knows even less about policy than Paterson,” one Albany veteran says. “He’s purely transactional.” The power void, when it comes to the budget negotiations, will be filled, as it has been for decades, by Sheldon Silver and the lobbyists. The first great test of the revamped Paterson administration will come over the $8 billion in unrestricted federal stimulus cash that will rain on the capitol over the next two years. If Paterson allows himself to be pushed around, the money, instead of going to job-creating infrastructure projects or to debt reduction or to holding the line on taxes, could be spent to increase the state’s budget yet again. “The hospitals want every stimulus penny for Medicaid, and the school lobby wants all the education money restored,” says E. J. McMahon, a state-budget expert with the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute. “Their aims add up to a budget that grows at six or seven times the rate of inflation—at a time when we’re in a severe recession. It reminds me of what Mario Cuomo did during recessions: halfhearted cuts that weren’t enough, and massive tax increases. It succeeded in getting everybody mad at him and the budget end result was always worse. And that’s what’s gonna happen now.” If Paterson emulates Mario Cuomo, his reward will be defeat in 2010, probably by Andrew Cuomo.
Spitzer says he is rooting for a Paterson turnaround. “David is going to be, in the long run, a really superb governor,” he said last week at a party to watch President Obama’s speech to Congress. “I think he’s obviously being given a tough time by the media, and that’s reflected in poll numbers that are momentary, but only momentary measures. David, I believe, shares the right agenda and understands what we need to do, and will not only find his footing but will find the eloquence that defines him. And I look forward to that.”
Privately, however, he’s said to be pessimistic. And Spitzer has something extra invested in Paterson’s revival: any hope of restoring even part of his own reputation. Spitzer expected to be remembered for his spectacular demise. Paterson has given him something else to dread: being remembered for leaving behind an incompetent successor.