The Governor’s Game

Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBCU Photo Bank (Kennedy); Bryan Smith/Zuma Press (Paterson)

Of all the strangeness fogging the competition to replace Hillary Clinton—the fake letter from the mayor of Paris printed in the Times; the faker “platform” issued on behalf of Caroline Kennedy; the oblique message to Hillary’s loyalists to quiet down; the Fran Drescher candidacy—this is my absolute favorite anecdote: Somewhere in Albany, there is an answering machine. Potential candidates for Hillary’s Senate seat are passed a phone number by representatives of Governor David Paterson and told to call it and leave a message declaring their desire. Maybe they’ll get a call back; maybe they won’t. If you’d like to be the next junior senator from the State of New York, please press one!

“Patently not true,” one of Paterson’s aides says. And yet the Batphone story, even if apocryphal, is perfectly emblematic of this mystery dance. If only there were an old-fashioned smoke-filled room—then all the baffled conventional pols would know how to go about making their case. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney points to a sixteen-year list of worthy legislation she’s helped pass and her experience winning multiple races on the Upper East Side. But even after an extensive meeting with Paterson, she’s still unclear how much any of that counts, if at all. “It’s being written about as if it’s a beauty contest,” Maloney says. “Well, if it’s a beauty contest, I’m definitely gonna lose. But if they look at merit, I have a strong track record.”

“We all do our logical analysis and handicapping,” says another participant in the Hillary-replacement game. “But there’s always the 10 to 20 percent David Paterson wackiness factor.” Now, with the governor claiming to be irritated by all the lobbying, the chatter has turned to why he doesn’t simply pick a winner and end the spectacle (though he’s said all along he wouldn’t choose a replacement till Hillary actually leaves).

The governor has been plenty unpredictable in his political career. But this time it appears he’s attempting to be crazy like a fox. It’s hard to believe he would reject Kennedy after giving her the green light to run around the state. What’s clear is that he’s dragging out the decision, and throwing out alternative possibilities—even far-fetched ones, like Assemblyman Dan O’Donnell and teachers-union chief Randi Weingarten—for a pragmatic reason. “It’s raising the price for the Kennedys—figuratively, of course,” one Democratic insider says. “The longer it goes on, the more nervous Ted Kennedy and the Obama people get.” So, to seal the deal, perhaps they’ll deliver more benefits for Paterson and the state.

That’s one reason Kennedy allies are now trying to speed up the clock. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg urged Paterson to make a decision soon; meanwhile, Bloomberg’s political strategist, Kevin Sheekey, has been on the phone implementing a classic “inevitability” strategy: Caroline’s a lock, he tells labor leaders and elected officials, so get onboard today if you want to be on the winning team. One Democratic boss—Brooklyn’s Vito Lopez—has publicly jumped on the train, but the union leaders who were rumored to be declaring their imminent support for Kennedy haven’t materialized.

Paterson’s aides say he’s given no indication to any of the players that Kennedy or anyone else is in the lead. Then again, just who speaks authoritatively for the governor is the state’s second-hottest political guessing game. “Charles O’Byrne [the governor’s former chief of staff, ousted in a tax-returns scandal, who is also close to the Kennedy family] presents himself as someone whom Paterson still talks to, but that’s unclear,” a state Democrat says. “The governor is creating this fiction of talking to people like Charlie Rangel and Nita Lowey and Greg Meeks, and he checks in with Chuck Schumer. Beyond that? He’s played this as close to the vest as anything I’ve ever seen. He trusts very few people. Everybody around him has an agenda or a client in this, so he’s just not talking to anybody.”

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The Governor’s Game