Staying the King

Illustration by Dan Goldman

The day before Easter, David Paterson and about a dozen of his closest advisers and fund-raisers sat around a long table to plot the resurrection of his governorship. Paterson had just wrapped up another dreadful week. It started with a poll showing that most New Yorkers think he shouldn’t run for reelection; by midweek, the head of a state-employees union, angry over threatened layoffs, said Paterson “needs a good psychiatrist, or at least he should share the drugs he’s on.” Then Paterson was booed at a minor-league game in Buffalo.

Yet inside the hotel boardroom, the mood was upbeat, even fiery. Jon Cohen, a former Paterson official, urged the governor to strike hard at his most dangerous primary threat, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. “He’s out there mounting his own campaign, so we should take him out,” one attendee recalled Cohen suggesting. The idea was shot down, but not the sentiment behind it. Paterson assured the gathering, which included his former chief of staff Charles O’Byrne, MTA chairman H. Dale Hemmerdinger, lobbyist Bill Lynch, and activist Charlie King, that he was going to fight on. “At the end, there was not a scintilla of doubt in anyone’s mind that he’s running, and running hard,” says a source.

Does Paterson need a psychiatrist? He has the lowest approval rating recorded for any New York governor and is 43 points behind Cuomo. His budget was widely criticized and the MTA-bailout talks foundered. But Paterson’s stubbornness may not be as pathological as it seems. While his survival strategy, as mapped out at the secret meeting, isn’t likely to make him beloved, it could prevent Democrats from pulling the plug.

The governor, say the aides, will start by mobilizing support from prominent black leaders, including Al Sharpton. He intends to tailor his message more explicitly to minority voters, drawing more attention to his overhaul of the Rockefeller mandatory-drug-sentencing laws. Aides say Paterson also plans to make a more direct appeal for support against his adversaries. “How is it that all of these unions run wild and kick him? It’s a kick at all of us. People in the African-American community are asking why are they doing it. It’s a pride thing,” says a Paterson ally.

Next, they agreed to push ahead for legalizing same-sex marriage and propose a cap on state spending, attention-grabbing measures intended to show the governor’s courage. Combined with a solid black base, this could bump him over the line.

But the key part of the governor’s plan is reminding Democrats that he’s not going away. While the governor knows a lot of Democrats would rather see Cuomo at the top of the ticket, he’s counting on their fear of bloodshed. “He’s coming out and asking everybody: Are you with me or not? And if you’re with me, step up and do A, B, and C. I believe the message will be sent within the next few weeks,” says a Paterson source. The governor has already won the backing of Nassau and Suffolk Democratic leaders.“If he refuses to go easily, they’re basically stuck with him. And then you need to prop him up,” says one Democratic lawmaker.

All of which means if Democrats don’t want Paterson, they’ll have to do more than ask. Says defiant Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright: “You’ve got to beat the king. He’s not just going to step aside. You have to take him out.”

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Staying the King