David’s Goliath

Paterson and his security detail and passersby outside the Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Manhattan.Photo: Jake Chessum

Jesse Jackson is a tough act to follow. Especially today, one day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. As Jackson preaches in his trademark mumbly-mouth South Carolina drawl, it’s impossible not to be transported from the drab midtown-Manhattan hotel ballroom where he’s speaking to that tragic motel balcony in Memphis.

Yet David Paterson surpasses the master.

New York’s governor gobbles some chicken and rice, then takes the podium to address the annual lunch for Jackson’s RainbowPUSH Coalition, which pressures mainstream financial firms to hire minorities and do business with minority-led companies. Paterson, an inveterate joker, immediately has the crowd laughing with a sly reference to the prostitution scandal that promoted him to the governorship. But then Paterson quiets the room and stirs the audience to tears. He turns the preservation of the African Burial Ground, and its proximity to Wall Street, into a parable about how African-Americans need to remember their ancestors’ sacrifices and never stop striving to break down the barriers they face. It’s a moving moment, one in which Paterson himself becomes a symbol of that striving, and as he finishes, he’s bathed in loud chants of “Four more years! Four more years!”

After a mostly brutal 2009, in which he’d often seemed overmatched, Paterson has lately taken strong stands that are both principled and politically advantageous. Now, with the crowd standing and cheering, it’s possible to believe in a full Paterson comeback.

At least until his next momentous lunch. Two days later, on a Saturday when he has no public events scheduled, Paterson turns up in Edgewater, New Jersey, at a suburban-swanky restaurant called the River Palm Terrace. Someone calls the Post: New York’s governor is eating alone with a woman who is not his wife. Soon a Post photographer is ambushing Paterson and the episode is splashed all over Sunday’s front page.

Never mind that Paterson, his wife, the woman in question, the woman in question’s husband, a waiter, and the restaurant manager all strenuously deny any improprieties, or that the Post has long had its knives out for the governor and that the paper’s parent company recently donated $4,000 to Paterson’s political nemesis, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. It’s a dumb choice for a man who rose to New York State’s top job thanks to his predecessor’s sex scandal and who has admitted to extramarital affairs of his own. Not to mention the comic touch of Paterson’s wearing a shiny purple shirt.

David Paterson has always been a paradox—an outsider by virtue of his blindness, he’s also the scion of one of the city’s elite black political families and has spent his entire adult life on the public payroll. Now, as he tries to save his political career, the governor is embracing the underdog side of his identity and positioning himself as the only responsible adult in Albany.

“I didn’t know a lot about myself until I’d come through this last year—the most difficult conflicts I’ve faced, at least in government,” Paterson tells me one recent afternoon as we ride through Manhattan in the back of a state-owned SUV.

His hard-won self-knowledge, though, remains mixed with a penchant for unpredictability. Paterson’s past three months as governor have been his best. He has shown spine by introducing a comprehensive Albany ethics-reform package and withholding state payments to keep New York out of bankruptcy. Yet every step forward is followed by another one back. Paterson’s ethics push alienated some of his few remaining supporters. Less than a day after delivering a forceful State of the State speech declaring an end to irresponsible state spending, the governor equivocated, telling a radio interviewer he should be judged on the goals he sets, not whether he accomplishes them. He mounted a belated public drive for $700 million in federal “Race to the Top” school funding only to be outmaneuvered by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the teachers union, who wanted to clamp down on charter schools.

As Paterson has slowly progressed as governor, projecting leadership though still struggling to assert his will on crucial issues, the personal and political toll on him has been striking: A man who only two years ago was one of the most popular in Albany is now reviled by his former colleagues. Those are good enemies to have, but one result of Paterson’s calamitous time in office is that he has become more isolated, trusting an ever-smaller cadre of aides even as he’s desperately in need of allies. The day after Paterson’s energetic Jackson-lunch speech, his latest campaign filing showed a paltry $3 million in the bank, a war chest dwarfed by his putative rival’s $16 million. Calls by state Democratic politicians and union leaders are mounting for him to bow out of this year’s governor’s race in favor of Cuomo. Paterson’s campaign staff, already skeletal, took another hit two weeks ago when its Washington-based spokeswoman quit.

In his Manhattan office making fundraising calls.Photo: Jake Chessum

Those who know Paterson well won’t predict how his drama ends—whether in unexpected triumph, baffling implosion, or pride-fueled fight to the bitter end. The only guarantee is a large helping of weirdness.

The St. George Theatre on Staten Island is an architecturally riotous vaudeville-era masterpiece. The three-hour ceremony inside it on this Saturday morning is nearly as baroque as the theater itself: The swearing-in of new City Councilwoman Debi Rose features appearances by African dancers, bagpipers, Girl Scouts, Senator Chuck Schumer, enrobed state judges, and a children’s choir singing a Styx hit, capped by a bloated 45-minute speech by Rose in which she name-checks everyone she’s ever met. The occasion is indeed worth celebrating—Rose is Staten Island’s first elected African-American official—but the pomp is out of proportion.

Paterson, after performing the official raise-your-right-hand duties, sits patiently through Rose’s numbing opus and still manages to emerge smiling. On his way out, he encounters an elementary-school group that has been freezing in a stairwell for an hour, waiting for its turn onstage. Paterson yells, “First one down the stairs gets a prize! Just kidding!” The kids laugh, warmed by his humor.

No one dislikes Paterson—at first, anyway. Even at the age of 55, with gray hairs spreading across his scalp, he exudes a magnetic, boyish charm. Paterson is quick with a joke and has a ready anecdote for every occasion. The facts of his life are irresistibly sympathetic. When he was 3 months old, an ear infection spread, robbing Paterson of nearly all his sight. He nevertheless graduated from Columbia and then Hofstra Law School before entering the family business, politics, first as a campaign aide to David Dinkins and in 1985, with the crucial sponsorship of his father Basil’s Harlem allies, winning a special election for a State Senate seat. He spent twenty mostly unremarkable years as part of the State Senate’s Democratic minority except for pulling off a coup and becoming minority leader. Then, in 2006, Eliot Spitzer shocked New York’s political class by picking Paterson as his running mate.

That, of course, was nothing compared with the shock in March 2008, when Spitzer quit. Paterson arrived in the governor’s office at a singularly awful moment in state politics. The state budget was dangerously out of balance and the economy was slowing. The State Legislature, already an uncontrollable force, was emerging from the Spitzer era both traumatized and emboldened. Paterson initially enjoyed an extended honeymoon, even after admitting to his own extramarital affairs and drug use. The Legislature was thrilled to be dealing with one of its own, especially when Paterson effectively surrendered his first budget to its control. “I said, ‘Look, the governor did not have me working on the budget this year. I have no idea what the issues are,’ ” Paterson says now. It’s a startling admission—even if Spitzer kept a tight rein on the specifics, a lieutenant governor should have been better equipped on the rudiments of the state’s finances. To his credit, though, Paterson, in July 2008, was one of the first major elected officials to warn loudly of the nightmarish impending recession.

He has also been trying to dig out of a substantial hole of his own. Paterson bungled the choice of a senator to replace Hillary Clinton, crowning the months-long mess with the late-night trashing of the leading candidate for the seat, Caroline Kennedy, and the last-minute pick of Kirsten Gillibrand. The governor became the target of often cruel ridicule, with Saturday Night Live mocking his disability and Brooklyn state senator Kevin Parker scalding Paterson as a “coke-snorting, staff-banging governor.” During last summer’s stalemate that paralyzed state government, legislators alternately ignored Paterson or cursed him.

“Some of them are just nasty people,” Paterson tells me, as we ride from Staten Island. “They just are. I knew that when I was minority leader and half the time spent too much time trying to keep them out of trouble.”

Paterson knows he’s still saddled by the Kennedy-Gillibrand debacle, so one year later he’s eager to try to explain—taking responsibility, casting himself as a bystander, and claiming it could have been even worse. “Everyone says the appointment should have been made earlier,” he tells me. “That’s probably right, because it became like appointing a vice-president—it became like a circus. You get one super-high-profile person in the process and it changes the whole process. But what happened was that our senator had not stepped down. All of these other quick appointments, like Governor Patrick appointing someone to replace Ted Kennedy—well, Ted Kennedy had passed away before they picked the person. Senator Clinton was still there. And if people think that was a misstep, think about what would have been written about the misstep had I appointed someone and she doesn’t wind up leaving. So I’ve annoyed twenty people that think they should have replaced her, and to know that they weren’t my choice? Plus the fact that if she never left, then there’s one person who is designated and doesn’t serve. That would have been a train wreck.”

The governer signing an autograph.Photo: Jake Chessum

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.”

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.”

In any other line of work, that kind of equanimity would be evidence of enviable mental health. In politics, unfortunately, it’s an attitude that will get you killed.

Paterson continues to chat confidently and volubly for the next 45 minutes, until the car reaches the semi-circular driveway outside his apartment building. It isn’t just any high-rise: It’s Lenox Terrace, the residence of Harlem’s old-line black elite, including Rangel and Paterson’s father. He’s never completely escaped their shadows or expectations. As the SUV comes to a stop, Paterson interrupts his answer about how he believes the ongoing Albany disaster provides an opening for his political recovery. He’s strangely anxious. “Should we move the car so we can do a few more minutes?” he asks his press secretary. She looks puzzled. Then I realize Paterson is worried about blocking the building’s driveway—an endearing humility, but one that seems misguided, especially with two state troopers sitting in the front seats.

“You’re the governor of the State of New York!” I tell him. “Who’s going to tell you to move?”

“Yeah, that’s right!” Paterson says with a laugh. “My problem is, when I get on that elevator, I’m not feeling like the governor sometimes. One time it was pouring, so the troopers went up the ramp so I could be closer to the door, ’cause I had no raincoat. I came in there, people in the lobby started screaming at me! ‘Don’t you ever put that car there!’ See, in your building, it’s like you’re family—you’re just that guy from the tenth floor.”

But it’s clear that his reaction isn’t simply about etiquette, or about the great leveling New York attitude that doesn’t care if you’re a celebrity—just don’t block the damn door. It’s about his forever complicated position, not just in politics but in the world at large. David Paterson, who built a political career on camaraderie, is all by himself.

David’s Goliath