ALBANY, N.Y. — That late July afternoon in 2008 television screens throughout New York snapped to the image of a stern Gov. David Paterson in an unprecedented statewide address.
“Our economic woes are so severe that I wanted to talk to you personally this evening about where we stand,” he said. “Let me be honest: This situation will get worse before it gets better. But the time to act is now … today, I promise: there will be action.”
Polls soon jumped for New York’s first black governor. The legally blind 54-year-old from Harlem who had been the most popular member of the Legislature for 20 years was making the transition to chief executive.
That promise ended in January 2010. By then, the man who succeeded Eliot Spitzer after a prostitution scandal brought down Spitzer, had lost his closest advisers to scandal and resignation. Public insults included a fellow Democrat who called him a “coke-snorting, staff-banging governor.” A tabloid depicted him as a lying Pinnochio. A union boss compared him to the German Army in World War II and a rat as Paterson addressed deficits by cutting $40 billion to special interests over three years while threatening layoffs.
Editorials called for his resignation. Most in Albany expected it. He faced months of unprecedented assault by rumors, none of which would be proven. Saturday Night Live portrayed him as a clueless, blind bungler.
He contributed to it all with many self-contradictory statements, counterproductive baiting of the Legislature and by turning the appointment of a U.S. senator into an American Idol-style ordeal.
Under ethics investigations, Paterson finally ended his election bid.
“I thought it was incredibly cruel,” Paterson said of criticism and rumors. Within his family, who were also targeted, it caused “total outrage.”
“It clearly was orchestrated,” he told The Associated Press.
Paterson will be remembered as being governor during a period when Albany looked like the Wild West. Infighting, corruption and a constant power struggle in the Senate caused gridlock, while Paterson faced a string of scandals.
Yet Paterson produced one of his biggest wins in the Senate’s darkest days. He appointed a lieutenant governor, ignoring decades of conventional legal wisdom, who could break the 31-31 tie in the Senate after a coup. That ended the coup and restored some order.
Much of the stress was self-inflicted.
He blames the lack of a transition period before he became governor, not letting Spitzer appointees leave sooner so he could create his own team, and the difficulties of running a big state when you are legally blind. His ability to memorize speeches thousands of words long with arcane statistics on economics and legal precedents served him when he needed it once a week or so as a senator. But, as governor, the weekly load became daily.
“The combination of being unelected, being the first African-American governor and, probably greater than both of the other issues, being the first blind governor, added up to a frequent characterization of a person who is not intelligent, is not serious and doesn’t work hard,” Paterson said.
“He was on his way to being a tragic figure,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center on Suburban Studies and a longtime political commentator. “He was someone who had risen beyond his disability to rise as high as he did but wasn’t prepared for it by experience and certainly not by public mandate.
“He refused to go away and slink out of town,” Levy said. “He made, in his last year, the best out of a bad situation and will not be remembered as a clown, a parody, or an outright failure.”
“Let me give him a grade of C-minus,” said political scientist Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College. “We know the negatives.
“But the positive thing is I think his handling of the budget extenders has given future governors a very powerful instrument and perhaps that is his most positive legacy and that’s very important,” Muzzio said.
But Paterson started putting his own budget cuts into traditional budget “extenders” of spending when the Legislature and governor are late in agreeing to a new budget. That left the Legislature with a Hobbesian choice of voting on Paterson’s budget piecemeal, including cuts to usually well-protected spending, or shutting down government and taking the blame.
Photo: Gov. David Paterson