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NYT: Defying Critics, Paterson Opens His Campaign

February 21, 2010

Well, despite every political criticism you could think of, David Paterson decided to open his campaign wide open, despite enormous odds:

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Gov. David A. Paterson returned to his boyhood hometown on Saturday and defiantly proclaimed his candidacy for election, portraying himself as a champion of New Yorkers struggling with discrimination and economic hardship.

“So many people are saying I shouldn’t run for governor,” Mr. Paterson told a supportive but relatively subdued crowd of about 400 people at the Hofstra University student center here on Long Island. “But you need to know that this is a governor that does not quit.”

Mr. Paterson, who ignored White House pressure to pass up the race, faces the daunting task of building enough political support to win the Democratic nomination. On Saturday, he compared himself to ordinary New Yorkers struggling against the odds: An unemployed sheet-metal worker from Rochester, a black single mother from Queens and a family forced out of East Harlem by gentrification.

Like them, Mr. Paterson said, he knew what it was like to be told to give up. And like gays, racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups, Mr. Paterson, who is legally blind, said he understood what it was like “to challenge the institutions that were, unfortunately, bigoted and ignorant.”

He also denounced what he described as a smear campaign against him. In a veiled reference to Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, who is expected to challenge him for the Democratic nomination, he said the attacks were an effort by his political rivals and special interests in Albany to drive him from the race.

“Innuendo and ridicule and false rumors can leave a long and lasting effect,” he said. “And it’s no surprise that this comes in the middle of a budget process, when special interests have a lot to lose, and at the beginning of a campaign, when other candidates will do anything to win.”

Those remarks hinted at Mr. Paterson’s strategy: to turn political weaknesses — he has few endorsements and just $3 million in the bank, while Mr. Cuomo has a campaign treasury five times the size of the governor’s — into strengths.

Mr. Paterson will remind voters that he has confronted obstacles since he was a boy, when his parents moved to Hempstead because the public schools in New York City could not guarantee him an education without placing him in special education classes.

“I wanted to come back here to Hempstead, which is where I was taught to stand up for myself and to believe in myself,” Mr. Paterson said, “in spite of all the voices around me: You can’t play sports — you’re blind. You can’t go to law school — you’re handicapped. You can’t go into public service — you’re disabled.”

With little formal support from Democratic officials or labor unions, Mr. Paterson hopes to run as the anti-establishment candidate fighting for New Yorkers against Albany insiders, despite the more than two decades he spent in the State Senate. Against Mr. Cuomo’s Goliath, Mr. Paterson intends to play David.

The site Mr. Paterson chose to make his announcement illustrated the underdog nature of his campaign. Forgoing a more formal setting, the governor opted for a multipurpose room at Hofstra’s student center, a dimly lighted hall where his supporters sat on metal folding chairs.

Some of them said Mr. Paterson’s determination was the quality they admired most about him.

“He’s spoken very candidly about not giving up, not quitting,” said Darrin Green, 42, of Islip Terrace, N.Y. “You’ve got to fight the fight, stay true to what you believe in. It’s very easy to give up. The hardest thing is to stay in the fight.”

No statewide elected official joined the governor on Saturday. The rally included officials from Hempstead and members of the Nassau County Legislature, and Mr. Paterson was introduced by the town’s mayor, Wayne J. Hall Sr.

A spokesman for Kirsten E. Gillibrand, whom Mr. Paterson appointed to the United States Senate, said she had two prior commitments: a fund-raising run for Haiti in Central Park and the annual Chinese New Year parade in Queens. Thomas N. Suozzi, the former Nassau County executive, who is sometimes mentioned as a running mate for Mr. Paterson, was traveling in Florida.

Richard Ravitch, whom Mr. Paterson appointed as lieutenant governor last summer, has said he is not interested in being on the ticket. The governor’s campaign manager, Richard Fife, said Saturday that Mr. Paterson had not set a timetable for choosing a running mate.

The rally at Hofstra was the first event in a weekend campaign tour that was to take Mr. Paterson to a union hall in Rochester on Saturday afternoon and a meeting with supporters on Sunday morning at a Greek restaurant outside Buffalo.

Next Sunday, he will lead a rally in Harlem that will feature the campaign’s first major endorsements, Mr. Fife said. It was pushed back a week, he said, to accommodate supporters, although he would not say who they were.

Mr. Paterson is also racing the clock. Three months remain until the state’s Democratic convention, where delegates will select the party ticket. Without the support of at least 25 percent of the delegates, Mr. Paterson will be forced to collect thousands of signatures to land on the primary ballot.

“You know, it’s a tough environment out there right now,” said Jay Jacobs, who was appointed as chairman of the state Democratic Party by Mr. Paterson last year. “The mood of the electorate is tough, the current political environment is difficult and the governor is working to ensure that he is getting his poll numbers up and raising money.”

By nearly any measure, Mr. Paterson faces a steeper climb to election than any incumbent New York governor in recent memory.

He is seeking to be elected amid a major fiscal crisis, high unemployment and pervasive public disgust with Albany. And because he has spent most of his adult life in elected office, he may find it difficult to remake himself as a political outsider.

The governor remains highly unpopular with voters. According to a recent survey by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, 26 percent of voters approve of his performance as governor, the lowest ratings ever recorded in the poll’s 30-year history by an incumbent governor starting an election campaign. Mr. Paterson has lower job-approval ratings now than his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, did on the day after Mr. Spitzer was implicated in a prostitution scandal.

Many Democrats have already abandoned him, with some party officials and union leaders saying they will support Mr. Cuomo, who has not formally declared his interest in the job and appears in no hurry to do so. Aides to President Obama, worried about a weak candidate at the top of the New York ticket, made clear last fall that they would prefer Mr. Paterson step aside. And several weeks ago, representatives of more than a dozen county Democratic organizations met in Albany to discuss the governor’s prospects in open defiance of Mr. Jacobs, who had sought to delay the gathering.

In the months that Mr. Paterson has spent trying to win over his own party, the likely Republican candidate for governor, former Congressman Rick Lazio, has steadily accumulated endorsements and support, and the party is rapidly coalescing behind his candidacy.

Assessing the difficulties the governor must overcome to win the nomination, Mr. Jacobs said, “I can’t predict what the ultimate outcome will be.”

Mr. Paterson, however, seemed certain on Saturday that he would prevail.

“I’m not going to give up,” Mr. Paterson repeated at the end of his speech, as the strains of the song “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead swelled over the loudspeakers. “I will win the election for governor this year.”

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From The New York Times.

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