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NYT: Paterson’s Ability to Lead Is Questioned

February 28, 2010

It’s not easy being David Paterson. On the other hand, President Obama and the liberal Democrats must be thrilled to see him fall:

When Gov. David A. Paterson ended his candidacy on Friday, he pledged to cooperate with an inquiry into his administration’s handling of a domestic violence case and vowed to concentrate on his job.

But with New York grappling with enormous problems, some of the key Democrats he will need to work with were debating a central question on Saturday: Can such a damaged and distracted leader really run the state?

“The issue is whether the events of the last two months have made it impossible for him to govern,” said Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. Mr. Brodsky said that in his view, “If he’s qualified to serve, he’s qualified to run. If he’s not qualified to run, he’s not qualified to serve.”

At noon on Saturday, a group of New York political leaders and longtime friends of Mr. Paterson met to try to find ways to support the governor over the remaining 10 months of his term. The group, which included Representative Charles B. Rangel; the Rev. Al Sharpton; and the Senate president, Malcolm A. Smith, said their efforts had been made more difficult because of the calls from other Democrats for the governor to resign.

“It makes it worse for all of us in terms of trying to put our agenda forward,” said Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, the Manhattan Democratic chairman. “It weakens the agenda. It’s a distraction.”

Asked whether Mr. Paterson could continue to govern, Mr. Rangel responded: “It’s a rough job.”

The meeting was both a blunt discussion of Mr. Paterson’s failings as a leader and an outpouring of sympathy for the difficult reality the governor and his family now face. According to people who attended the two-hour discussion, the group finally agreed on the need to put Mr. Paterson’s troubles aside and look for ways to work with him to prevent the state government from slipping into further disarray.

Certainly the next month is likely to be dreary for the governor. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s investigators plan to spend the next four weeks interviewing administration officials who had a role in the response to the case of domestic violence, which involved a close aide to Mr. Paterson.

The attorney general’s inquiry seeks to determine whether any criminal wrongdoing occurred. Even if there was none, the details of the administration’s actions in the case will be revealed, bringing more attention to one of the worst chapters of Mr. Paterson’s tenure as governor.

Federal investigators also recently subpoenaed records from Mr. Paterson’s administration relating to its decision to award a casino contract at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens to a politically connected bidder.

And the state faces a March 31 deadline to produce a new budget for the next fiscal year, but Mr. Paterson has not held any talks in recent weeks with legislative leaders about how to deal with an $8 billion shortfall.

In fact, the governor’s relationship with the Legislature is so strained that when Mr. Paterson called the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, on Friday to say he was dropping out of the race for governor, it was his first conversation with Mr. Silver in a month.

“He is clearly governing now in really unprecedented times,” said James R. Tallon Jr., the president of the United Hospital Fund and the former majority leader of the Assembly. Mr. Tallon cited “the political complexity of the governor’s office,” the chaotic nature of the narrowly divided Senate, “and the depth of the financial and economic challenges that face the state.”

“Clearly, stepping away from a campaign has to, at least in some sense, open up the possibility of advancing some of the governmental discussions, but the size of the problem is huge and the underlying political tensions are largely still there,” added Mr. Tallon, who has been an informal health policy adviser to the Spitzer and Paterson administrations.

And adding to the difficulties, the always unsettled State Senate lacks a governing majority after its ouster last month of Senator Hiram Monserrate of Queens. That means neither party now has the 32 votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate. A special election in Mr. Monserrate’s district is scheduled for March 16.

The domestic violence case that led to the crisis for Mr. Paterson involved one of his closest aides, David W. Johnson. A former companion of Mr. Johnson’s said that he choked her and threw her into a mirrored bureau last Oct. 31, and that State Police put pressure on her not to pursue an order of protection against him. She had twice obtained temporary orders of protection, but on the day before she was supposed to go court to seek a final order, an administration official called her and asked her to phone Mr. Paterson. After she and the governor spoke, she did not show up in court the next day, resulting in the matter being dropped.

Mr. Cuomo’s investigators have been moving quickly to interview those involved.

Some lawmakers wondered whether the governor, whose focus has been distracted in recent weeks, would be able to take on all the problems of the state, along with the more personal stress of the inquiry.

“What I’m most afraid of is what will happen as the investigation drags on,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat. “We have a lot of allegations swirling around, and I don’t know how quickly we can get those cleared up.”

At the meeting at Sylvia’s, the soul food diner that has long been a favorite gathering spot for Harlem’s political establishment, Mr. Sharpton told the group of about two dozen black, Latino and Asian leaders, including former Representative Harold E. Ford Jr. and Representative Gregory W. Meeks, that continued focus on the scandal would be especially painful for their communities at a time of economic distress.

It seemed to make a difference, at least to Comptroller John C. Liu of New York City, who on Friday had called for the governor to step down. On Saturday, Mr. Liu would say only that he was focused on issues like creating jobs and improving education. “The fact of the matter is that the tremendous amount of leadership represented in this room will help us get to the goal — the goal of jobs, education, health care and housing,” he said.

Mr. Sharpton said the group was requesting a meeting with Mr. Paterson in the next few days to discuss how to shift attention back to the grave problems confronting the state.

Some in Albany said they hoped that Mr. Paterson’s announcement on Friday that he was abandoning his six-day-old campaign would offer a true chance at redemption for a governor who has been criticized as erratic and disengaged — a last-ditch opportunity for Mr. Paterson to restore his image.

“It is an opportunity to think about a legacy,” said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Democrat. “There are some people who run for office who say they are going to act and lead as if they are not going to run for re-election. It’s another way of saying they are not going to pander and appeal to special interests, and he now has the opportunity to be that person.”

Similarly, another Assembly Democrat, Adriano Espaillat of New York City, said: “Great crises also sometimes bring about great opportunities.” Without the distractions of a campaign, Mr. Espaillat said, Mr. Paterson will have more time to devote to crucial legislative business.

The natural step, some Democratic lawmakers said, would be for Mr. Paterson to turn over the budget negotiations entirely to Richard Ravitch, the lieutenant governor. But so far, the governor has not given Mr. Ravitch much authority.

Others noted that even lame-duck governors remain powerful, because state law gives them substantial leverage over the budget process.

Mr. Paterson’s aides are trying to project, as much as possible, some degree of normalcy. The governor, who had scheduled no public events over the weekend, will discuss the budget Monday at a $75-a-person breakfast hosted by The New York Observer.

“He’ll be focused on the budget,” Mr. Paterson’s communications director, Peter E. Kauffmann, said Saturday in an e-mail message. “Budget. Budget. Budget.”

Of course, some take the long view. Albany never really seems to function efficiently. The idea that Mr. Paterson’s problems in particular will throw it off kilter is laughable, they say.

“People are thinking abstractly that things would go back to normal if only the governor’s issues were resolved. Wake up!” said Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat who represents Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx. “If we had an amalgamated version of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, this place would still be a mess.”



One Comment
  1. Gerry permalink
    February 28, 2010 10:35 pm

    First Spitzer, now Paterson. Makes sense.

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