Aren’t you glad you’re not Gov. Paterson?

David Paterson, the “accidental” governor, is on the hot seat. He is certainly walking a very thin tightrope — it’s enough to give anyone vertigo — but so far he has not missed a pitch. The man who once played the role of liberal minority leader in the state Senate has now stepped into a very different role. He is now the voice of reason, playing the part of a stable pragmatist. He has followed the lead of former Governor Hugh L. Carey and has done what he has had to do. So far, he has stayed away from the third and fourth rail of politics: new taxes and more spending. He has pursued a policy of slash and burn in the state budget. He knows that his constituents are hurting and that they have no tolerance for civil servants, even those who are doing jobs most people wouldn’t want to touch. And so the ax-man approaches and those who deliver health care, education and social services have this uneasy feeling somewhere between their chins and shoulders, just around the neck area. These good people don’t deserve what they are about to get. It’s simply that they are easy targets and the people they serve don’t have “alumni associations.” We are talking about the poor and the mentally ill and sick people with no health insurance. We are talking about inner city school children who deserve better. We are talking about college kids who go to the state and city universities and whose parents can’t afford to help them out. Paterson will follow the formula in constructing his fiscal plan: no new taxes and cuts in state services. So far that formula is working for him. So far, people love the guy.

Of course, most people don’t have the slightest idea how many billions are in the state budget and the press knows it. They write the obligatory stories but they concentrate their real work on the horse races, the contests that people can understand. One such story is the fight over who will be United States senator. The two top candidates seem to be Caroline Kennedy and Andrew Cuomo. Rumors persist that U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer doesn’t want either of these two show horses and would prefer someone less well-known, like upstate Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. Hillary Clinton, who probably lost her race to Barack Obama because of the Kennedy (Ted and Caroline) endorsement of Barack, has been described as “…close to putting the kibosh on Caroline.” Payback doesn’t make her look good. Poor Paterson may have to make a choice between the Kennedy and Cuomo dynasties and it is a lose-lose situation if there ever was one.

I try to put myself inside the governor’s head but I just can’t come up with what would be a winning hand for Paterson. Of course, he could put a place holder in the job, like outgoing Chief Judge Judith Kaye, but that would leave him with a mess when he has to run in a few years and the senator will have to run with him. He’ll need someone in place who is popular and who can raise money. He can’t appoint himself because New York is currently without a lieutenant governor and either the hapless Malcolm Smith or the distasteful Dean Skelos would take over the governor’s job, depending on how that mess comes out. What would you do?

Then there is the small matter of the Senate leadership. There is chaos in the Democratic Senate leadership race. The chickens have come home to roost. The Republicans theoretically are outnumbered but they are trying to pull the Gang of Three over the line to keep them in power. In retaliation, we hear that the Democrats are trying to bring a couple of moderate Republicans over to their side. The Democratic senators have among them some real weak characters and the Republicans grow older as we speak. Paterson will have to get a budget through and this mess is just what he doesn’t need. It looks like he has been helping the so-called Gang of Three pull off their brand of political blackmail and no one understands why he is doing that.

Usually I think I know what to do but this is one time I just don’t. I’m glad I’m not him.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 12/19/08

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