Time to put your money on the table

Life is funny. When you least expect it, someone throws you a beautiful slow ball right across the letters and you take a swing and the ball sails out of the park. You are on top of the world. You’re a hero. Things are going along swimmingly and along comes another opportunity but this time, there’s dark music playing in the background, like the stuff you hear in grade B films when something really bad is about to happen. There are those who eschew the concept of fate, a guiding hand, or a higher power. But even if you believe only in statistical probability, politics in the big league is an awful game. There is just so much at stake. It becomes a zero sum game. Political contests always involve a single winner. We have elections in which out of millions of votes, someone prevails by just a few votes. When it makes its way through the courts and the newspapers, by hook or by crook, there is just one winner.

David Paterson is a child of privilege. He is African-American, legally blind,and has a brilliant mind. His father, Basil, was once one of the most powerful players in New York politics. Like so many, he seizes life, taking the hand that is dealt and playing it for all he’s worth. We know this because he’s told us so. Because of who he is, he has had a lot of temptations along the way. There were many women, there were drugs and there were political sinecures. Yes, he was the son of a powerful man and that opened doors but he played the game right. He made his way up to the state Senate and the minority leadership. He is bright and funny and, because he learned it at his father’s knee, he knows how to work people.

He is a decent man and when Eliot Spitzer needed allies in the African American community but also needed someone he could depend on, he picked David to run with him as lieutenant governor. The ticket won, Spitzer self-destructed and Paterson became governor in the worst economic times ever. He was given an opportunity and he played the cards he has.

On day one, he confessed all, nobody blinked an eye, and he became governor. But, listen, do you hear it? It’s that music of doom. He has to tell the people of New York some very bad news. He has to cut, cut, cut, cut and his popularity begins to slide. That’s where we are now.

Like David, Andrew Cuomo was born into a powerful political family. His father was a successful governor until the people tired of him. Andrew helped his father succeed and, terribly ambitious himself, grabbed at the opportunity to run for governor. In his attempt to take on H. Carl McCall, the first African American with a real chance to be governor, life smacked him across the face and he never made it to the finals. The people were furious with him. McCall lost to Pataki but Andrew damaged himself with the African-American community. It took him years to be forgiven and even now, there are those who remember. He married into the Kennedy clan in what might have been the political marriage of the century but something went very wrong and the marriage dissolved in a hail storm of publicity.

Slowly, Andrew rehabilitated himself and eventually he saw the opportunity to run for attorney general. Taking a page out of Spitzer’s play book, he did it by the numbers. He eschewed his reputation for opportunism and brought case after case in the people’s interest. His numbers continue to rise. Unlike Paterson, Cuomo has a relatively easy job. He doesn’t have to balance a budget. He doesn’t have to figure out how to play the hardest situation anyone has ever had to play in New York politics. He just does the people’s business. But we all know he wants to be governor. As we see his numbers continue to rise, we see Paterson’s numbers decline.

Andrew is playing it coy. Will he run against Paterson? He says not, but he leaves the door open. He tantalizes. He has friends in the press who push him but he plays it carefully. Will he do it? Will he risk alienating the black vote once again? The two scions of political families are pushed by fate into a contest where there can only be one winner. If you are a betting person, now is the time to put your money on the table. The stakes are high.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 2/13/09

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