Paterson got a raw deal, but has a bright future
Don’t let anyone get the idea that David Paterson is not a bright man. He is blazingly smart, he is funny, and he got a raw deal. During my recent public radio interview with him, he took calls from ordinary people. He told me that once he realized he couldn’t run for office again, he would spend his time running for history. The last time the state faced dire circumstances, it was Hugh Carey who got the credit for “saving New York.” Now Paterson will be remembered as the first to recognize the terrible shape the state was in and call for huge cuts to our expenditures. You don’t get a lot of thanks from the civil service unions for that and you don’t get a lot of thanks from the teachers who, having been asked to do the impossible, now must do the impossible-impossible. He didn’t stop there. He vetoed the self-serving “ethics reform” bill that the Legislature passed. He said it wasn’t enough and he was right.
Let’s remember why David Paterson is the governor. Eliot Spitzer had his own reasons for choosing Paterson as his lieutenant governor. From a political standpoint, he brought in the black vote; he is part of the Harlem aristocracy. At the time, Spitzer was under tremendous pressure to pick Leecia Eve, daughter of Arthur Eve, the former deputy speaker of the Assembly. The senior Eve is a very bellicose character. By picking Paterson, Spitzer was able to avoid the demand of a fairly united black community that he appoint Eve. After all, Paterson was a former minority leader of the New York state Senate. He was also one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Spitzer would never have to worry about being knifed in the back by Paterson. To this day, you will never hear Paterson say a bad word about Spitzer, despite the fact that Paterson was hardly included in the deliberations of the Spitzer administration.
Paterson had a lot to contend with when he got to be governor. Indeed, right after the inauguration, he brought the press into a room and unburdened himself about his previous sexual and drug transgressions. In fact, he disclosed so much that some political cartoons portrayed old ladies with their hands over their ears. It was a brilliant strategy. The media, which hadn’t been particularly kind to the guy, now had few “investigative-gotcha” journalistic avenues to go down. But don’t worry — perhaps egged on by political rivals, they came up with a whole bunch of nonsense that, as he says, never panned out. They were aided and abetted by the people at Saturday Night Live who showed themselves to be both racist and cruel as they continually made fun of Paterson’s blindness. Many New Yorkers who had never seen the governor in action probably thought the SNL representation was the true David Paterson. After confessing to me that he was hurt by the portrayal, he appeared on the show and went along with the gag. He had no choice. It turned out to be a good strategy.
Not everything he did was stellar. He was widely criticized for having appointed Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate, in deference, some thought, to Senator Charles Schumer. When the president of the United States said that no one should primary her, Paterson was far too silent. When the president told him to get out of his re-election effort in favor of Andrew Cuomo, I suspect he understood how this kind of presidential micromanagement had its drawbacks. When Paterson’s henchmen fired the brilliant Pete Grannis as the Environmental Conservation commissioner, he was criticized by the environmental community. He countered that the pantry was empty and everyone had to do their fair share. People could either go along with the program or get off the ship. Since the administration was on its last gasp, I still think it was a move lacking class. On the other hand, I didn’t have a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall to deal with.
In any case, Paterson has been given a raw deal. He had to herd cats when he was the Senate minority leader, which he did better than anyone who has come after him in that group of malfeasants. Now he wants to teach college. Any institution that fails to take the hint and grab the guy is out of its mind. He has an incredible story to tell. Unlike so many academics who have never been in the trenches and have nothing but book learning, Paterson really has something to offer his students. I’d like to see him get his own radio show. If he wants to come to public radio, I’d love to make that happen.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 11/29/2010