08.27.09

Paterson's Got a Bone to Pick

New York’s ratings-averse governor talks candidly about his chances at reelection, his beef with the Kennedys, and what his critics know about “Nazi rule.”

New York’s beleaguered governor talks candidly with Lloyd Grove about:

•His critics: “In the middle of World War II, if we had a country full of people like people are suggesting I do, we’d be living under Nazi rule right now.”
•A racially charged spat with New York media over a BET party: “It was designed to make me look not serious, and all the stereotypical, you know, classless aspects often attributed to African Americans”
•His abysmal ratings: 30 percent approvals are “an improvement.”
•His Senate appointment brawl with Caroline Kennedy
•The veto that “still haunts” him

Months ago, the political establishment pronounced beleaguered New York Gov. David Paterson a dead man walking. His poll numbers are in the basement. He’s been beset by a series of political and PR calamities—several of his own making, notably his botched handling of Caroline Kennedy’s bid for a U.S. Senate appointment. More recently, he’s come under fire for suggesting on a radio show last Friday that he’s taking more than his fair share of abuse from the media because he’s African American. What’s more, Andrew Cuomo, the ambitious state attorney general who has run for governor before, is widely considered a shoo-in in next year’s Democratic primary.

“Now I understand why Governor Pataki and Governor Cuomo were put in some of the positions that they were in.”

But the 55-year-old Paterson—who, as lieutenant governor in March 2008, had the top job thrust upon him when Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal—was in a feisty mood this week when he sat down with me. Despite pleas from fellow Democrats to politely step aside, he said he’s all but certain to run for a full term. He gleefully dared Cuomo to get off of his beach chair and join him in the shark-infested waters of New York politics. “The list of questions you’ve just asked me, no one’s asking him,” Paterson said. “Nobody knows what he thinks about any of these things. I guess if I were him, I’d stay on that beach chair, keep looking at the sun and not talk to anybody.”

Paterson—who, like Cuomo, is the son of a prominent politician (former state senator and deputy mayor Basil Paterson)—acknowledged some rookie mistakes but also touted some genuine accomplishments and discussed what it’s like to be legally blind and heading up a complex state government, comparing Saturday Night Live’s send-up of him to “the kind of degrading sort of bullying that a lot of disabled people get from the public,” and admitted it was wrong to inject race into his problems with the media.

What’s your argument for running for governor, and what do you intend to do with a full four-year term?

I think that whoever governs New York from 2011 to 2014 had better be resilient, they'd better be able to react and be ready for surprises. And I think that not only in this period as governor, but in my whole life, that I have that background. I, right now, don’t enjoy, as most governors don’t, the best poll numbers. And I have had a lot of difficulty managing in a recession, as most governors have. But my life has been about overcoming odds, and being in situations that appear to be bleak, and managing to make them work.

You obviously had to make some painful cuts. Which, for you, were the most painful?

Well, hospital funding because of peoples’ health. Any time you threaten jobs, any time you had to cut the work force by attrition. Anything that affects youth services, you know, and then particularly when it comes to health care. After-school programs, that kind of thing.

And some of these programs have been decimated.

There’s a particular bill that I vetoed that haunts me. It was a bill to provide medical treatment and services for children who acquire lead poisoning. You know why it bothered me so much that I vetoed that bill? I sponsored the bill in the Senate. By the time it passed, a few years later, I was governor and I vetoed it. It’s going to be $50 million, it’s too expensive. We’ll try to bring it back as a $25 million program, just to try to cut costs. I guess this is one of the great opportunities of becoming governor: Now I understand! Now I understand why Governor Pataki and Governor Cuomo were put in some of the positions that they were in.

I would assume that you’d attribute much of your declining job approval to the tough decisions you had to make. But to what extent did you contribute to your problems with unforced errors?

Obviously, members of my administration were vitriolic against one of the U.S. Senate candidates, and as much as I was able to move people out of those positions, it certainly hurt me, and I have to take responsibility for what happened.

Let’s not be oblique here. We’re talking about Caroline Kennedy.

Yes. In retrospect, Hillary Clinton did not resign as senator, and I was adverse to filling the position while she was still there, and wanted to wait until she left. But perhaps the selection process became so high-profile with the entry of Caroline Kennedy, and also the issue of the governor of Illinois, and the trouble he got into. It would probably have been better if I had picked my person and named them a month before I did. I don’t know if it was an error, but I know it worked to my detriment.

There was a report the other day that a PR executive named Judy Smith—a former deputy press secretary at the George H.W. Bush White House—was the one going negative on Caroline, and that you had been encouraged to bring her on and you did.

There may have been a few people involved in that. I was never quite able to assess which portion was whoever’s blame.

“In the middle of World War II, if we had a country full of people like people are suggesting I do, we’d be living under Nazi rule right now.”

Then the New York Post’s Albany bureau chief, Fred U. Dicker—by the way, do you have a nickname for him?

That’ll work. [Laughs.]

Didn’t he actually call you a liar when you disclaimed responsibility for the negative attacks on Caroline?

I didn't disclaim responsibility for it. I said that I had not identified who the source was—in other words, who was the person that made this happen? He said I knew who the source was.

A lot of people read that column and concluded that you had called Fred personally to trash Caroline.

No, I did not, and he has admitted publicly that I did not call him personally. But see, I know who called him, but I wasn’t exactly sure to what extent it was directed by someone else. I decided that everybody was severally liable. Everybody involved had to be moved.

This happened months ago but it’s still showing up in polls, as recently as last week’s Siena poll. That’s still affecting peoples’ opinion of you.

Well, I was up to 30 percent in the Siena poll [from 19 percent in March]. It represents improvement from my point of view. And I think also that the public liked that during the state Senate fiasco, I stood up to the Senate by appointing a lieutenant governor, although that constitutional issue is still in the courts. I think it was Nicholas Confessore [of The New York Times] who asked me, “How did it take you so long to pick a senator and then you picked lieutenant governor in two days?” And told him, “I learned.”

Let me ask you something else: How was your weekend?

This weekend? I mean it was a little frustrating because I was very aggravated by what I felt was an unethical practice by a journalist.

You’re talking about Dominic Carter of NY1. [Carter recently accused Paterson of taking a daughter “under the age of 18” out clubbing. Paterson’s daughter is 21, and he took her to a party hosted by BET.] Is that what set you off with New York Daily News columnist and radio host Errol Louis last Friday?

That’s what set me off.

But then you've been hammered ever since Errol Louis’s radio show for apparently suggesting that race has played a role in the bad press you’ve been getting—including by Errol, by the way.

I thought the story about BET’s event was a negative stereotype. It was designed to make me look not serious, and all the stereotypical, you know, classless aspects often attributed to African Americans and Hispanics—that they're out, they're drinking, they're carousing, when they should be working, and they don’t even know how to raise their own children. That kind of thing.

“My problem with Saturday Night Live was that they turned me into a monolithic character. It reminded me of the treatment that I got in the third grade from kids.”

More than one person has pointed out that Dominic Carter is black—why would he do that?

First of all, in the interview [with Louis], I never mentioned that it was a racial issue.

Well you did mention yourself, and you mentioned Deval Patrick as another governor who has taken some heavy weather, and then you said Barack Obama’s next—and that did seem to have a racial component.

And honestly, that’s where I feel that my comments were inappropriate, and wrong. I have come to the conclusion that my comments were misleading. They don’t represent how I actually feel. I think, particularly with issues of race, I’ve had to sit down and explain to people, “Look, I know what you're trying to say but it’s coming across as offensive,” and I think there come those points when you have to be self-aware and it wasn’t what I was trying to say, and if it was offensive, I apologize.

Do you think Andrew Cuomo is going to get out of the beach chair and join you with the sharks?

Well, um, the attorney general has not exactly been clear on what it is that he wants to do.

He’s raising a lot of money.

He’s doing that, and in the end, it’s his choice. In other words, I’m not going to speculate on what his choice is.

Polls show that he’d whup you.

Polls show that right now. The list of questions you’ve just asked me, no one’s asking him. Nobody knows what he thinks about any of these things. I guess if I were him, I’d stay on that beach chair, keep looking at the sun and not talk to anybody. Because right now, in this economy, no one who is in office is fairing particularly well. Look, 48 of the 50 states are in deficit, all the governors’ poll numbers are down. Even Mayor Bloomberg’s.

I can see you probably have some sympathy for Sarah Palin. Or is that a bridge too far?

That’s a bridge to nowhere. [Laughter.] But the polls are very close and even Mayor Bloomberg has suffered because of this economic situation. So what I’m saying is that this is a very difficult time to be in office. Now, there are offices you can be in—comptroller, attorney general. I used to have one, lieutenant governor, where nobody blames you for these problems, and you never have to say a word.

On a scale of one to 10—with 10 being “yes, absolutely”—are you running?

Nine. The only reason I don’t say 10 is you never know what future events will occur, but for all those matters that I can control, I would say I’m running. If anyone inherited the financial crisis that I inherited, had to balance the budget the first two weeks that they got into office, felt the need to identify that we’re having a national crisis two months before anyone else seemed to see that it was going on, and bore the brunt of having to make tough decisions—do we want this person to step aside because people are mad at them right now? Because people are unhappy with all elected officials? I thought that we wanted people to fight, even when their back was against the wall. I thought that’s what this country’s spirit is. In the middle of World War II, if we had a country full of people like people are suggesting I do, we’d be living under Nazi rule right now.

What I think people want is someone who’s resilient, who fights, who moves forward, and tries to convince the public that they made the best decisions at that particular time. As soon as anyone runs against me, comes out of the bushes or off the beach chairs or wherever else they have, they're going to have to answer: OK, so he shouldn't have raised taxes? He shouldn’t have rescinded the property tax rebate? He shouldn’t have cut those hospitals and hospital workers? So how would you have balanced the budget? You will hear ridiculous answers. And when that starts to happen, people will say, you know something, he used his resources with the best possible facility, and there is really no one who could’ve been governor, tweak it here or there, who would've been much further away from the decisions that he made.

You mentioned that you have a history of overcoming obstacles and challenges. You're legally blind. What kind of challenge is that, being a governor of a hugely complex state and having to deal with thousands of issues, and you can't read essentially, right?

I can read. The problem is that the size of print that I would read is usually not available on state documents.

The hospital union is putting it up on a billboard!

Well they’ve got it large enough for me to see [Laughs.] But I usually listen. That’s how I learn. And I memorize my speeches where other people read their speeches, and I stay up at night working on that.

I think that I’m proud to be governor, as a person who was once, in many corners, looked upon as, maybe they wouldn’t even be employed. Seventy-one percent of blind people like myself are not working right now. Ninety percent of deaf people are not working. Somehow, I think that for those people who, in the educational system, have outperformed the national average, we can creatively find ways to get them into government or into education, or into health care, and they can become greater contributors to society.

Do you think Saturday Night Live is going to continue doing their sketch that has disturbed a lot of people, including yourself?

See, I make fun of my own disability. I didn't mind that Saturday Night Live made fun of my disability, because I make fun of it, and often it distills the tension in a room.

There was a cartoon called Mister Magoo.

I remember the cartoon. I couldn’t see it that well. I couldn’t figure out why he was always crashing into things. My problem with Saturday Night Live was that they turned me into a monolithic character—someone who’s stupid, bumping into things, and unable to do anything right. I walk around all the time, I don’t bump into things. It reminded me of the treatment that I got in the third grade from kids. It reminded me of the kind of degrading sort of bullying that a lot of disabled people get from the public.

So being governor is a piece of cake compared to that.

Oh yeah, this was nothing compared to that. And, like I pointed out, I have a job. They can make fun of me all they want, but I have a job.

Your father loomed large in your life as a successful politician, a famous guy. Is it at all satisfying to you that you’ve actually surpassed him in terms of political position?

If you know my father the way I do, you’ve never really surpassed him. I think in a different time period, anything I would've done, he would've done it long before I had, all things being equal. But if I’ve made him proud of me, that would be the fulfillment for me.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.