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02.16.10

Paterson Fights Back

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, New York’s beleaguered governor takes the gloves off—dismissing Harold Ford and taunting Andrew Cuomo.

It might not quite live up to the hype, but The New York Times has published another damning story about Governor David Paterson. Last year, when a plane crashed in Buffalo killing 50 people, Paterson was nowhere to be found. Last summer, after he was advised to travel around New York to boost numbers, he spent time relaxing in the Hamptons with friends. Lawmakers have criticized Paterson's lack of engagement during crisis and, at times, his seemingly remote participation. Now, Paterson's campaign is racking up $1,000 restaurant bills from a lacking $3 million war chest, only adding to the pre-election uncertainty. As voting day nears, Paterson appears to be increasing his isolation, often times making senior policy advisers feel "shunned" and keeping staff members out of the loop during the decision-making process. The governor's office responded by saying the report is "based on nothing but rumor and innuendo."

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, New York’s beleaguered governor takes the gloves off—dismissing Harold Ford and taunting Andrew Cuomo.

After a week of fighting off rumors that he was quitting his job over a bombshell New York Times story rife with allegations about his private life, the story published on Wednesday turned out to be a less-than-jawdropping, in-depth piece about his top aide, and New York Governor David Paterson is full of beans.

“The quickest way to get 150 percent effort out of me is when I’m attacked or under pressure,” Paterson said Tuesday afternoon in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, when I asked him if he feels energized when he’s up against the wall. “People have told me that, but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really know,” he added.

“I just don’t think Harold Ford knows the issues of this state, the problems of this state,” Paterson told me. “He’s not even close to her or in [Gillibrand’s] orbit.”

As for New York’s first lady, Michelle Paige Paterson, who has also been drawn into the fray, “Michelle is probably even better than me,” he said, noting that his wife has been married once before. “She once told me, ‘If I could get through my divorce, I can get through anything!’ ”

In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Paterson also dismissed the prospective Senate candidacy of Harold Ford Jr., and taunted his still-undeclared Democratic primary opponent, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, suggesting Cuomo is “afraid.”

“He’s in the candidate protection program,” the governor said dryly. “He doesn’t talk about anything. I hear he made a comment about the Super Bowl the other day, but he was talking about last year’s Super Bowl. He doesn’t talk about anything current.” Warming to his theme, Paterson continued: “Political strategy tells me that’s a very smart thing to do, and everyone pats him on the back for it. My question is, fine, it’s politically smart, but when you are that afraid, that political, what are you going to do if you get elected? Now you have to deal with the legislature. What’s this new openness and transparency? What’s going to change in Albany if everybody is political and the whole process is failing right now because it’s overly politicized?”

The Cuomo campaign-in-waiting declined to respond to Paterson’s swipe.

Regarding former Tennessee congressman Ford’s prospective primary race against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Paterson appointed last year to succeed Hillary Clinton, the governor clarified remarks he made last week that were interpreted as supportive of Ford (he’s “worthy,” Paterson had said) and a slight against Gillibrand.

“I just don’t think Harold Ford knows the issues of this state, the problems of this state,” Paterson told me. “He’s not even close to her or in her orbit.”

The governor acknowledged that last week’s media frenzy—sparked by unsubstantiated claims in the tabloids and various blogs about alleged canoodling in closets and restaurants—has knocked his underdog campaign off stride and temporarily hurt his fundraising efforts against the cash-rich Cuomo.

“Toward the end of last week, things started to get back on track when no one denied my understanding that the Times did not ask me about these problems,” Paterson said, referring to a 90-minute interview session he had with Times Albany reporter Danny Hakim last week. In a remarkable column on Sunday about a story that has yet to be published, Times public editor Clark Hoyt supported the governor’s assertion that it wouldn’t contain seamy anecdotes of the sort splashed by the New York Post.

“We’ve made a few [fundraising] calls where there’s kind of a wait-and-see thing because these rumors are swirling,” Paterson said. “And their effectiveness is not in their accuracy but in the anxiety they produce—not only for me, but for people in this tough economy who don’t want to put money into something they don’t think is working. I’m no different than anyone else. I understand the distraction. That’s why the rumors were hatched.”

Hatched perhaps by the Cuomo campaign?

“I don’t know that,” Paterson said, noting that nearly two years ago, when he, as lieutenant governor, replaced disgraced Gov. Eliot Spitzer, “there was some hysteria, right before I came into office, over a crazy story about me being pulled over while driving a car. It was Albany-based. Now I don’t think Andrew had anything to do with that.”

The governor, of course, is legally blind and doesn’t drive.

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.