Paterson On the Brink

Can New York Gov. David Paterson survive an explosive news story about his efforts on behalf of an aide charged with domestic violence? Inside Paterson’s feeble first line of defense.

02.25.10 11:32 AM ET

Remember all those rumors on Super Bowl Sunday about a bombshell New York Times story that could force New York Governor David Paterson to resign from office?

Turns out they were true—just a few weeks premature.

“This is Spitzer redux—without the prostitutes,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf--echoing another savvy Democrat, who asked me, “Do you think it is survivable? At first glance I'd say no.”

“He sounds just like Captain Renault in Casablanca,” Sheinkopf noted. “He’s shocked, shocked, that gambling is going on.”

This morning, Paterson and his supporters were reeling from the Times’ revelation that the state police—and the governor himself—allegedly interfered in a criminal proceeding involving his closest aide, David W. Johnson, who is accused of brutally assaulting his live-in girlfriend last Oct. 31.

Late Wednesday night as the scandal exploded, Paterson was forced to suspend the 6-foot-7 Johnson without pay and order a state police internal investigation of the agency’s role, including why two state police officers, who had no jurisdiction in the case, reportedly visited the unidentified woman as she was pressing charges against the governor’s powerful aide. Paterson also asked Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, his probable rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this fall, to get to the bottom of the scandal.

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“This is a very disturbing and alarming situation,” Paterson said this morning in a halting, weasel-worded interview with WOR radio host John Gambling. “In the last 24 hours, we’ve learned about some possible situations that accompanied this that would, in a sense, make the whole matter very alarming.”

“He sounds just like Captain Renault in Casablanca,” Sheinkopf noted. “He’s shocked, shocked, that gambling is going on.”

When the radio host asked the governor if it’s true, as reported, that he personally phoned his aide’s girlfriend the night before a scheduled court appearance concerning her domestic violence complaint, Paterson hemmed and hawed. “John, I don’t want to talk about that, because, um, you know, those are things that I’m sure the attorney general will ask myself about and I’m sure they’ll ask anyone else. I don’t want to step in front of it.”

Paterson—who has made violence against women a core issue of his governorship and his campaign—then indulged in a bizarre and unbecoming bout of self-pity, graced by a heartfelt expression of looking out for No. 1.

“As you know, about three weeks ago, I had to go through a number of rumors and speculations, all of which turned out not to be true,” the governor claimed to Gambling. “Obviously it was painful to go through that period. But the fact is, I’ll just let the facts come out and that will be the best way for it to work—and it will be the best thing for me.”

Sheinkopf said this latest scandal is extraordinarily damaging to the governor’s already-dented political prospects. As with a scandal involving Eliot Spitzer, whose March 2008 resignation put Paterson in the governor’s mansion, “the state police are involved and high-level aides are out of control,” Sheinkopf told me. “This will certainly hurt Paterson’s fundraising, and it will infuriate women all around the state. If the story proves to be true, it shows he’s a hypocrite, and he’s not the guy who cares about violence against women. It removes Paterson’ss nice-guy veneer and shows him up as just another politician who abuses power like anybody else.”

Asked if Paterson will now resign, an unidentified aide was quoted in the New York Daily News as responding, “I don’t know.” The governor’s embattled spokesman emailed me this morning: “That quote is not accurate. I have no idea who that aide would be. I think the Daily News will be printing a retraction unless they can tell me who said it.”

Just last week, after the Times published a profile of his $132,000-a-year “body man” that alluded to Johnson’s juvenile drug offenses and more recent anecdotes concerning domestic violence, Paterson slammed the Times and stoutly defended his aide.

“There is no independent evidence presented that would substantiate any claims of violence committed by David Johnson against a woman, a fact underscored by the absence of a single judicial finding that any such incident ever took place,” Paterson said at the time. “I would caution others from making a similar rush to judgment."

What a difference a week makes.

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.