David Paterson's Secret Weapon
In September, the White House tried to talk him into early retirement. Instead, New York’s governor hired notorious operative Harold Ickes. Lloyd Grove on why this race just got interesting.
It’s an ugly time for America’s governors—witness last Tuesday’s Pyrrhic defeat of New Jersey moneybags Jon Corzine. In state after state, struggling chief executives are cutting popular programs and raising taxes to close mushrooming budget deficits in a tanking economy, to say nothing of facing downgraded credit ratings and, in the case of California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, issuing IOUs instead of paying their bills.
Yet few governors are as politically crippled as New York’s David Paterson. The latest Siena College poll (conducted prior to the Paterson campaign’s weekend release of its first two television commercials) indicates that if the election were held now, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo would defeat Paterson by a humiliating 70 percent to 20 percent in a Democratic primary. Even worse news—perhaps the political equivalent of a death sentence—58 percent of the governor’s fellow African Americans say they’d vote for Cuomo.
Enter Harold M. Ickes.
“Harold’s joining the campaign is a show of force,” says Richie Fife, Paterson’s campaign manager. “He has a strength of character and seriousness of purpose that everyone welcomes.
“I think David could win this, but he’s got to get message discipline,” says Ickes, who has just signed on an as unpaid Paterson adviser, volunteering as a favor to the governor’s father, Ickes’ close friend and longtime law partner, former state Senator Basil Paterson. “I think earlier, there was a real lack of discipline and focus of the people around David, and it seems to me that if he gets focused and disciplined, and hones a reasonably good message, those are key. There’s no guarantee he’s going to win. But my view is that you can take the real adversity of a very difficult economic situation and turn those things to your advantage—and then show people that you’re a strong leader.”
Even Paterson’s operatives admit that snatching victory out of the jaws of negative job-approval ratings might be a nearly impossible task. But the Ickes Factor sends an unmistakable signal to the still-undeclared Cuomo and Democratic Party insiders: Not only is the governor ready to fight hard for his political life, he’s willing to do damage in the process.
“Harold is a verb,” says Paterson campaign adviser Tracy Sefl. Paterson campaign manager Richie Fife notes that the governor has also recruited a team of top-tier Democratic strategists, including pollsters Stan Greenberg and Al Quinlan and admakers Steve Murphy and Mark Putnam. “Harold’s joining the campaign is a show of force,” Fife says. “He has a strength of character and seriousness of purpose that everyone welcomes. It’s another signal that this incumbent Democratic governor is serious about his 2010 election.”
Consider Ickes’ personal history. Like Paterson and Cuomo, he’s the son of a famous politician—FDR’s Interior secretary and hatchet man, Harold L. Ickes. But the younger Ickes has outdone “The Old Curmudgeon,” as his father was nicknamed, in his taste for blood—literally, on at least one occasion, when, during Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo’s 1973 run for mayor, Ickes settled an internal campaign dispute by biting his adversary on the leg.
A few years earlier, Ickes had distinguished himself in New York state politics by screaming obscenities at the 1970 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Arthur Goldberg, during the former Supreme Court justice’s acceptance speech (apparently Goldberg had betrayed the liberal cause). And then, in another legendary fit of rage while managing the lieutenant governor’s campaign of Goldberg’s running mate, Basil Paterson, Ickes plunged a screwdriver into his own eardrum (an “accident” that left him all but deaf in one ear).
The 70-year-old Ickes has mellowed a bit, managing to suppress his fearsome temper (with some exceptions: There was that time at the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago when he threatened to hurl a confetti vendor out of a skybox) but not his killer instinct. Just ask Barack Obama’s campaign chiefs if Ickes rolled over when he was Hillary Clinton’s chief delegate hunter and strenuously arguing, long past the point that simple arithmetic said otherwise, that her victory was still possible.
And it is unlikely that President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has forgotten the scatological abuse that Ickes heaped on him when both were senior staffers in Bill Clinton’s White House. Ickes, the deputy chief of staff, stood down when he realized that Emanuel was his match and, more to the point, actually got things done. Never mind that more recently, Emanuel failed spectacularly in his highly publicized attempt to coax Paterson out of the race.
“Everybody had written him off, but there’s a year to go,” Ickes says. “As I have reminded him, he is still the governor. He has a big megaphone.”
So far, Ickes has kept his powder dry on Cuomo—a pacifist position that is unlikely to hold beyond the second the attorney general declares his candidacy. “Andrew has done very well for himself. He has good name-recognition,” Ickes says mildly. “But the governor is accountable every day”—pushing a recalcitrant state legislature to balance the budget—“and Andrew does not have to make any decisions on this stuff.”
A Paterson operative is far more pointed. “He’s playing games,” this operative says. “He’s telling people behind closed doors that he’s running, but he’s not announcing his campaign. The governor is not into playing games. At some point the Andrew scenario gets ridiculous. I think the phrase is, ‘Man up!’ Are you or are you not running, and how long are you going to play this game?”
So far, some New York Democrats are skeptical about whether Ickes might help pull Paterson out of the basement and get him through next September’s Democratic primary. "Harold knows how to fight and he's very talented and a very tough guy," says longtime Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, "but that's not unique in New York campaigns. Everybody's tough and knows how to fight." Should Paterson survive, he might face failed Senate candidate Rick Lazio, the only announced Republican in the race—or possibly former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out of the 2000 race against Hillary Clinton before Lazio jumped in, and went on to run unsuccessfully for president last year.
Meanwhile, Ickes is pressing the case. “Compare New York to California, for chrissakes,” he exhorts. “This state has not had to issue warrants yet and there’s no reason to believe it ever will. Compare the stewardship of this state, which gone through a very tough economy, to the stewardship of other states. Everybody can nitpick David’s work, You close a budget gap, and people are going to nitpick. But we’re going to make clear to people what his principles are and the true strength of character he’s showing.”
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.