Will Paterson Go?

New York’s governor seemed like a breath of fresh air after Eliot Spitzer. Eric Alterman on David Paterson’s messy fall.

As of Tuesday, the Daily News showed a poll with a grand total of 19 percent of Democrats saying they planned to vote for David Paterson for governor in this year’s election. As of Wednesday, not a single statewide official could be found willing to stand together with Paterson at his election rally in Harlem this Sunday, and that’s where he’s from. All that was before the Times bewildering bombshell dropped on his head Thursday morning.

Sad to say, as this Paterson story gets weirder and weirder, it becomes less and less fun. It was a one big party in the beginning, when Eliot Spitzer was getting run out of town over his “escort” escapades and before we knew it, New York had America’s first black, legally blind governor, who made news in his first week with some sexcapades of his own. But back then, everyone was too invested in the guy—and obsessed with Spitzer’s jaw-dropping arrogance, to say nothing of Ashley and Silda-- to get too excited about it. Plus everybody who knew Paterson said he was a nice guy; just what we thought we needed after big, mean Eliot.

What is this, Arkansas?

Turns out Paterson is not merely incompetent; something we New Yorkers have come to expect from Albany, but incompetent in bizarre ways. The state is in one of its worst financial crises ever but he can’t often be bothered to show up for work and won’t tell anybody where he is. He takes a powder on important engagements when he feels like it. He is running for re-election in a race nobody thinks he can win but having a good time at it, running up bills in the thousands for dinners at Le Cirque, parties in the Hamptons and fun stays at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota.

Most in the journalistic/politico world felt a bit of a letdown when the Times finally began its assault on Paterson last week. Where was the sex in utility closets we had been promised? Instead we got a story about an aide, his former driver David Johnson, who had had some trouble with the law as a young man and apparently still had some trouble with women. Paterson stuck by him and indeed, kept promoting him. A little strange, sure, but really, so what? Then came the follow-up, which was actually a stand-up piece of journalism, its lack of sex or drugs notwithstanding. We all know Paterson’s been a failure as governor, but no one has exactly explained why. Well, here’s why. The dude is “increasingly remote” from the actual job he’s supposed to be doing for reasons neither he, nor anyone else can satisfactorily explain. End of story, right? Not exactly.

Lloyd Grove: Andrew Cuomo’s Paterson ProblemLloyd Grove: Paterson on the BrinkThursday morning, the Times put these two stories together. It turns out that one of the things the governor was doing when nobody could find him was, well, it gets confusing (and tawdry and depressing) here. Clearly the intent of the Thursday’s story is to imply that Paterson did his damndest to prevent the victim of said aide—David Johnson—from following through on a charge of domestic violence in a case where Johnson allegedly stripped her, choked her, pushed her into a mirror and threatened her friend, a witness, to keep quiet. (Johnson has not publicly commented on the charges).

She testified twice, appeared ready to press charges, and then, following a phone call with Paterson and a visit from his security detail, suddenly changed her mind.

Thing is, the Times can’t make up its mind whether Paterson called her or she called Paterson. At first we read:

“The woman’s lawyer said Mr. Paterson’s call came sometime between 
Feb. 1 and Feb. 8, the scheduled court date. "The lawyer, Lawrence B. Saftler, said that the conversation lasted about a minute and that the governor asked how she was doing and if there was anything he could do for her. 'If you need me,' he said, according to Mr. Saftler, 'I’m here for you.' "Mr. Saftler said the governor never mentioned the court case, but he would not say if the call had influenced her decision not to return to 

That was Wednesday night when the story first appeared on the web. But by Thursday morning, when it was delivered on paper to our doorsteps, a crucial, confusing, fact had been added. Now Paterson’s spokesperson was saying the woman in question had called him, not the other way around. But if all Paterson did was take her call and offer his help—which is all the evidence shows so far—can we really say, as the Times does, that we have a case of "Paterson personally intervening to prevent a woman from pressing charges against his aide." Since when does “If you need me...I’m here for you” constitute untoward pressure?

What is clear however, is the apparently irresistible temptation for New York governors to abuse their authority when it comes to the state police. Spitzer was accused of deploying the state police to spy on the corrupt former (Republican) Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, Now, we have the Times implying, quite strongly, that Paterson abused them on behalf of his violent aide to protect him from the legal ramifications of his actions. What is this, Arksansas? (And why the hell does a New York governor need “a detail of about 200 officers” to provide personal security? Wouldn’t say, five be enough?)

Will Andrew Cuomo, who caused so much trouble for Spitzer on this very issue, now take on Paterson as indeed Paterson suggests? Well, it’s a sweet idea for Paterson. Cuomo, who is almost certain to replace him, will have to be awfully careful not appear to be hounding Paterson, lest he offend New York’s considerable population of black voters. And if he does find something, Paterson can always point to his obvious ambition to sit in the governor’s chair to try and change the subject. In the meantime, Johnson has finally been suspended without pay and Denise E. O'Donnell, the deputy secretary for Public Safety announced her resignation Thursday afternoon, saying that the actions of the governor and the State Police are "unacceptable regardless of their intent."

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Paterson’s candidacy does not look to be long for this world. Just a few months ago, the talk was that he would take over embattled Charlie Rangel's seat and save the Democrats the embarrassment of that continuing scandal. Instead, the opposite is happening. Paterson is taking the heat off Rangel—how many high-profile black politicians can the Democrats get rid of in one election cycle?—and saddling up a proverbial white horse Andrew Cuomo to ride in on and save the state. Of course like Paterson, Andrew's had his own problems with public family dysfunction and Kennedy women. Albany politics is one big saga of cronyism and corruption—remember Alan Hevesi?—and always seem to lead us to believe that it can't get any worse... until it does.

Over to you, Andrew.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.