Another Gubernatorial Meltdown

The pressure gets to David Paterson

By Robert A. George
|  Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009  |  Updated 12:00 AM PDT
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New York Gov. David Paterson (L) talks to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) at a Capitol Hill hearing last October. One year later, the political future of both governors look bleak.

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Who would ever think that South Carolina and New York would have so much in common? Liberal northern urban center vs. conservative southern rural area? 

Yeah, that's what it looks like on the outside --and that's the way it is most of the time.  Not this year though:  They are both fortunate (?) enough to have governors who are suffering emotional breakdowns in public.  

The soap opera of South Carolina's Mark Sanford has been examined over and over.  The Appalachian Trail, the affair, the Argentine lover, the press conference that wouldn't end, the TMI e-mails, etc. etc.  His wife's moved out and taken the kids with her; Republican members of the legislature have demanded his resignation; he's still hanging on; they're talking impeachment, etc. etc.  

"I'm blind, but I'm not oblivious," was the great soundbite New York's David Paterson offered a national audience on Meet The Press Sunday, responding to moderator David Gregory's questions on the big story from the week before -- that the White House wants Paterson not to run for a full term next year. Paterson subsequently declared that, regardless of any signals that the White House might be sending, "I am running for governor in 2010." For Paterson to think that he would have any chance -- in the face of a popular (within the Democratic Party) president's clear message -- shows that obliviousness isn't Paterson's problem. It's denial.   

Paterson's saga has been almost subsumed within the larger psychodrama of New York politics over the last two years:  Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal and subsequent resignation; Paterson's taking office -- and immediately confessing to multiple affairs and drug use; this summer's legislative gridlock created by two state senate Democrats briefly switching over to the Republicans. But after the Obama story broke, it became rapidly clear how much of a toll the last several months have taken on Paterson. Last Wednesday, he publicly groused that rival Andrew Cuomo, the vastly popular attorney general and likely gubernatorial nominee, was behind the leak to the Times. He also started revealing a bit too much about his once-hoped-for political future:

“I did not sign up for this,” Mr. Paterson said. “I wanted to be lieutenant governor. I had this grand plan that Hillary Clinton was going to become president. Maybe the governor would appoint me to the Senate.”

Prior to being selected lieutenant governor, Paterson had been the minority leader in the state senate, a second generation member of the Harlem political machine that helped elevate his father Basil to Manhattan Borough President.  But, as he basically admits, David Paterson never really wanted to be governor. A shocking admission.  Chief executive -- mayor, governor, president -- is what most politicians usually aspire to, precisely because that's the Top Dog. But perhaps Paterson, learning from his time in the state senate, hoped and longed for the relative anonymity that a senator can take. Instead, he's stuck in the spotlight and he's not happy with it. 

He sounds petulant that he didn't get his way, yet he's angry, frustrated and, of course, embarrassed that the president is pushing him out -- ironically, of a job that Paterson never wanted. (To further confuse the issue, a poll shows that New Yorkers want Paterson out -- but don't want the president forcing him out.)   Well, he does have options. Now that New York's highest court has determined that Paterson had the legal authority to appoint a lieutenant governor, he could resign and allow that man, Richard Ravitch to take over. Let him solve the $3 billion budget the state faces.    

Ravitch is well-respected across the state. At 76 years of age, he has no interest in running for the office himself next year, so maybe he can be the old gray eminence who can force some fiscal discipline on a legislature that is already voicing impassioned opposition to the idea of any spending cuts. 

Will that happen? Truthfully, one knows.  New York's governor seems distraught at what has become of his office. With the White House set against Paterson, despite his MTP declaration, he most likely won't run next year -- but the decisions a most unhappy man makes between now and the official end of his term in January 2011 could well make his successor's job even more difficult.  If that happens, New Yorkers could literally end up paying a heavy price as its governor goes through a major mid-life crisis on the public stage.  

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter. 

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