Thursday, March 13, 2008

Paterson Faces Early Test With State Budget

James Estrin/The New York Times

Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson arriving at a news conference at the State Capitol in Albany on Thursday.


Published: March 13, 2008

ALBANY — Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson said Thursday afternoon that meeting the looming state budget deadline is the most pressing task he will face upon assuming office as governor on Monday and that he plans to work through the weekend to get up to speed on budget negotiations.

“We cannot afford to waste another second,” Mr. Paterson said at a news conference here. “We have a budget that is due and a deadline to meet.”

Mr. Paterson was composed and affable in his first formal appearance since Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his resignation on Monday following disclosures that Mr. Spitzer had been linked to a high-priced prostitution ring. When one reporter asked Mr. Paterson whether he had ever patronized a prostitute, the lieutenant governor turned a moment of shocked stillness into laughter, quipping, “Only the lobbyists.”

Briefly addressing Mr. Spitzer’s future, Mr. Paterson, who said he considers the governor a close friend, said, “In my heart I feel he has suffered enough.” But he acknowledged that some people might feel that prosecutors should pursue criminal charges against Mr. Spitzer.

“That is why we have dispassionate law enforcement that looks into these situations,” Mr. Paterson said. “We should leave it in their hands, and support them, which I do.”

Asked to speak about becoming New York’s first black governor, Mr. Paterson praised people who had fought to secure opportunities for individuals of all races and said, “The fact that it has taken this long in some ways is a sad note.”

Mr. Paterson, who will also be the first legally blind governor, added: “To whatever extent my presence impresses upon employers, or impresses upon younger people who are like me in either way, or Hispanics or women — we’ve never had a governor from either of those communities — then I would feel very privileged, very proud and very flattered to be in this position.”

The importance of the upcoming budget negotiations for Mr. Paterson was apparent throughout the day. In a radio appearance Thursday morning, he said he had not been heavily involved in drafting Governor Spitzer’s budget and would have to work quickly to gain command of the issue.

“I kind of feel like the student who’s getting ready for the final exam but they didn’t attend any classes,” he said in a radio broadcast on Fred Dicker’s radio program on Talk 1300 AM in Albany.

Mr. Paterson said he had been involved in other tasks while Mr. Spitzer ironed out a budget proposal and said he would rely on “those who have done this before, including Majority Leader Bruno and Speaker Silver.”

Reaching a budget compromise is almost never easy in Albany, and the task could be particularly difficult this year with the state facing a $4.4 billion deficit. To some extent, the budget is moving forward under its own momentum. Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr., the Manhattan Democrat who heads the Assembly budget committee, said the Senate and the Assembly have just passed their modifications to the governor’s budget proposal. Conference committees, which will iron out a compromise, are scheduled to begin on Monday.

“It’s not going to be easy because he has 40,000 things he has to deal with,” Mr. Farrell said of Mr. Paterson. But he said the incoming governor was familiar with the process from long experience as a legislator and “I am comfortable in that he can come up to speed on it.”

As Mr. Paterson prepared to take over on Monday, questions swirled through the Capitol about the style of leadership he would bring to Albany. While Mr. Spitzer’s confrontational, sometimes bellicose manner antagonized his opponents and alienated his allies, Mr. Paterson is known for a milder and subtler form of leadership.

He already showed signs of the change in atmosphere on Thursday morning, noting he would take the oath of office in the Assembly chamber and going out of his way to praise the Senate Republican leader, Joseph L. Bruno — who will take on the responsibilities of lieutenant governor — as well as Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly.

"The speaker understands government as well as anyone around here,” Mr. Paterson said. “His institutional knowledge and his creativity are almost unparalleled. And of course, Governor Bruno —what am I saying? — Leader Bruno will act as a governor when the governor is out of town in a few days, he and I worked for four years as adversaries, as leaders in the Senate, and I don’t think you ever saw or heard a word publicly go back and forth either way."

Leaders of both political parties have predicted that, for better or worse, Mr. Paterson would return a sense of comity to the relationship between the governor and the Legislature. In his remarks on Thursday morning, Mr. Paterson did nothing to dispel that sense.

"I might be the captain of the ship, but I really see it as the coordinator of the forces in this state that can make it run, and make it run effectively if we all put aside some of the perceived problems inherent in our differences,” he said.

Another indication that change is in the air came from Mr. Spitzer’s fiercest antagonist, Mr. Bruno. In a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Bruno committed himself to working closely with Mr. Paterson, with whom he has enjoyed warm relations, to help the state move past the Spitzer scandal.

“We are going to partner with the lieutenant governor when he becomes governor, and David has always been very open with me, very forthright,” Mr. Bruno said. “I look forward to a positive, productive relationship as soon as possible.”

In politics, style and tone are crucial, but a major shift in either — and, perhaps, a lengthy honeymoon with legislative leaders — may be the only sure outcome of Mr. Paterson’s ascension to the governor’s office on Monday, an event likely to be as transforming as any in New York political history.

Left in doubt are many of the largest issues facing state government. What policies will Mr. Paterson pursue, and will he adopt Mr. Spitzer’s priorities as his own? How will his political philosophy differ from Mr. Spitzer’s? And will he continue Mr. Spitzer’s aggressive efforts to win control of the Republican-controlled State Senate, and thereby oust Mr. Bruno?

Elected to the largely ceremonial post of lieutenant governor, Mr. Paterson, unlike Mr. Spitzer, has no sure mandate of his own. His years as the minority leader of the State Senate left him with some legislative history, but in Albany, where the governor, the Assembly speaker, and Senate majority leader hold nearly unrestricted power, that post gave him relatively few opportunities to significantly shape legislation.

“He really didn’t have a chance to develop an agenda and forcefully act on it, because if the majority leader or the speaker don’t want it, it doesn’t happen,” said Douglas A. Muzzio, a professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.

Mr. Paterson is considered more liberal than Mr. Spitzer on some key issues, and that could create friction with the Republicans. He opposes the death penalty and strongly supports overhauling New York’s Rockefeller-era drug laws, for example. Years ago he introduced a proposal to allow noncitizens to vote. On issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Mr. Paterson is staunchly liberal, as is Mr. Spitzer.

Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester, said Mr. Paterson was a more progressive Democrat than Mr. Spitzer, especially on economic and tax policy. “The kind of things Eliot did, in terms of hundreds of nuisance taxes on the middle class but no taxes on the wealthy, I think that’s the kind of thing that David will instinctively want to change,” Mr. Brodsky said. “Whether he can or not I don’t know, but I think his instinct will be in that direction.”

The fate of Mr. Spitzer’s signature legislative initiatives, including proposals to reduce property taxes, revamp state campaign finance laws and require a commission to redraw legislative districts, is also unclear. Mr. Spitzer’s avid and at times headlong pursuit of some of those goals is what first soured his relationship with Mr. Bruno.

“One of the things you’ve seen is that the separation of powers is very real, the Legislature has true power,” George E. Pataki, the former governor, said on Wednesday.

Still, as minority leader in the Senate, Mr. Paterson drove toward overhauling Albany’s notoriously secretive legislative process, a frequent target of good-government groups. In 2003, Mr. Paterson’s caucus produced a reform proposal that in some respects anticipated Mr. Spitzer’s own promises to change Albany and make government more open.

“Do I believe David is serious about reform? I know he’s serious about reform,” said Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat who has worked closely with Mr. Paterson on political reform issues. “I think David’s perspective on reform in Albany comes out of his experience as a 20-year legislator who saw for himself what worked and what didn’t. And I believe what he would tell you is we were going in the wrong direction for too many of those years.”

A member of a prominent Harlem political family, Mr. Paterson is the son of Basil A. Paterson, a former state senator and New York secretary of state. Many believe that the elder Mr. Paterson will play a key role in advising his son during the transition, as will Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor of New York City and now a prominent lobbyist, and other members of Harlem’s political establishment.

Mr. Paterson has already plucked Luther A. Smith, who served as chief of staff to the former Manhattan borough president, C. Virginia Fields, from Mr. Lynch’s firm to join him in Albany. Mr. Lynch said that he himself would remain an outside adviser to Mr. Paterson.

One longtime Democratic legislative employee said it looked as if Mr. Paterson was building an Albany version of the mayoral administration of David N. Dinkins. On the whole, that person noted, those operatives and officials had relatively little experience in state government, a potential liability for the new governor.

Some allies believe that Mr. Paterson should also jettison any of Mr. Spitzer’s aides who were involved in efforts last summer to discredit Mr. Bruno over his use of state aircraft. Those efforts sparked several investigations, and P. David Soares, the Albany County district attorney, and officials with the Commission on Public Integrity said Mr. Spitzer’s departure would not affect their inquiries.

Meanwhile, Mr. Paterson will have to decide how hard he will work to change the balance of power in Albany, where Senate Republicans hold a bare majority in a state that is heading even more heavily Democratic.

Mr. Spitzer styled himself an outsider and campaigned vigorously for Democratic Senate candidates, breaking a longstanding nonaggression pact whereby governors did not attempt to upend the Democratic majority in the Assembly or the Republican majority in the Senate.

Mr. Paterson is a consummate political insider and may be less inclined — and under the circumstances, less able — to offer such help. He will come into office after only a few days of transition time, and will have mere weeks to grapple with passing the state budget, for which he will require the cooperation of Mr. Bruno and Mr. Silver.

Though Mr. Paterson is known for winning consensus, people who have worked with him warn that it is foolish to underestimate him. His genial demeanor, they say, masks finely honed political instincts and a talent for disarming opponents even as he bargains hard with them. Few in Albany forget how Mr. Paterson became minority leader in the Senate: by orchestrating a coup in 2002 against a fellow New York City Democrat, Senator Martin Connor.

“People go into meetings with him and think they are going to pick his pocket — and walk out missing their own wallet,” said one lobbyist in New York City. Mr. Silver, a Democrat who will tussle with the new governor on legislative and budget matters, offered a word of praise, mixed with a gentle warning. “This is a matter of performance,” he said on Tuesday. “I think he is capable of being one of the finest governors New York has ever had.”

Then he added: “Ask that question in about a year.”

Michael Powell, Nicholas Confessore and Trymaine Lee contributed reporting.

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