Monday, October 6, 2008

Paterson Moves to Help Democrats in State Senate

Published: October 5, 2008

ALBANY — While playing down his role in this year’s election in public, Gov. David A. Paterson has been quietly leading an effort to raise more than $2 million to help fellow Democrats win control of the State Senate, according to people familiar with his plans.

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Gov. David A. Paterson's efforts could end his truce with Senate Republicans.

Mr. Paterson’s aggressive efforts to help Senate Democrats signals an abandonment of the political truce he reached last spring with Joseph L. Bruno, then the Senate majority leader. Since the legislative session ended in June, Mr. Paterson has repeatedly said publicly that he would play only a limited role in the Senate campaign, in part because he would need to work with Republicans to tackle the state’s dire fiscal situation.

But with the Republicans holding a one-seat majority going into an extremely close election, and with a tough year of budget-cutting ahead, Mr. Paterson has decided that his interests would best be served by having Democrats in control of the Senate, according to some of the governor’s associates.

That would give Democrats control of all levels of power in Albany.

In recent weeks, Mr. Paterson has called dozens of major political donors, including some of his own top contributors and members of New York’s Congressional delegation, asking them to give money to the Democratic Senate campaign. He also plans to expand his schedule of endorsements and campaign events with Democratic candidates, according to people familiar with the plan.

Mr. Paterson’s intervention could prove decisive for Senate Democrats, who on Friday reported having about $1.3 million in their central campaign account, compared with $1.7 million for Senate Republicans. Over all, Republican candidates and party committees have raised far more than the Democrats.

“His speech is: ‘Look, I’m a Democrat. I’m supporting the Democrats. I think they would be responsible in the majority. I want you to help them,’ ” said one person who received a call from Mr. Paterson, but who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as violating the governor’s confidence.

Mr. Paterson’s fund-raising help will be especially welcome to Senate Democrats now that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has announced plans to seek a third term. Mr. Bloomberg has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Senate Republicans in the past; he has endorsed several Republican Senate candidates this year, and is likely to continue to aid them now that he hopes to be mayor for a third term.

Besides helping raise campaign funds, Mr. Paterson will spend the last few weeks before the election appearing at campaign events and making endorsements, said Senator Diane J. Savino, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island and is a leader of the Democrats’ campaign efforts. “There are some limits on David’s ability to campaign in person, but he’ll do what he can.”

Mr. Paterson is expected to endorse and campaign with Brian X. Foley, a Long Island Democrat who is challenging Senator Caesar Trunzo, a longtime Republican incumbent, and with Joe Mesi, a former boxer who is in a tight race for the Buffalo-area seat of Senator Mary Lou Rath, a Republican who is retiring, Democratic officials said.

Mr. Mesi’s race in particular is considered a must-win for Democrats in their quest for a Senate majority.

“I think four or five months ago, David was not where he is today,” said Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat. “I think he’s concluded we’re going to win and that he has a better shot at mobilizing the state against the challenges we’re facing with a Democratic Senate.”

Last month, Mr. Paterson said he would campaign and raise money for Rick Dollinger, a Democratic candidate in the Rochester area. At the time, he played down his role, saying he was lending Mr. Dollinger a hand “based on friendship.”

Last week, he endorsed James F. Gennaro, a Democratic city councilman who is running against Senator Frank Padavan of Queens, another long-serving Republican incumbent.

Democratic officials said money raised by Mr. Paterson would be directed to state Democratic Party accounts, which he controls. The contributions would then be transferred to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and to individual campaigns. Last month, Mr. Paterson moved to transfer about $84,000 from the state party accounts to Mr. Dollinger’s campaign.

Although Mr. Paterson had been raising money for Senate Democrats since the end of the legislative session, the $2 million goal was established only recently, those familiar with the plan said.

Joseph Conway, a Republican campaign spokesman, said Mr. Paterson’s help would not be enough to win a Democratic majority.

“The governor will do what he will do, but the bottom line is that our fund-raising is stronger than ever, far outpacing previous years and far outpacing what the Senate Democrats are raising,” Mr. Conway said. “We’re also being very aggressive in our expenditures, because we’re playing offense rather than defense and fully intend to pick up seats this fall.”

Mr. Paterson’s aid to fellow Democrats would be unremarkable almost anywhere else in the country. But in Albany, governors have not always helped out during campaign season.

Mr. Paterson’s predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, broke with that tradition in dramatic fashion, campaigning aggressively for Senate Democrats and, as a result, poisoning his relationship with Senate Republicans. Mr. Paterson appeared to be taking a different path. In the spring and summer, he worked closely with Senate Republicans and promoted some of their priorities. He described himself at the time as being “at peace” with the Republican majority, now led by Senator Dean G. Skelos of Long Island.

While Mr. Paterson has often said that he would like to see a Democratic-led Senate, he has also suggested that he would try to avoid a confrontation with the Republicans. Last month he told an audience of business executives, “I am not taking on the fight of the Senate as my fight, because that’s not my role.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Paterson said, “I’m not running the show and making it an issue between myself and the Senate Republicans, because they just came back and helped me considerably,” referring to Senate concessions on state spending.

But some Democrats close to the governor noted that when Mr. Paterson was the Senate minority leader, he was an architect of the Democrats’ long-term plan to retake the Senate. It was only natural that Mr. Paterson would help Senate Democrats now, they said, adding that he had always planned to become more active on the campaign trail once the legislative session had ended.

For example, the political consulting firm that Mr. Paterson uses, the Global Strategy Group, has been working in key Senate races.

Still, in an effort to minimize tensions, Mr. Paterson is not expected to directly criticize any Republican incumbent, said those familiar with his plans.

Mr. Paterson’s more active role in the campaign comes amid signs that his cordial relationship with Senate Republicans may fray over the state’s fiscal crisis, which the governor has said requires more cuts to state spending. A public meeting on Friday between Mr. Paterson and legislative leaders grew testy when Mr. Paterson suggested that they were not taking the state’s financial difficulties seriously.

“I’m not in college and I’m not in law school anymore, and I don’t need to be lectured,” Mr. Skelos told Mr. Paterson.

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