Thursday, September 24, 2009

Obama's visit seen by some Democrats as undermining governor

New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo got a much warmer greeting from President Obama on Monday than was given to Gov. David A. Paterson, in the background.
Associated Press

ALBANY — Gov. David A. Paterson's ability to govern at a crucial fiscal moment for the state has been severely compromised after President Obama undermined Paterson's political future over the past few days, some Democrats said Tuesday.

"He may have been put in a position where he cannot govern. That's premature and hurtful to all New Yorkers and is a situation that may backfire on those that wanted to ease the way out for the governor," said Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada.

The first major public test for the governor comes today, when he will join with legislative leaders in an effort to solve what is expected to be a deficit higher than recently projected at $2.1 billion. Officials in both parties will watch to see how cooperative Democratic legislators will be for a governor who some believe is being thrust into the lame duck category -- with 15 months left to serve -- by Obama's efforts to get him off the ticket in 2010.

The intrigue only deepened Tuesday when the state's highest court, in a surprising decision that reversed two lower court rulings, said Paterson had the authority when he appointed Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor in July.

With Ravitch now legally in office and first in the line of succession, Democrats say the way could be paved for Paterson to gracefully leave office, possibly with a federal post in the Obama administration, before his term ends as a bow to the White House's concerns.

But Ravitch said Tuesday that Paterson has given him no indication that he will be stepping down. "Quite to the contrary, I have the distinct impression that he meant what he said, that his present intention is to run for election," the Manhattan lawyer said. He said Paterson is "obviously" going to serve out his term.

While some Democrats privately are rejoicing that Paterson -- who they believe risks hurting other Democrats on the ballot if he runs next year -- was slapped down by the White House, others call the past few days of leaks and public put-downs unseemly even by New York political standards.

Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, D-Buffalo, said he will not be supporting Paterson in 2010 because of his job performance and low ratings among the public.

"But I don't think anyone who has dedicated their life to public service deserves to have this orchestrated out in the media," Schroeder said of the leaks that surfaced over the weekend and culminated in an embarrassing appearance for Paterson with Obama on Monday in Troy.

"To make the governor feel uncomfortable in his own state, it's regrettable," said Schroeder, who called himself a supporter of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

"So he's been unable to lead. What has he really done wrong? Why does he deserve that ridicule? I believe the president and his people could have handled it differently .‚.‚. I don't think he should have flaunted making the governor feel bad and making Andrew [Cuomo] feel good."

Ravitch added, "I must say, having been a strong Obama supporter going back to 2007, I was a little mystified by what happened the last two days. But in politics, today's news is tomorrow's fish wrapper."

Paterson said he understands Obama's concerns about wanting to keep elected Democrats in office next year. The governor sought to downplay the Monday episode, saying Obama had been "gracious" to him. "He asked me how I was feeling. He expressed a little chagrin about the process in this situation," Paterson told reporters in New York.

The governor declined to discuss conversations he had last week with Patrick Gaspard, the Obama political director who brought the message to the governor last week that the president had lost confidence in his ability to win in 2010. Yet a defiant Paterson, who repeated he will run in 2010, suggested the brouhaha is not helping the state.

"I am concerned about the Democratic Party. But I'm also concerned about my ability to govern," he said.

He then added his own apparent shot, noting that the Obama White House has not "exactly been able to govern in the first year of their administration the way other administrations have." He then noted Obama's trouble in getting health care reform passed.

"They can't get one Republican vote?" Paterson said of the stalled legislation along partisan lines.

The governor has had few true allies in the Legislature for a good portion of this year as he has wrestled with ideas to keep the budget in balance at a time of historic fiscal problems. When lawmakers were not ignoring his chief priorities -- such as caps on property taxes and state spending -- they turned back many of his ideas for cutting state spending.

Now, Paterson is again asking legislators for help to resolve what he said is one of the worst middle-of-the-fiscal-year deficits. because, he believes, there are so few options for resolving the deficit. Paterson already has ruled out tax hikes, leaving spending cuts that will be unpopular with powerful special interests.

And Paterson must wrestle with these problems this at a time when the nation's top Democrat has helped spread the word that Paterson is apparently not up for the job, some Democrats complained.

Will lawmakers, many of whom believe Paterson is unelectable in 2010, work hard to help him out of the new fiscal mess? Publicly, legislative leaders have insisted the focus now is on the budget, not the drama created by the White House. The answer will come in the weeks ahead if the Legislature returns to fix the deficit.

With the White House plan for Paterson made public, the stage is now set for a governor, who already has dire poll ratings among voters, to be further undercut by legislators, who have their own political priorities to consider. Senate Democrats, for instance, are worried Republicans can use the state's problems to retake control of the Senate in 2010.

"I could make an argument that you have as much power when you're at 20 percent in the polls as you do when you're at 80 percent in the polls," Ravitch said of Paterson's dismal standing among voters. "He is still the governor of the State of New York. He has a mammoth responsibility, which I think he takes very, very seriously."

Tuesday's ruling by the Court of Appeals in the Ravitch case set off a new round of maneuverings. Paterson sought to portray it as a victory because it gives him a lieutenant experienced in the ways of Albany during an ongoing fiscal crisis.

The 4-3 ruling ends what would have been another bitter power battle in the Senate -- whose leader is next in line if there is no lieutenant governor -- were Paterson to leave before his term ends.

That the court's ruling came the day after Obama's visit only added to the swirl that has taken over Albany.

"We've heard for a couple months that the game plan was Ravitch would be lieutenant governor to give David the ability to have an exit plan and be appointed to something," said a top Democrat in Albany who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This decision now gives him the ability to craft a much more desirable exit plan than before." Another Democrat added: "It's one thing for a president to say to the governor, "Don't run.' It's something else for him to say to the governor, "You can leave New York right now because I've got something for you in Washington and don't worry the state is in good hands with Richard Ravitch.'‚"

Ravitch already has said he would not run for office in 2010.

"I think it's 50-50," Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic Party consultant, said when asked if the ruling makes it more likely Paterson will resign.

But Sheinkopf said he believes Paterson, if he went that route, would not walk away from the job until after the state budget is put together next spring -- at the earliest. "David Paterson has been a contrarian all his career. .‚.‚. He does what he wants. No question it makes it easier for him to leave. Will he take that option? It's not in his nature," Sheinkopf said.

Espada, the Bronx Democratic majority leader of the Senate, said there is "no question" that the political unrest this week has made the governor's job more difficult and has caused a sideshow that will hurt the ability of the sides to resolve the new budget problems.

"But I still represent a county with the highest unemployment rate and I know the upstate economy is reeling. While it's nice to focus on the 2010 elections, we have the realities of this year and next year," he added.

Still, the incursion of the Obama White House into the internal Democratic affairs of New York did not lose its legs Tuesday.

Former President Bill Clinton checked in on the Paterson and Obama controversy in an interview on the "Today" show, where he said Paterson is "not in good shape now." "But I will say this about David Paterson: He is a good man. He has achieved a lot in his life," Clinton said of Paterson, who was an early supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008.

He added, "I believe if he believes he has a reasonable chance to win I think he'll probably run. If he thinks his chances are one in 10 or worse, I think he probably won't, but I think he'll decide and he'll make a good decision."

Political spinning and some mild retreating were also afoot Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Queens Democrat, sought to reel in a Sunday New York Times report that he delivered a "do not run" message from the White House to Paterson in a dinner last weekend. He appeared in several downstate media markets to say no such message was sent, but that he was merely talking to an old friend -- Paterson -- about his election troubles and concerns in the White House about 2010.

The Court of Appeals ruling, given succession issues, was seen as the one easy way for Paterson to leave office early with a soft landing or criticism that he was leaving the state in chaos without a lieutenant governor in place.

"While there can be no quarrel with the proposition that, generally, election must be the preferred means of filling vacancies in elective office, it does not follow that the elective principle is pre-eminent when it comes to filling a vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote in the majority opinion.

But the three dissenters sharply disputed the legal ability of Paterson, who was not elected to his job as governor, to name a successor. In writing for the minority opinion, Judge Eugene Pigott, seemed to predict the possibility that Paterson could resign and Ravitch become governor.

"Under the majority's rationale, the possibility exists that the citizens of this state will one day find themselves governed by a person who has never been subjected to scrutiny by the electorate, and who could in turn appoint his or her own unelected lieutenant governor," Pigott wrote this morning.

"Because this is contrary to the text of the New York Constitution and affords governors unprecedented power to appoint a successor, we respectfully dissent," the judge wrote.

Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who for years has had a bill for voters to elect a lieutenant governor in the event of a vacancy as New York saw last year with the resignation of Eliot Spitzer and ascendency of Paterson to the job, called the court's ruling a "Herculean legal leap."

Schimminger said the ruling more than ever creates the need for a new law for a "rational and balanced framework" for such vacancies to be filled in the future.

tprecious@buffnews.com

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