Political Physics – David Paterson: Wrong Guy, Wrong Place, Wrong Time


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

One of the continuous arguments that we heard against Sarah Palin during the recent presidential campaign was that she was not qualified to be Vice President let alone President.  The real fear being that if something happened to John McCain, Would Palin have effectively run the country.  In fact when asked the question in a 2008 PBS.Org poll, 95% of respondents answered “No.”  Moreover, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted in October 2009, 71% of respondents “did not think she was qualified to sit in the Oval Office.”

At the end of the day, that is a real issue.  Whoever sits in the “Number 2” chair can end up becoming “Number 1.”  The second string, if you will, needs to be up to the job.  So this begs the question, what were the Democrats thinking when Paterson was selected by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as his running mate for the Governor’s office in 2006?

I mean don’t get me wrong, Paterson had a strong political heritage and background.

The son of Basil Paterson, who was the first non-white secretary of state of New York, the first African-American vice-chair of the national Democratic Party, the first African-American NYC Deputy Mayor and the first African-American to run for statewide office in New York, Paterson was destined to be a rising star in New York politics.  And he quickly followed in his father’s footsteps.

According to Wikipedia, “in 1985 Paterson won a highly competitive New York (Manhattan) County Democratic party Committee selection process to serve the rest of the term of longtime state Senator Leon Bogues, who had died.  The following year, he won the seat for his first full term, representing the 29th District in the New York State Senate (Harlem) – the same seat occupied by his father.”  And in 2002, “Paterson was elected minority leader of the New York Senate, making him the first non-white legislative leader in New York’s history. In 2004 in Boston, he became the first visually impaired person to address a Democratic National Convention.”

In 2006, according to a New York Times article, Paterson was “respected and popular in the Democratic party, and [was] widely regarded as a smart political tactician who helped Democrats pick up seats in the New York State Senate in the 2002 elections.”

Spitzer and Paterson were elected in November 2006 with 69% of the vote.  And when Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal, Paterson became New York State’s first African-American Governor.

So what happened?

Today, Paterson is facing repeated calls for his resignation (from both sides of the political aisles)  from his position as New York State’s first African-American Governor amid allegations that he interceded on behalf of a staffer in a domestic abuse case, misused his position as Governor to do so, and also committed perjury when he denied accepting free tickets to a baseball game.

Now there are those that have argued that Governor Paterson has not received a fair shake and it’s also been alleged that the media has engaged in a smear campaign against the Governor that is racially motivated.  Governor Paterson himself “blamed a racist media Friday for trying to push him out of next year’s election.”

In a recent episode of “Tell Me More” from NPR News, host Michel Martin discussed the media coverage about Paterson with Arsalan Iftikhar, of “The Muslim Guy Blog“; syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette; Johns Hopkins political science professor and blogger, Lester Spence; and NPR’s Political Editor Ken Rudin.  Though they do not necessarily agree that the coverage was racially motivated, there is general consensus that the coverage had been unfairly slanted and filled with unsubstantiated rumors.  Ken Rudin notes, “the point is when you have the New York Daily News and the New York Post and every blogger in the world constantly on their front pages talking about either drug use or sexual peccadilloes…” it takes a toll on the individual personally and professionally.

In an article on Gather.Com, Paul Cash asks, if the NY Times’ New Story on Governor Paterson was a “bombshell or hit job?”  Cash notes, “One has to wonder, because this article strikes right to the heart of Paterson’s credibility, something which is already on Code Blue. Just like his chances to win the Governor’s seat again.”

Listen, I do believe that race played a role in how Governor Paterson is being treated by the media (just like I believe that Joe Wilson would not have called President Obama a liar out loud and in the Congressional Chambers if he had been white).  However, race is not what did Paterson in.

For me, it was clear that Governor Paterson was not ready for prime time from the very beginning.  I mean the day after his inauguration when he announced that he and his wife had extramarital affairs and acknowledged that he had tried cocaine and marijuana, I thought, This guy is not first string material.

I know what Governor Paterson was trying to accomplish, in light of the Spitzer scandal, but if he had been ready for prime time he would have handled that dance more skillfully.  Throughout his tenure, Paterson would stumble frequently both publicly and privately.  In an article entitled, “Why Governor Paterson’s Biggest Obstacle is His Own Weirdness,” Chris Smith of New York Magazine mused about Paterson’s eccentricity and how it was a continuing challenge for the Governor.  Smith writes,” “He is an extraordinarily unusual politician. His degree of thinking aloud; his degree of openly and verbally changing his mind; his ability to argue passionately to do something two completely different ways; his belief that he is his own best advocate and strategist and handler and adviser.”  In this new political environment, filled with a new generation of incredibly skilled black politicians like Obama, Booker and Patrick, Paterson just seemed inexplicably unprepared (particularly given his political background and heritage).

And what is sad is that the achievements that Paterson did make will be overshadowed by this ethical debacle.  Paterson reduced the state deficit by $33 billion, expanded health care coverage for families, required 90-day notices on home foreclosures, increased the number of state contracts that went to minority- and women-owned businesses and issued a directive to all New York State departments and agencies requiring them to recognize same-sex marriage licenses from other jurisdictions for the purposes of employee benefits.

Paterson was the wrong guy, in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I suspect that there are lots of times now when Governor Paterson wished that he had turned down the offer to join the Spitzer ticket and remained in the State Senate where he was posed to become the Senate Majority Leader.

Yeah, I bet late at night he finds himself cursing Spitzer in his sleep.

I can just imagine it, “Damn you and your prostitutes, Eliott!”