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The Paterson Era Begins
Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Call the community board in the Harlem district David Paterson used to represent, mention his name and on the other line comes a chuckle and the word "comedian." Ask a political observer what the new governor is like and they say "amiable," "charismatic" or "conciliatory." Wonder how the city could fare under a Paterson administration and some New York City officials say they have high hopes.

So who is this Albany veteran, besides being the state's first black and legally blind governor and a so-called ally to the State Legislature?

Paterson represented the 30th State Senate district, which comprises most of Harlem and parts of the Upper West Side, for more than two decades. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up on Long Island, graduated from Columbia in three years and then from Hofstra Law School in the 1970s. Following in the footsteps of his father -- longtime politician Basil A. Paterson -- Paterson ran for the State Senate in 1985 and eventually became the body's minority leader.

He held onto the seat until joining Spitzer's ticket as a candidate for the mostly ceremonial post of lieutenant governor in 2006, shocking some Albany observers since he was in line to become the Senate's majority leader should Democrats take back the body.

Aside from citing his congenial, amiable outlook, some say the new governor -- who is scheduled to be sworn in at 1 p.m. today -- is more progressive than Spitzer and more likely to get things accomplished given his good relationship with the legislature's leaders.

"You'll see a savvy guy that gets along with the legislature and will be able to put through more of an agenda than Spitzer, because he has a better relationship (with the legislature)," said George Arzt, president of George Arzt Communication, a political consulting firm.

So far many of Paterson's priorities remain a mystery. Faced with a budget deadline two weeks away, Paterson said he would first concentrate on getting Albany back to business, which includes compromising on a budget with the State Senate and Assembly by April 1.

A New or Old Agenda?

An advocate for the disabled and minorities, Paterson was a member of the State Senate's minority for his entire tenure, which met legislation he proposed had little chance of passing.

Paterson's "speeches, which rely on facts and humor rather than decibels to score points, and his appreciation for the Senate's courtesies have won him wide respect," wrote Newsday's James Madore in 2002. But, the article continued, "For all Paterson's personal clout he still has few concrete results to show."

Despite that, his stands and actions pleased many progressive groups. The Working Families Party backed his successful bid to become minority leader earlier in the decade. In general, Paterson favors liberal positions on a range of issues, from opposing the death penalty to supporting gay marriage.

Whatever his ideology, some expect that under the circumstances Paterson will tread cautiously for a while. "He is not going to come in after a period of such damage and brooding and run down the gantlet," said David Birdsell, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. "It may look like a less ambitious agenda, but he may come in with a more realistic agenda."

Meeting the Budget Deadline

Barring any major unforeseen events, the budget will be the first item on Paterson's agenda. The governor and the legislature have until April 1 to hammer out a balanced budget for the 2009 fiscal year. Although the state has missed that deadline in the past, Paterson made it clear he intended to try to meet it this year. "We have a budget that's due and a deadline to meet," he said.

The process is already well under way. Assemblyman Herman Farrell Jr., chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, told the Times that the Senate and the Assembly have passed their modifications to the governor's budget plan and will now meet to reconcile their differences.

Paterson, though, may have to play a bit of catch up. "I'm coming into a budget process where I have not been innately involved," he said on a radio program Thursday. "So I kind of feel like the student getting ready for the final exam, but they haven't attended any classes."

Even without the abrupt change in governors, the government faces a daunting task. "Since the state fiscal year ends March 31, it was going to take tremendous focus and determination to resolve a $4 billion budget gap under the best of circumstances," said James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute.

"It's particularly important," Parrott said, "to try to balance the budget in a way that doesn't cause further harm to the economy," such as by instituting steep budget cuts or increasing "regressive fees and taxes."

One issue that might be back on the table is an increase in the state income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers. The Assembly has proposed such a hike.

"We want to try to do this (job) without raising anybody's taxes because that's what's driving people out of this state. We're pretty much the highest taxed per capita state in the union with the exception of Hawaii," Paterson said in a radio interview Friday. However he has not completely ruled out such a move, saying at his press conference, "We have a huge economic problem in this country, and I don't necessarily know when that [raising taxes] might become an issue, but I'm hoping that it won't be in the near future."

E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute has urged Paterson to resist the increase. "If he accedes to more tax hikes, the new governor would send economic decision-makers the worst possible signal at the worst possible time. It would also invite a bigger budget battle with Senate Republicans," McMahon wrote in the New York Post.

The Reform Agenda

If one single issue was responsible for Spitzer's landslide victory in November 2006, it was reform. He promised to root out corruption and to wake New York from what Spitzer himself likened to years of slumber. To address this, Spitzer had planned to dramatically reduce the state's sky-high campaign contribution limits and backed an independent redistricting commission that would have been charged with redrawing the lines for state legislative districts, which have long been designed largely to keep incumbents in office.

Both of those proposals may or may not become part of a Paterson agenda.

At his press conference last week, Paterson said he has a history of supporting campaign finance reform and would look to make a compromise with the legislature over the specifics. Since the state has some of the least restrictive campaign laws in the country, a compromise may not be what good government groups are aiming for.

"We want to not dictate campaign finance," said Paterson. "We want to really persuade legislators that this [current system] really is the root of a lot of the dysfunction we have in Albany."

Though Spitzer made a hallmark of good government proposals, some advocates contend the combative, steamrolling executive could have never seen them through anyway. Such controversial plans -- a stretch for even a compromising chief - would have fallen victim to the war between Spitzer and the legislature.

Paterson might be more successful at creating transparency and government reform because he has allies in the Assembly and the State Senate, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

"He comes in with a reputation for having a real ability to work with people in a real bipartisan way," said Lerner. "The truth of the matter is it seems to me that Eliot Spitzer had some real commitments to some important ideas, and I think that both he and Mr. Paterson ran on the same platform."

Though confident, Lerner said Common Cause is looking for Paterson to clarify his reform agenda quickly.

The new governor backed reform measures, including public financing of campaigns, during his tenure in the State Senate. As a result, Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government group and the sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher, said he expects Paterson to be a proponent of campaign finance changes.

The fate of other reforms is more difficult to discern. "His position is less clear on redistricting reform," said Dadey. But he added that Paterson "more than anyone knows how dysfunctional the state has been. I would hope he would continue the reform."

Others are more skeptical. "While he's been many things in his quarter-century of public life, reformer isn't one of them," Fred Siegel and Harry Siegel wrote in the Sun.

Issues for City Residents

In the coming months, Paterson and the people he appoints to his administration will face a broad range of issues of particular concern to New York City residents. Here are a few:

Congestion Pricing

If congestion pricing is to become a reality and the city is to get the millions in federal funds, the state legislature, along with the City Council, have until the end of the month to approve a plan to charge people to drive in Manhattan. Spitzer supported the idea, though some have described that backing as "tepid."

And Paterson? At his press conference Thursday, he said, "We're taking a look."

According to Streetsblog, which supports the congestion fees, people are divided as to whether the change in the governor's mansion will help or hurt the embattled plan.

Gotham Gazette will take a closer look at this issue in our March 24 Issue of the Week.

School Spending

In 2007, the legal battle over state funding for city schools seemed to come to an end as Spitzer announced changes in the funding formula and additional aid for New York City schools. But in the face of the budget deficit, he scaled back the increase for next year. This angered some education advocates as well as the Bloomberg administration.

City Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, said he hoped the money would be restored. "The children of New York City have been denied an adequate education for decades," Jackson said. "So the word is to David Paterson and to Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno keep the promise to the children of New York City."

Jackson said this might be more likely under Paterson than it would have been under Spitzer. In his press conference, Paterson cited improving an educational system downstate that has failed many children in New York City as one of his two top concerns. (The other was the upstate economy.)

In what could come as a surprise to people who see him as a kind of knee-jerk liberal, Paterson supports charter schools, schools that are privately run but publicly funded. In a 2006 interview, he said he favored lifting the cap on the number of such schools allowed in New York State. A pro-charter school group, Democrats for Education Reform, has scheduled a rally on Thursday to honor Paterson for "his early and strong support of education reform and charter schools."

Health Care

The issue of health care did not come up at Paterson's press conference, but he will have to deal with it. "Governor Spitzer had set in motion a broad examination of how to achieve universal health coverage, and while a concrete plan wasn't expected to pass this year, there was hope that the outlines of a plan would begin to emerge," Parrott said. The fate of that now remains anyone's guess.

Spitzer had also proposed expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover children in families whose incomes are below 400 percent of poverty level, or nearly $83,000 a year for a family of four. (It currently covers families below 250 percent of poverty level.) The Bush administration had rejected the idea and Spitzer planned to use state funds to cover the costs. "The question reamins how you pay for it" in light of other spending priorities, Parrott said.

Development

A number of major development projects in the city remain at critical junctures: Moynihan Station, Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, Willets Point, the Javits Center Expansion and so on. The state plays a major role in many. Recently, for example, Spitzer proposed selling parcels of the land near the Javits Center, thereby scrapping plans for a substantially larger convention center. This brought sharp opposition from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, among others.

It is unclear whether anyone knows Paterson's position on every individual mega project slated for the five boroughs -- or even whether he has a position -- but as soon as Spitzer resigned, if not before, the real estate industry began fretting that Paterson might not be as friendly to them as Spitzer had been.

Paterson "is an unknown quantity in real estate circles," Crain's wrote on Wednesday. "That's in sharp contrast to Gov. Spitzer, who was considered pro-development and a friend of the industry, and whose father is a wealthy real estate developer."

Some of the unease about Paterson in the development industry springs from his stated opposition in 2005 to using eminent domain -- the government seizing of private property -- for economic development projects. "He stood with me and proposed some legislation and I am very hopeful that the lieutenant governor and soon-to-be governor will honor his commitment and will either issue a moratorium or review the abuse of eminent domain across New York City," Letitia James, a City Councilmember and opponent of Atlantic Yards, said in an interview with the Sun.

People on the other side of the issue expressed hope that Paterson's new role might prompt him to change his mind. "I don't believe he has a built in prejudice against economic development or development. It is still premature to try to figure out what he is going to do, but he is somebody we have been able to work with for 20 years when he was in the state Senate," Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, has said.

Crime

Paterson has a fairly high profile position on issues related to crime and punishment. The bill restricting the use of deadly force by police officers would have overturned the city's current shoot-to-kill policy by requiring officers to try to wound a suspect. A spokeswoman for the governor told the Times that Paterson had introduced the measure, which was widely denounced by law enforcement, as a way of "restoring confidence in law enforcement at a time when confidence was very low.” Paterson has opposed the death penalty and was arrested for protesting outside police headquarters in 1999 following the shooting death of Amadou Diallo.

Paterson was also arrested outside then Gov. George Pataki's New York City office in 2002 for protesting the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. "David Paterson has supported meaningful change in the Rockefeller drug laws," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association, which works on prison issues. "We are very hopeful that, unlike Spitzer, he will be outspoken now that he is chief executive."

In particular, the group wants to give judge's more discretion in sentencing drug offenders, letting them decide whether someone should be sent to prison or to a treatment program.

According to Gangi, while Spitzer supported a major overhaul during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, "he did not address the issue in any significant way after he became governor."Regarding Paterson," Gangi continued, "if the positions he's taken over his political career are any indication, it's a higher priority for him."

Civil Rights

While Eliot Spitzer supported legalizing same-sex marriage, proponents of gay marriage said that the new governor might well be an even stronger ally than Spitzer had been. On the night the State Assembly voted to allow gay marriage in New York last year, Paterson "worked the floor... encouraging and cajoling Assembly members to support the bill and, importantly, making the crucial point that gay rights are fundamental civil rights," activist Ethan Geto told Gay City News.

In general, advocates hope that Paterson's experiences as an African-American and a person with a disability will lead him to reach out to various groups in the state and treat them with respect.

POLITICS

Of course, governing in New York is not only about budgets and passing laws, but also about politics and power. Boasting of being a steamroller, Spitzer vowed to exert control over the legislature and end Republican control of the State Senate, putting an end to the informal agreement in New York where the Democrats get the Assembly, the Republicans the Senate and the governor's job is up for grabs.

Weeks before Spitzer's resignation, he seemed tantalizingly close to achieving his goal. With their recent victory in a special election in an overwhelming Republican State Senate district upstate, the Democrats were only a seat away from capturing the Senate. Spitzer's resignation immediately restored the GOP edge: Since the position of lieutenant governor remains vacant, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno will be able to vote to break ties, meaning the Democrats now need two additional seats.

Some question whether Paterson will share Spitzer's zeal to defeat Republican senators. Paterson became minority leader in 2002, ousting State Senator Martin Connor of Brooklyn, largely on a pledge to challenge Republican dominance. But when asked Thursday about whether he would continue that fight, Paterson demurred, saying it was not the time to talk about it.

Of course, it is far too early to tell what effect the Spitzer scandal -- to say nothing of the ongoing federal investigation of Bruno -- will have on either parties' chances in November's legislative elections.

Like any political upheaval, Spitzer's sudden fall -- and Paterson's rise -- has fueled frenzied speculation. What will this mean for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid? (Both Paterson and Spitzer back her candidacy.) Will State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo run for governor in 2010? What about Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who unsuccessfully challenged Spitzer in 2006? And Bloomberg?

Here's a favorite one, for its sheer gaudiness if nothing else: Clinton will become president. Democrats will take the State Senate, making State Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens next in line of succession to Paterson. Paterson will name himself senator to replace Clinton. And Smith will become governor.

 


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