Eureka! Paterson Gets an Epiphany

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    It's been a tough year for Gov. David Paterson.

    In March 2008, David Paterson became governor amid cheers. He was praised for his sense of humor and decency and odd interest in bipartisanship in a New York Capitol bereft of all three during Eliot Spitzer's reign.

         Now, Paterson is being told by just about every one, including Democrats from Albany to Washington, that he can't be elected next year to a full four-year term.
        
    The Siena College poll this month called his numbers "anemic'' compared to a year ago, and notes that 65 percent of voters prefer someone else. So would Albany's powerful public labor lobby with whom he's fought during the current fiscal crisis. Lawmakers he served with in the Senate are already cozying up to the far more popular Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic attorney general who won't yet say if he will run for the top job. Until he himself recently made an issue of it, he was routinely called David -- not governor -- by rank-and-file lawmakers and Albany staffers.
        
    It all takes Paterson back to when he was 5, listening to a fairy tale on a phonograph at the Industrial Home for the Blind.
        
    "It was about a little boy who was trying to climb a hill and there were all these rocks on the hill and these were all the souls of those who couldn't climb the hill,'' he recalled in an end-of-year interview with The Associated Press.
        
    "Everyone was yelling at him, `Don't do it! Turn around! Something's coming!' And apparently if you turned around, you turn into a rock like everyone else,'' he said. "He's tempted to look, but as time goes on he realizes these are the souls of underachievers, they didn't fight the impulse to go along with everybody, to listen to everybody, and that will make you turn around and turn into a rock and make you roll down the hill.''
        
    That, he says, is how David Paterson is different today than he was 21 months ago. The old Paterson spent two decades in the state Senate where he was known for getting along with many people because in part, as a lawmaker, he didn't have to say "no.''
        
    As a result, he rose to minority leader and then was chosen by Spitzer to be lieutenant governor, but he still didn't have to say "no'' much.
        
    "Three or four years ago, I recognized being a legislative leader and running for lieutenant governor the necessity of the governor to be the adult in the room,'' he said. "I think I understood that. But I think that one has to grow into that role.''
        
    The growth included high points such as the summer 2008 statewide televised address -- a rarity in itself -- to warn of an impending national recession that would slam New York, even though lawmakers he noted were "on vacation'' and weren't listening. He appointed a lieutenant governor when legions of lawyers with decades in Albany said it wouldn't work, and may have ended the tragic, often silly power struggle that gridlocked the Senate this summer.
        
    Low points included the loss of his longtime chief of staff after it was revealed he failed to pay taxes for years. He also admitted mistakes in the process of appointing Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton's seat in the U.S. Senate. That drawn-out drama included early frontrunner Caroline Kennedy dropping her bid after a series of weak public appearances. Things got worse when a campaign staffer ordered a leak of unsubstantiated personal attacks against Kennedy, all in all violating the Democratic commandment against upsetting the Kennedy family.
        
    "Things stopped going right,'' Paterson said. "Some of my decisions were wrong. I made mistakes like any other human being and became a little indecisive and I think the public saw it.''
        
    "The disappointment was manifest,'' he said. "They were like, `We really thought you had it. We really thought you could do it.
     
    And now you're getting like everyone else.'''
        
    "It took me a minute to collect myself, recognize the situation I was in and go back to basics: Tell the truth, tell them what they need to know, not what they want to know, and fight for your point of view,'' he said.
        
    So the senator, known for liking to be liked, changed.
        
    "You don't govern for popularity, you govern based on your assessment of what would be the right decision, making you leave your fate to the future,'' he said. "I think what happens is you have a sort of inner calm.''
        
    He said that epiphany led to his two straight months of rising polls, coming just at the time Democrats had said he needed to show improvement or step aside in 2010.
        
    But his well received, multimillion dollar campaign ads and his brow beating of some legislators as well as his leadership in addressing a fiscal crisis has gotten him only a slight uptick in the polls. Most New Yorkers still don't want New York's first black and blind governor to stick around while longtime political observers continue write Paterson off.
        
    The Syracuse Post-Standard editorial Dec. 18 said it for many: "If the governor is getting a bit more traction, it's not nearly enough to haul him out of the hot water.''
        
    To Paterson, they are just more rocks on the hill.
        
    "All those are voices trying to get me to turn around,'' Paterson said. "What I've learned is that I've got to keep looking at the top of the hill.''