New York is known as one city where you don’t need a car. But leading politicians do seem to need their drivers here. Indeed, drivers have ignited the politics of disaster in a bipartisan fashion.
Drivers may start as faceless functionaries, but for New York officials they come to represent so much more. Even now, in the scandal enveloping New York Gov. David Paterson, a driver occupies the political spotlight.
Consider Bernie Kerik. His is an almost clichéd reversal of fortune. Kerik is about to go to federal prison, after a trial or two and a plea or more. But he was once a man to be feared and respected — with at least one driver of his own on call.
He emerged on the political scene as the driver for former N.Y. Mayor, and failed presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani. He started as a valiant police detective, who spent his off-duty time driving the crusading prosecutor Giuliani in his mayoral campaign.
This paid big dividends. Kerik had limited education but apparently excellent driving skills, for he became the city correction commissioner, running a jail system that, on a slow month, transports more than 30,000 prisoners to courts and other locales, in a prison system larger than most states.
Then Kerik became New York City’s police commissioner, backing up America’s mayor during the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Yet, Kerik’s ability to not slam on the brakes was apparently still not sufficiently rewarded. Because Giuliani is credited with recommending him to President George W. Bush for the job of Homeland Security chief.
Then, driving skills notwithstanding, it all came apart. Going through a basic background check, Kerik was revealed to have broken many laws not related to traffic. Giuliani’s political career has not been helped by the connection.
Enter the Democrat Paterson. His former driver, the very, very tall (6 feet, 7 inch) David Johnson looks ready to outdo even Kerik — proving again that Democrats will do most anything to best Republicans. Especially in New York.
Johnson was known for his ability to guide his boss Paterson through crowds — and in moves to the center of power. He is a trusted confidante, who often served as the gatekeeper.
His power within the governor’s world is such that others in the Paterson inner circle complained in public. They questioned Johnson‘s judgment.
Right now, this former driver of a leading politician is accused of assaulting a woman. So what does Paterson do? He stands up for him. It appears he may have had state police tell the woman we’re watching you.
Paterson even calls the woman — now seeking court protection from Johnson — and offers his help.
The result is another driver-related scandal, with calls for Paterson to find new work.
There are certainly other drivers in American politics whose power is yet to be revealed. Their skills at maneuvering through traffic might also be so valued that they may ascend to the heights of power.
Because it’s safe to assume that Kerik and Johnson are not the only ones.
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist in New York, has worked on an estimated 700 domestic and international political campaigns.