Paterson's Pals Factor in Fall: Analysis

Governor announced he won't run for a full term

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Governor says "accumulation of obstacles" has caused him to step back from seeking a full term in the office.

    Gov. David Paterson's inspiring, tumultuous political rise and fall is ending under the weight of suspicion that he chose personal loyalty over the integrity of his office -- suspicions that still have some people demanding his resignation.

    Paterson announced Friday that he would serve out the term he inherited from Eliot Spitzer two years ago but would end his bid for a full four-year term.

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    Governor says he hopes to be an example to other public servants.

    "I hope that history will remember that I fought the good fight, that I did what was hard and I put the people first,'' he said.

    The good fight included switching some long, mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders to stays in drug rehab programs, framing gay marriage as a civil right to advance it closer to law, and cutting billions in spending during a fiscal crisis.

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    Paterson swears he has never abused his office, "not now, not ever."

    The question at other times, however, is which people is he putting first?

    The final push to end Paterson's campaign and the undoing of his troubled administration came this week in a New York Times report that said state police and Paterson intervened in a domestic violence case involving Dennis "D.J.'' Johnson, a trusted aide.

    Paterson had hired Johnson more than 10 years ago to his Senate staff, part of an effort to give young people like Johnson, who had a couple arrests on his record, a second chance to escape then-crack riddled Harlem. Johnson flourished, rising from indefatigable intern to driver to trusted confidant.

    It was much the same story of personal loyalty for Clem "Clemmy'' Harris. Paterson, then single, was roommates with Harris 20 years ago. Their apartment was located in the heart of a college pub scene and had its owns party rep. Harris, now retired from the state police, remains a trusted adviser to Paterson.

    But being an old pal isn't supposed to be the definitive qualification to be a high-level aide in the governor's office. Harris had graduate degrees and Johnson rose from tough streets that many politicians couldn't have handled, but they were mostly seen just as guys from the neighborhood.

    Paterson, true to his affable nature, defended Johnson and Harris from criticism within and from political enemies around him.

    But the evidence revealed this week by the Times forced Paterson's hand. Johnson's former girlfriend had received orders of protection against him, and Paterson sought to intervene by talking with her on the phone, the newspaper reported, although Paterson insists she called him. The state police also talked to her.

    The governor suspended Johnson without pay and requested a thorough investigation of the domestic abuse case and his own involvement. He turned the probe over to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose expected run for governor prompted many Democratic supporters to undermine Paterson for months.

    But soon, even Paterson's strong friendships gave way to political reality.

    Paterson's friends were among those lining up to say he should end his campaign for a full term. Some other Democrats continue to say he should resign immediately.

    Paterson had only recently pledged to stay in office until he was removed through the ballot box or "in a box,'' but ultimately his close friends persuaded him to give up the race.

    In the fall of 2008, a half-year into his governorship, Paterson was pressured to ignore his inclination toward loyalty, and it cost him.

    His longtime chief of staff, Charles O'Byrne, was forced from office by relentless press reports that, years before, he hadn't paid his income taxes. He had failed to pay the taxes while under a physician's care for depression and ended up repaying all but a fraction over the years before the story broke. Nonetheless, O'Byrne was called a tax cheat, even nuts in bold-faced headlines.

    Paterson accepted his resignation. With it went Paterson's all-powerful gatekeeper, a guy who helped the legally blind governor navigate policy and politics, a guy with the credentials and hard-nosed attitude needed of a chief of staff, a guy who made sure the inner circle couldn't be disrupted by tensions involving longtime pals like Johnson and Harris.

    Without O'Byrne and in the wake of a staff shake-up that followed, Paterson relied more on Johnson and Harris. Soon, reports flew of an administration in disarray.

    Paterson said he wanted to be remembered for fighting the good fight, but he maybe seeking an impossible place in history. Few figures even in brutal New York politics crashed so fast, so hard.

    Blame is everywhere. Paterson messed up through indecision and bad decisions. The economy tanked. The bill for Albany's decades of overspending came due. The Legislature grew bolder. Albany got nastier.

    "It was inevitable,'' said Maurice "Mickey'' Carroll of the Quinnipiac University poll. "Albany is dysfunctional and collectively they are awful.''