David Paterson called the state legislature to Albany this week as an act of absolution. “The purpose of this session was as much to clear my conscience as anything else,” he said, after the Senate and the Assembly took a pass on his plan to close the state’s budget gap. If the legislature won’t act on the budget, it’s no longer Paterson’s problem. He’s done. There’s little more he can do as governor, and he has washed his hands of this state.
It’s understandable. After he ascended to the governor’s office in 2008, New Yorkers quickly lost their patience with Paterson, sending his approval ratings plummeting. After that, they lost interest in him, as well. Paterson’s term will stretch to 21 months in total; Spitzer governed for just 14. But Paterson has always seemed, somehow, to be playing governor, his efforts inevitably shadowed by his predecessor’s quest for rehabilitation and his successor’s march to power.
Paterson’s fate was to hold the line, after one anointed leader fell and before another could spell him. To do so from early 2008 to the end of 2010, however, was no mean feat. During Paterson’s time in office, the housing market collapsed, President Obama surged into office, unemployment rose, and the president’s popularity plummeted. If Obama couldn’t sustain his mojo through this period, how could Paterson?
Of course, he did little to help himself. If his misbehavior never shocked the way Spitzer’s did, it was distasteful nonetheless, in particular his intervention in an aide’s domestic violence case. In response to the fiscal mess he inherited he began slashing costs, but proved in the end to be less effective as an executive leader than he had been as a legislative one. He held onto the hope that he could run for governor, even after President Obama told him he was too unpopular, that he should step aside. (And here’s a counterfactual to ponder: Could Paladino have bested Paterson?)
In the past few months, Paterson has been doing penance for his missteps. He has tried to pave the way for Cuomo, to ease the governor-elect’s transition into the intractable problems facing the New York government right now. This week’s last ditch special session did produce one small gift for Cuomo, at least: the Assembly voted to ban hydrofracking until May 2011, which will give the new governor a bit of breathing room to decide if the controversial drilling technique is safe.
Paterson professes no hard feelings about Cuomo’s ascension, but it must have been humbling to step aside for another, more pedigreed politician, who earned a mandate from voters that Paterson never had. But if Paterson really did hold the session to wipe his conscience clean, perhaps he doesn’t care so much anymore about what voters think. At this point, he’s answerable only to himself.