News & Politics

David Paterson Shadow-Boxes Himself; Press Awards Him TKO

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The biggest joke in Albany these days is the supposed rehabilitation of David Paterson.

The New York Post kicked it off with an editorial salute on Thursday, June 17. By Monday, the Associated Press was posting a profile-in-courage hurrah, calling him “a bit of a hero in a time that desperately needs one.” AP cited Paterson-friendly Buffalo News and Newsday editorials.

Who’s blind here?

It’s not like there’s no basis for a boost. Paterson discovered that he could insert cuts in budget extenders, and now even a tobacco tax, forcing a stalemated legislature to choose between passing the extensions or shutting down the state. That’s produced results, though the most difficult decisions are yet to come. And Paterson’s threat to put the rest of the unapproved budget in a final extender on June 28, compelling a legislative choice on school aid and other hot button issues, also may prove a tactical success (though it’s too early to tell).

But look what else he did at the very same time.

The Post editorial says in its headline that this might be “David’s Finest Hour,” praising him for vowing “to veto any budget item that includes deficit financing.” The paper said Paterson “singled out Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch’s borrowing scheme and a gimmick fronted by Senate Democratic leader John Sampson” to refinance the state’s tobacco bonds.

Paterson and his new, and fickle, friends at the Post sidestepped the third and most outrageous of the borrowing schemes, namely the one Paterson proposed himself, borrowing $6 billion from the state pension funds. The Times reported just six days before the Post editorial that “the governor and state comptroller Tom DiNapoli back borrowing against the pension system,” adding that Paterson and legislative leaders had “tentatively agreed’ to the plan, which even the Times news story called “classic budgetary sleight-of-hand.” Paterson’s budget director, Robert Megna, was quoted in the same story as saying both “we’re not borrowing” and “I’m not going to sit here and characterize it as not a borrowing.” Paterson put the amortization plan in his submission to the legislature.

The Post accurately pointed out that Paterson “has been notorious for saying one thing one day and the complete opposite the next.” But since it had declared it “Be-Nice-to-David Day,” the tabloid did not point out that was exactly what he was doing on the pension raid. It referenced Paterson’s opposition to the Ravitch plan as well, but never pointed out that Ravitch works for Paterson, and that the governor had, over time, taken just about every possible position he could on it as well.

Paterson also almost managed to screw up his one good idea — planting cuts inside the extenders. When a loyal ally of his, Bronx Senator Reuben Diaz, indicated he might not vote for an extender if it contained social service cuts, Paterson called him a “thug,” who was trying to “blackmail” him. Diaz was so peeved he voted against the extender, almost forcing the state into shutdown.

It was as odd a temper tantrum as it was ill-timed. In March, when Paterson was hunkered down in his bunker amid a swirl of scandal headlines, Diaz was one of a handful of legislators the governor invited to the mansion for a visit. Diaz announced after the meeting that “Latino legislators are standing by the Governor,” and urged African-American leaders “to not abandon Governor Paterson.” The charges, involving a domestic violence cover-up and possible Yankees-ticket perjury, quickly forced Paterson to announce that he would not seek re-election. With the support of Diaz and others, however, he did successfully beat back calls for his resignation.

Paterson’s more recent denunciation of Diaz fed a crisis that was only resolved when three Republicans stepped forward to bail the state out and provide the votes necessary to pass the extender in a body almost evenly divided between the GOP and Democrats. Without those last-minute votes, Paterson would be at his nadir rather than his apex.

If that’s not enough, what about Paterson’s unprecedented and crippling deal with the state unions? If he had the leverage now to force the unions to the negotiating table, he might have won concessions from them on their pay increases, furloughs or other cost-saving issues. But Paterson gave up that leverage voluntarily a year ago, when anyone could see the inevitability of a state budgetary meltdown. His top aide signed a disastrous job security contract with the unions, guaranteeing them no layoffs until the end of this year, in exchange for their agreement to a ridiculously inadequate new pension tier. He did it while he still imagined himself a potentially viable candidate in this year’s gubernatorial primary, hoping to reap editorial board praise for pension reform and the support of the unions.

That deal crushed any chance of getting labor to help the state narrow a $9 billion gap. That’s why a judge threw out his flagrantly illegal furlough plan and the effort to freeze pay. The only time New York City has ever gotten major labor concessions in moments of grave fiscal peril when it laid workers off, and forced the unions to take a breath. Paterson instead discarded his own sword on the way to battle. Is his June 2009 capitulation so long ago that no one can see the effect it’s having now?

Cheered by these editorials, Paterson declared himself “not a quitter” for the AP, and quickly slid into full victim mode again. “I am a person who had to find creative ways to get around obstacles,” he said. “I and a lot of other disabled people live in a constant state of conflict.” Just as with the still-under-investigation domestic violence case, the phony story he served up under oath about the Yankee tickets, and the repeated resort to race why he’s had to endure “ridicule, scrutiny, just innuendo,” he believes none of his budget woes are self-inflicted.

Though shadow-boxing with himself most of the time, Paterson is convinced he is still fighting the good fight. The rest of us don’t have to be so foolish.

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