ALBANY, NY - As the final days of the historic Paterson administration came to a close, David Paterson sat down with several members of the Amsterdam News staff to reflect on his term as governor.
Paterson faced unprecedented challenges, including one of the worst economic climates in the history of the state and nation, and an often hostile press corps, which openly and consistently questioned his legitimacy and competence.
But despite the obstacles he faced, Paterson was upbeat about his future and the future of the State. As he mulled over his governorship, he said that, first and foremost, he wanted to be remembered as one of the first political actors in the country to identify the economic crisis, and begin the process of asking for shared sacrifices. And as he addressed the fiscal crisis, Paterson said he always kept in the front of his mind where he came from and the people who have made his political life a possibility, but he also knew that he had to deal with overwhelming challenges. Paterson’s goal was to keep the state from crumbling into a financial disaster similar to Illinois and California.
“To come in the midst of this economic downturn and crisis was prohibitive, then to have problems with leadership in the legislature, I think there was a perception that I had changed,” he said. “But I didn’t change, my circumstances changed. If I didn’t manage the way I did, the state would have become insolvent.”
It was a little less than three years ago that Paterson took over the job as New York State’s governor, making history as the state’s first Black governor, and the first legally blind governor in United States history to serve for more than a few days.
Looking back on his journey as governor, he recalls his greatest achievements being the enhancement in opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses (MWMBEs). Paterson believes the increased tax revenues from those businesses, in the long run, will lead to replacing lost manufacturing jobs with biotech, research, broadband and clean renewable energy opportunities.
Under his leadership he diligently worked to keep New York off of the list of 20 states that were in financial distress. And despite the odds, and more than a decade of Republican mismanagement under the stewardship of “the empty suit” Gov. George Pataki, New York has weathered the turbulent climate better than most big states. However, many mainstream media outlets let his accomplishments go unnoticed. On a regular basis Paterson was on the receiving end of aggressive and hostile reporting, which often focused on unsubstantiated rumors about his personal life and peripheral aspects of his governing style.
“What the media wants to write about and the truth are very far a part,” he said. “They are willing to lecture public servants about the truth. If you read the stories, they are in a lockstep. If one media outlet writes something, no matter how wrong it is, they don’t refute it. When that goes on in politics, that’s called cronyism.”
Paterson got a taste of “editorial cronyism” in February of this year when rumors circulated that the New York Times had a story about his involvement in a scandal—similar to his predecessor Elliot Spitzer—that supposedly included both womanizing and drug use. The so called “paper of record” never released a story substantiating the rumors, but the rumors swirled around the press, peaking last February with gossip that Paterson was going to be forced to resign. On reflection, Paterson says he would have handled it differently.
“What I should have done was the opposite,” he said. “I should have lured the media in, not answer any questions and made it look like it was true and gotten on stage and said, ‘Good morning, if you are looking for a resignation you are looking for the wrong office. The reason you are here isn’t because of any facts or legitimate sources. You are here because of a bunch of lies, innuendo and made-up stories. So because you wasted the trip, I will give you a story: I’m running for reelection.’”
Even after the rumors proved to be false, Paterson continued to get beaten up by the white-controlled media. Paterson said that most of the stories written about him were for profit instead of personal. Referred to as the “accidental governor,” he said that his race did play a role in his treatment.
“It’s the first elevation of an African-American to a major post in public service in this country. To me this confirmed backlash in diversity. If you are elected, there’s nothing anyone can say—but this little blind Black person became governor, and no one knows who he is, and he’s probably just a political hack who they put on the ticket to get some Black votes. I was treated as someone who was not serious,” he said.
Being Black played a role in several of his accomplishments as governor that ultimately benefited all racial groups, including better polices for MWBEs, reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws and stopping officers from being promoted because they successfully filled their stop-and-frisk quotas.
“These are remedies that wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t become governor,” he said. “I had to take a little heat to do it, but I did it with honor.”
As far as the state budget is concerned, he admits that balancing it has hurt a lot of people, however, there’s been more good than bad. For example, healthcare allocation for the poor was raised for the first time in 20 years, and food stamps and homeless shelters were expanded under his leadership. And true to form, Paterson received his harshest criticism from big media and their sycophant commentators when he taxed the rich.
“We did take actions that hurt people, but what we tried to do was to share the sacrifice. Twelve billion dollars would have been balanced on the backs of some people. The distance between the rich and the poor is the greatest it’s ever been. The recession has been so deep that if you’re unemployed, you don’t really care if the rich are sacrificing, you are still sharing in the sacrifice,” he said.
As for the state’s future, Paterson said that his successor, Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, has a good sense of what he needs to do to get the state out of the economic crisis. Paterson is also confident about Cuomo’s diversity in his administration. However, as the saga of the state budget continues, and after a shift of power in the State Senate, Cuomo has his work cut out for him.
Paterson said, “No matter who the governor is, the real question is if the state is governable. I think that in crisis you need one leader. The problem with the economic crisis was that you had too many processes trying to address it. I’d like to suggest to the new governor and the new legislators that they work out a system where the government could declare a state of emergency, as they can and did in New Jersey, but can’t here in New York.”
And as he contemplates these last issues, Paterson seems quite satisfied with his tenure overseeing the Empire State. He has capped a more than 20-year career in public service by holding the highest public office in the state—surprising for those who do not know well this remarkable man, but what was often expected from a son of Harlem. He sees his future in continuing to work to help New York State develop renewable energy, teaching, or some form of media. And one can be assured that he will bring vigor and good humor to the next stage of his life, which he revealed includes writing his memoirs.