The Decision That Might Cost David Paterson His Job

Could one of New York Gov. David Paterson's best decisions be what costs him the governorship? Now that Paterson has announced he isn't ...
by | February 26, 2010
 

Could one of New York Gov. David Paterson's best decisions be what costs him the governorship? Now that Paterson has announced he isn't running for a full term and now that he's facing pressure to resign due to the David Johnson incident, I have to wonder whether he regrets appointing Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor.

One of the lessons out of South Carolina last year was that whether a governor loses his job has a lot to do with whether political insiders like the person who is set to replace him. In South Carolina, thoughts of ousting Gov. Mark Sanford were complicated by dislike for Lieutenant Gov. Andre Bauer. Lots of lawmakers didn't want to further the political career of the controversial Bauer by putting him in charge. Sanford survived.

During last year's New York Senate stalemate, Paterson appointed Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor in an effort to break the deadlock. While many people questioned Paterson's legal authority to appoint a lieutenant governor (courts ultimately upheld the decision), Ravitch generally was regarded as an excellent choice.

He's both elderly (age 76) and a well-regarded statesman, most noted for his tenure as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the 1970s and '80s. In other words, he's the anti-Bauer. No one would be too worried about Ravitch becoming governor and no one would be worried about whether he would use the job to advance his future political ambitions -- since, by all accounts, he has no future political ambitions.

If Paterson hadn't appointed Ravitch, the governor's old office of lieutenant governor would still be vacant. That means that the Senate president would be the next in the line of succession. The current Senate president is Malcolm Smith, who also just so happens to be under federal investigation. It's safe to assume that, without Ravitch, there would be a lot less enthusiasm for demanding Paterson's resignation.

That said, I still think the chances are pretty good that Paterson sticks it out as governor for the remainder of his term.

For one thing, there's not that much longer left in his term. One way or another, everyone will be done with him by next year.

Another thing working in Paterson's favor is that lots of the details of the scandal remain amorphous. We know that a woman accused Johnson, an influential Paterson aide, of domestic violence. We know that the day after she had a phone conservation with the governor, the woman didn't show up in court and the case was dropped. We know that the State Police met with the woman, even though they didn't have jurisdiction in the case. We know that the  woman says the State Police pressured her to drop the case.

But, we don't know that Paterson pressured the woman to drop the charges (the account from the woman's lawyer makes it sound as though the governor didn't). We don't even know for sure whether Paterson or the woman instigated the conversation. We also don't know what members of the State Police said to the woman and whether they did it at the behest of Paterson or anyone else.

Given the uncertainty, I imagine that if Paterson were the beloved governor of New York, most observers (and especially Paterson's fellow Democrats) would have made a point of withholding judgment until the facts were clearer. They wouldn't have called for Paterson to abandon his campaign for a full term. Even though Paterson is the unpopular governor of New York, the lack of clarity makes it more likely he can survive until the investigation is complete.

One other reason Paterson stands a good chance of staying in office: He's stubborn. If he weren't, he would have dropped his campaign a long time ago.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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