It has been a wild two days for Governor David Paterson.
After a much-publicized snubbing yesterday by President Barack Obama, Paterson won a key victory for his administration when New York’s top court on Tuesday narrowly approved his surprising, and unpopular, appointment of a lieutenant governor, reversing a lower court’s decision and the long-standing assumption in Albany that only voters could choose a second in command.
The ruling restores the line of succession to the governor’s seat in Albany, where low poll numbers have sapped Paterson’s political clout and put him under pressure from fellow Democrats not to run for election next year.
Paterson’s lawyers argued that a provision of state law allows the governor to fill vacancies, including Paterson’s July 8 appointment of Richard Ravitch.
The state Court of Appeals upheld that argument in a 4-3 decision. Previous rulings had barred Ravitch from acting as lieutenant governor. In the meantime, he said, he’s been getting up to speed in the past few months on the state’s budget challenges.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Ravitch told The Associated Press on Tuesday just after learning of the decision. “I care a lot about the state, and I care about public service, which is why I said yes.”
The lieutenant governor’s post had been empty since Paterson stepped up to replace Eliot Spitzer, who resigned last year amid a prostitution scandal.
Paterson tapped Ravitch for the job to help break a monthlong Senate leadership struggle. Two dissident Democrats joined Republicans in a coup this year, but one quickly returned to the Democratic fold. That left a 31-31 stalemate that paralyzed the Senate.
In New York, the lieutenant governor can sometimes cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and Paterson appointed Ravitch in the hope of ending the impasse. The day after the appointment, a deal was brokered to bring dissident Bronx Sen. Pedro Espada back to the Democratic conference to restore a 32-30 majority.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos filed the lawsuit challenging Paterson’s authority to make the appointment.
“The court has given new power and authority to an unelected governor where no such power had existed under the state constitution,” Skelos said in a written statement. He noted that five lower court judges had previously ruled against the appointment.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo also said Paterson’s appointment was unconstitutional.
The decision was a bit of good news for the governor, coming a day after a visit from President Barack Obama and a weekend of reports that White House officials were urging Paterson to pull out of the 2010 governor’s race.
Paterson has struggled with a 20 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll. That’s much lower than for Cuomo, a potential Paterson opponent whom Obama publicly praised Monday after delivering just a polite introduction of the governor.
As the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1979 until 1983, Ravitch built a reputation for strong fiscal leadership. Paterson has cited that experience, arguing the state needs Ravitch’s help weathering the current fiscal crisis.
Ravitch, a business executive, has counseled New York governors through crises dating to the 1970s. State leaders will have to return to Albany soon to close a $2.1 billion budget deficit.
“It’s tough times,” Ravitch said. “The fiscal situation is serious and getting worse. I hope I’m able to help.”
The case likely won’t be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which takes up only issues of federal law.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately comment Tuesday.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.