Gov. David Paterson had weathered a weekend in which veiled messages were sent to him from Washington Democrats to drop out of the gubernatorial race and make room for the more popular Andrew Cuomo to lead a critical 2010 ticket.
Then, on Monday, some of the veils appeared to be pulled away, but that only threw Paterson into even more uncertainty.
At an event just a short drive from the governor’s mansion, President Barack Obama gave Paterson a cordial, almost perfunctory introduction, calling his Democratic colleague, the state’s first black and legally blind governor, a “wonderful man.” Nothing about leadership or accomplishment in the job Paterson inherited just 18 months ago when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal and a continuing fiscal crisis.
Then came Obama’s near high-fiving of Cuomo, the state attorney general who has long eyed the office once held by his father, Mario Cuomo.
Obama joked with the hard-charging, headline-grabbing Andrew Cuomo, calling him “your shy and retiring attorney general.”
“Andrew’s doing great work enforcing the laws that need to be enforced,” Obama said as he cast a warm smile toward Cuomo and the two made eye contact.
Obama didn’t look at Paterson in his introduction.
Paterson has declined to comment. He was expected to talk to reporters on Tuesday following an unrelated economic development announcement.
Politics professor Doug Muzzio, from New York City’s Baruch College, viewed video of the Obama event afterward and said he thought “that you would have to be pretty dense not to get the message.”
There were other perceived slights, the lack of private meetings, the limited face time in public, even the separate limo rides to the event at Hudson Valley Community College. But on television footage broadcast statewide, Obama fueled reports and rumors that he wanted Paterson and his historic low polling numbers to go away and not threaten the first all-Democratic control of the blue state’s government.
It’s an unusual move in politics in New York, where presidents often visit but usually to stock their campaign accounts or to pay respects to ground zero or speak at the United Nations.
On Monday, just before Obama’s event, Obama’s aides insisted he wasn’t interfering with New York politics. However, before Obama landed, spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn’t say whether the president ordered that word be sent to Paterson that he does not want him to seek re-election.
“Well, look, I think everybody understands the tough jobs that every elected official has right now in addressing many of the problems that we have, and I think people are aware of the tough situation that the governor of New York is in,” Gibbs told reporters aboard the president’s plane. “And I wouldn’t add a lot to what you’ve read, except this is a decision that he’s going to make.”
Gibbs said it wasn’t unusual for the White House to be involved in state races. Asked whether there were any risks to such involvement, Gibbs answered: “The hazards of the job.”
It would be the first time Obama would act to remove a Democrat in power. That would be a new and potentially risky step among the massive egos in New York, even for a president raised in rough-and-tumble Chicago politics.
But Obama has already dipped into New York politics, throwing his support to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a former congresswoman whom Paterson appointed to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton. A call from Obama was enough to take one possible primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, out of Gillibrand’s path.
Democrats need to hold every Senate seat next year to keep a filibuster-proof margin in the chamber.
Obama also endorsed Scott Murphy during a close special election to fill Gillibrand’s upstate seat and lent his image to campaign mailers. Vice President Joe Biden did advertising spots for Murphy, who eventually won.
Former Republican Gov. George Pataki, speaking for the national GOP, said Obama shouldn’t get involved.
“I just think it’s wrong,” Pataki said. “To weaken and undermine the governor beyond the weakness that already exists … to me just doesn’t serve the interests of the state, doesn’t serve the interests of our country.”
Also Monday, Paterson got support from a Long Island branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which said it and other groups were planning a rally to support him, and from the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York City civil rights leader, who warned against allowing “reactionary forces” to return to power.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller on Air Force One, Jessica M. Pasko in Troy and Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.