by Spencer Rumsey
Waiting for our headstrong governor to launch his re-election bid in Hempstead last Saturday, I thought if there were an Olympics for stubborn politicians, David Paterson would deserve the gold medal. Say what you will, the man just won’t quit.
Throughout his life, he’s fought to prove the doubters wrong—from those who belittled him as a kid who “can’t play sports because you’re blind” to those who said he’d never finish Hofstra law school—let alone get in—because of his disability.
Now Paterson seems to be on another mission to counter all those naysayers, from the White House on down. Perhaps it’s easier for him to deny the polls (Marist recently had him at 26 percent) because he really doesn’t read them. Maybe he could ignore the conspicuous absence of the state’s top Democrats at his Hofstra University campaign kick-off because he wouldn’t recognize them unless they spoke up. But surely there was room for other Long Island luminaries at the Mack Student Center besides a few Nassau legislators, a couple of Hempstead Town officials, and the Hempstead Village’s mayor and deputy. Not one member from the State Senate or Assembly showed up—at least none willing to be singled out by host Jay Jacobs, the Nassau and state Democratic Party chairman, who had to be there.
How the legally blind Paterson became governor in the first place reads like a reality show gone bad. When former Governor Eliot Spitzer chose his running mate, he booted the party’s preference—then-Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli—from his gubernatorial ticket and picked state Sen. Paterson to be his lieutenant. Two years later Spitzer got outted himself for taking his clothes off (but leaving his socks on) with a call girl who knew him as “Client No. 9.” Paterson has since had to fess up to his own affairs.
So here we are. The state’s finances are a wreck and Albany is a joke. What can Paterson do? By law the budget has to be balanced. Before the governor spoke, I was handed a leaflet by Pine Barrens Society head Dick Amper announcing there’d be a protest after the event decrying Paterson’s plan to whack the state parks’ funding, which could lead to closures this summer of pools at Hecksher and Jones Beach. “This guy knows nothing about Long Island,” Amper added. Paterson had picked Hofstra to highlight his Long Island roots, where he’d grown up in the suburbs after his parents left New York City.
The crowd was estimated at about 400 people, which must have included the ravenous pack of media people hungry for sound bites and visuals. (A photographer from the New York Post told me later his editors were “probably hoping it’d be more empty.”) Some of Paterson’s supporters looked like a Sunday church congregation, with women in big colorful hats laughing with their friends. They seemed very forgiving. Not so a Paterson volunteer in a Tina Turner wig, black stiletto heels and purple stretch pants who studied me sternly with the eyes of someone passing judgment on whether I deserved my front-row seat. Then I realized that the press badge hanging around my neck had been inserted upside down.
The announcement was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Three minutes later, the governor still hadn’t shown up but Alicia Keys was crooning, “Let’s hear it for New York!” over the loudspeakers. Her line about the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” had a poignant ring in my ear, as I thought about Paterson’s dim prospects. The next song was Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” All she’s asking for is “just a little respect,” she sings. I wonder how deeply that refrain resonates with our governor.
The audience tried to work up some enthusiasm when the camera lights illuminated his entourage entering the student center from the main hallway, but the cheering didn’t catch on. And when Jay Jacobs took the podium to welcome us all, he didn’t have to quiet the crowd.
Jacobs mentioned the severe economic crisis facing Paterson when he took over the governor’s mansion, and cited the tough choices Paterson has had to make to keep the state afloat, such as cutting $32 billion out of the budget deficit. It wasn’t an applause line, Jacobs admitted. “He did what was necessary!” Jacobs’ intro seemed to last a minute at most. (I wonder how long the party leader will speak in the fall when presumably he’ll be the one introducing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to the gubernatorial contest.)
Next up was Wayne Hall, mayor of Hempstead Village, who got a big laugh when he showed the blank palm of his hand and said, “Oh, I forgot my notes!”—a slap at former Gov. Sarah Palin, of course. Hall set forth the theme of the day: Paterson “refuses to back down from any challenge!” He blasted the media for focusing on the tabloid “rumors” about Paterson’s private life and not the governor’s accomplishments. (Awarding the Aqueduct racino gambling contract to a politically connected group apparently doesn’t count.) So, what should we expect from a full term with Paterson in office? The mayor spelled it out, drawing one of the loudest responses of the morning as he led the crowd in chanting “J-O-B-S!” Hall exclaimed, “That’s what New York needs!” Who would argue with that?
When it was finally his turn at the microphone, Paterson said, “One rumor I will confirm: I am running for governor and I will win.” With his wife Michelle standing beside him and smiling dutifully, Paterson ripped into his stump speech, reciting it all from memory, as is his method of public speaking. Pugnaciously, he stated, “I’ve done more for New York in my two years than most governors have done in two terms!” Considering Albany’s long and colorful history, it sounds plausible. Paterson went on to attack “the special interests” that “don’t like him,” the “polls and the pundits” that doubt him, and the “bigoted institutions” that have tried to block him.
Then it got personal, as he referred to his time at Hofstra, where he studied law in the ’80s, and at the Little Red Train Nursery School in Hempstead, where he learned the “rules of the sandbox” in the ’50s. No, he’s never been a quitter, he proudly proclaimed, and he promised he “won’t quit on New York.” But suddenly you could see that this race has become yet one more test in his life-long quest to prove something to himself. The voters are just along for the ride.