The Fall of David

The New York governor's chaotic tenure

No question on who will be the biggest casualty of the economic crisis: Even though its 18 months until the state primary -- and another two until the general election -- New York Gov. David Paterson's days are already numbered.

On Tuesday, Marist released the third statewide poll in the last three weeks that have Paterson trailing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by more than 30 points in the Democratic primary (the Marist poll actually has Cuomo up by 36 points -- 62-26). And you can be assured that Democrats will get rid of him, because the same poll shows Paterson being destroyed by former New York City Mayor and Republican Rudy Giuliani in a general election match-up (Cuomo handily beats Rudy in a hypothetical match-up).

As a measure of the depth of Paterson's unpopularity, fewer New Yorkers think Paterson is doing an "Excellent/Good" job than did predecessor Eliot Spitzer at the time of his hooker scarred resignation almost exactly a year ago. Paterson's poll numbers are the lowest for a governor in three decades.

But while the economic crisis has battered New York, just as it has the rest of the nation, Paterson has earned these low numbers all by himself. It stems primarily from a bizarre management style that has created perpetual staff upheaval, botched the naming of the replacement for Hillary Clinton and generally left the public with the sense of "the lights are on, but no one's home."

Paterson's dismal numbers have less to do with what he's done, rather than the general chaos that he has projected. The selection of Kirsten Gillibrand is more the rule rather than the exception with this governor. The "T.M.I." candor with which he bounded into office last year (admitting to serial affairs and drug use) is now seen as an example of an individual who will say anything without thinking through the implications.

Ill-advised decisions such as giving his personal staff raises while demanding across-the-board pay cuts from public employees is one example of tone-deaf leadership. His wife's chief of staff getting a de facto 28 percent raise after being on the job for barely six months is another.

A new budget is due by April 1st, but the Legislature is no closer to making tough decisions on it than it was three months ago when Paterson outlined the problem of a $14 billion deficit. Even though New York turned out as one of the "winners" in the federal stimulus package -- getting some $24 billion -- the governor hasn't given much indication on how that money will be spent, leading many to believe that it will end up being wasted at a time when the state critically needs it.

In fairness, the governor has also been the target of some rather sleazy ads by public employee unions over some of his proposed cuts to Medicaid. But, even in a case where Paterson should win himself some goodwill by denouncing the ads and their sponsors, he instead takes a calm take-no-offense approach.

The biggest problem that New Yorkers currently face though is this: What's to be done between now and then? The public has rendered its verdict on David Paterson: Barring an unforeseen twist of fate (or an Andrew Cuomo hubristic overstep, which is not out of the question), he will not get another term in office. But there's a good, long 20 months before the 2010 election -- and 22 months before the next governor is sworn into office.

Can a a nearly bankrupt Empire State survive during that time -- like some listless ship without a strong captain on deck, battered to and fro in a storm?

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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