David Paterson became the 55th governor of New York State at one of the more politically turbulent times in the state’s recent history. When Eliot Spitzer shocked the nation by resigning amid a prostitution scandal, Paterson, his lieutenant governor, was suddenly cast into the limelight and handed the reins of the state’s ailing economy right before the country plunged into the Great Recession. Now two years out of office, Paterson is the regular drive-time talk radio host on WOR- 710 AM, a board member of the MTA, and an advocate for the blind. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with the former governor about his successor, Andrew Cuomo, the current leadership battle in the state Senate and how Paterson would like history to remember his administration.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: What was your take on the 2012 election as it relates to New York State?
David Paterson:Of course, everybody pretty much believed that New York State would vote heavily for President Obama, so that wasn’t a surprise, and in the congressional races the Democrats picked up a seat in Orange County with my former first deputy, Sean Patrick Maloney, so I was very happy about that… But probably the one that has the most institutional effect is that people on the Democratic line probably won 33 of the 63 Senate seats, but since there are five of those 33 who are not sitting with the regular Democratic conference, I think that the Republicans will prevail in the Legislature as the majority. However, the big winner in all of this is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, because those 33 votes are there. When he really needs to pass something, he can exert a lot of pressure on Dean Skelos or whoever the majority leader is to get those bills on the floor. At the same time, when he’s going to need the strict adherence to a financial plan, including spending cuts, he’s got the Republicans sitting there as the majority ready to help him. So … he will get the best of both worlds. Many people thought that was going to be a problem for the governor. No, I think the governor has agendas that suit both sides of the dispute in the Senate and … it will enhance his ability to get things done—if that’s even possible [given] the last two years, because I don’t think [there is] a two-year period where a governor has had that much success in a long time.
CS: You were governor during one of the most tempestuous times in the Legislature’s history, the 2009 coup. Is there a sense of déjà vu for you in observing the battle shaping up for control of the Senate?
DP: It is certainly easier to be a spectator than right in the middle of it. Of course, I thought we were able to turn lemons into lemonade when we were able to successfully appoint Richard Ravitch the lieutenant governor. He was not only an outstanding lieutenant governor but, now, more importantly, the governor can appoint a lieutenant governor should a lieutenant governor leave or, as in my case, when a lieutenant governor becomes a governor and then has to serve without a lieutenant governor. Who knows? If I had thought of it earlier I might have been in the United States Senate. [Laughs]
CS: Having been Senate minority leader, were you in the state Senate now, how would you handle the leadership dispute?
DP: I think that whether it’s true or not, and whether they like it or not, too many Senate minority leaders have been believed to be parochial, transactional and maybe self-serving. I think right now that if the Democrats want to take control of the Senate, the one who makes the biggest sacrifice is the one who history will be kindest to. So while everyone’s thinking about how to get everyone to come with them, it’s the one who might take their votes and get behind someone else who would be the real hero. That would depend on what the definition of hero is to the Senate Democrats, but I would hope it would be “Do what I can do for the party, more than myself.”
CS: That being said, who would you say was the hero of the 2009 coup?
DP: Me! [Laughs] Because I appointed a lieutenant governor! In that situation I [understood] the Republicans wanting to be back in the majority—they had been in the majority for 68 years … But the two individuals they picked to allow to join them to give them that majority vote and then the fraudulent attempt to say that this was good government on the part of Tom Golisano and others, just made the whole process … [reek of] corruption. And on the Democratic side, in some respects I think Sen. Malcolm Smith was the hero, because … [Smith] ignited the uprising when he refused to give Pedro Espada $755,000 for a not-for-profit when there wasn’t even a definition of where the money was going, and he put his foot down, and the coup was a reprisal for Sen. Espada not getting his way. So they used to call themselves the “gang of three” and the “gang of four.” Now they can just call each other “inmates.”
CS: With Kirsten Gillibrand’s success in the U.S. Senate and her record-breaking win this cycle, do you feel vindicated in your decision to appoint her to the seat?
DP: I feel so vindicated that I feel that many of the editors who wrote things about Sen. Gillibrand and now sing her praises but blamed me [at the time] should now give me the credit for what they’re writing today. I was aware that the senator’s views on a lot of issues were going to have to evolve into a statewide interest from the needs of her local congressional district. In an attempt to do that, she may have moved a little quickly, and so there might have been an appearance of expediency, but what I also knew about Sen. Gillibrand is she knew finance as well as anyone else that I talked to. She has a tremendous amount of energy. She became the youngest United States senator the day that I appointed her, right after the greatest appearance at the polls of young people in the 2008 election. She was a woman, one of only 17 in the Senate, who replaced a woman, Hillary Clinton, which I thought was good. She wasn’t from New York City; we hadn’t done that in 41 years when I appointed her. So I thought I was able to touch a lot of constituencies that had been ignored in the past and access an individual whose capabilities could take her anywhere.
CS: Looking back, how would you want your time as governor remembered by history?
DP: I would hope that people would remember that when I became governor the bill came due, the credit card ran out, not only for the state but for the country—and, against the opposition of many, I stood up and said, “We’re about to see the worst recession since the Great Depression.” If you read the articles written right after it, you [see] how delusional and in denial the Legislature was. People were saying, “This is a standard deficit, and we’ll fix it the way we fix everything else. He’s Chicken Little … He’s not even elected. Who is he to get up here and tell us what happened?” Six weeks after I said it, Lehman Brothers went out of business … So I think I had a good idea of what I was talking about, but the problem was, when you’ve been an advocate as I’ve been, and a progressive—as I hope I still am—and you start talking about policy and language that sounded like worse than anything Gov. George Pataki ever suggested, you can get viewed as a traitor. So, there’s a difference between being ahead of your time and being out of your time. In other words, I was so far ahead that I was really behind the comprehension of most journalists and most legislators—and so I got $8 million worth of negative ads, and that will probably put you in a place where you can’t run for re-election, but … when I went to Gov. Cuomo’s inauguration and he spoke of how I kept the state afloat at its most difficult time in its economic history, just that willingness on the part of the governor to acknowledge that made me know that what I did was right. And, as they say, a good ethical decision will inevitably be a good political decision, because now it isn’t just Gov. Cuomo, I think most people realize that the extreme measures I took in 2008 [were correct]. New York State never had a downgraded credit rating, we never laid off more than a couple hundred people, never had to make the draconian cuts that they made in California, we never started paying the state workers minimum wage as happened in other states … We did not go through the extreme measures at difficult times that two-thirds of the other states did …
CS: One of your most celebrated accomplishments was the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws. What is your opinion of the recent referenda that legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and how do you think the Obama administration should handle this pending states’ rights-federal rights enforcement showdown?
DP: What made drugs legal and what made drugs illegal is a very interesting study in this country and one that sort of belies some of the scientific evidence. I just never thought of marijuana being a particularly potent drug, and, oddly enough, though I never used it, other than experimentation when I was younger, for those that do, we see a lot more damage to people, with automobile accidents, at the hands of alcohol, which is perfectly legal—which I have used, maybe more than necessary [Laughs]… In these types of situations, if we had a national policy it would be a lot easier than trying to enforce drug penalties state to state, but I think what those states may have done is to have opened the door so we can have that national policy. In the interim, I think that what the federal government might do is either re-examine its own policy or just be willing to see how it works with these other states.
CS: How would you evaluate the state’s response to Superstorm Sandy?
DP: This is the worst storm to hit the metropolitan area since 1938, when 700 people were killed. It was so immense that it overwhelmed any capacity to plan. And, spiritually, sometimes we have to understand that although government officials arrogate great responsibility to ourselves that we don’t really have, and though agencies pretend that they control the elements when they really don’t, we all have to recognize that this was a terrible storm. No one ever said that Katrina wasn’t absolutely one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit this country, but the problem was when they were trying to put things back together, they were getting absolutely no response from FEMA. This was totally different. President Obama was engaged, the governors were front and center, the local officials were, as well. If there’s one drawback it certainly seems that perhaps some of the utilities were ill-prepared, and then in the midst of the storm lied knowingly to their customers, and I think Gov. Cuomo is very upset about it. I think it’s going to be investigated, and I think heads will roll.
CS: What do you think the governor’s priorities should be in 2013?
DP: The governor has put some of his priorities on the table. He wants to level the playing field more so for businesses in the state. He’s very much trying to make sure that there’s adequate protection for citizens during the investigation of crimes, so we don’t have some of the complaints that we have [had] about the New York City Police Department. And he’s rigidly trying to keep the state on a [sound] financial course, so I think that he’s saved me from having to answer that question, because he’s really outlined a very good [plan]. But what has changed is just when it looked like the financial situation was manageable, we’re probably going to easily tack on a few billions dollars in deficit that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. With the great work that the governor and the Legislature did [balancing the budget], it is really going to irk them, because it’s almost like we’ve turned back the clock two years, maybe four years, and I don’t envy the job that they’re going to have to do.
CS: What interested you in becoming a MTA board member, and what are your priorities in that position?
DP: The governor’s office called and said they would like me to serve. As they put it to me, “You were never afraid to take the tough stands and there’s no place that the stands have to be tougher than on the MTA.” And as much as I wanted to tell them that I was busy, and as much as I am … [As governor] when I asked people [to serve], I really wasn’t expecting to get no for an answer, so I kind of knew I was the one person who really couldn’t say no. But I enjoy it, started riding the subway again—hadn’t ridden the subway in over 10 years, because ever since I became minority leader they were driving me around—and [I’ve] got[ten] to meet [people], got[ten] to hear their concerns. I’m really enjoying it! … I would say that my goal right now is to try to keep the MTA’s books balanced at minimum sacrifice to the riders, especially now that I’m regularly one of them. [Laughs]
CS: Having transitioned from a politician to a radio talk show host, how has that altered your perception of the media?
DP: In government anything you say beyond what you need to say can and will be used against you, not just in court but right on the front page. In radio they like you to open up, really let people know who you are, put your passions out there, which … didn’t come naturally to me at first, because I trained myself or was always being told, “You don’t need to say that much.” … I certainly have gained an appreciation for the media in the sense that every day I have to produce two hours worth of information and every day there might not really be two hours of information out there. Now there’s some days, like right now [with] the fiscal cliff and Libya, you could probably do four hours—but there are a lot of times during the year that isn’t there … I was at times critic[ized] for, I thought, stretching, spinning, at times deceivingly presenting information that the writer knew or the broadcaster knew was inaccurate. I would hope as I’m starting to move close to a year and a half doing this that I haven’t done that. So I think you can provide excitement, entertainment, a little humor, a seriousness without provoking people or playing to the[ir] fears and anxieties.
CS: You’re not just a host, but you’ve also been a lifelong fan of talk radio. Who are the personalities or reporters who have most shaped your own approach to the medium?
DP: John Batchelor at ABC—very prepared, very creative and loves to talk about history—and I was a history major, so I definitely like him. John Gambling, who has a brand of fairness. He’s basically a conservative, but when something just doesn’t add up for him, he’s obviously not afraid to say it. Growing up I used to listen to Barry Gray. He was always timely, always seemed to have the guests that were in the news. And then there were talk [hosts] that I didn’t agree with, but I really enjoyed their sense of humor. Like I think Rush Limbaugh is funny. I agree with him, like, two percent of the time, but I think he’s hilarious from time to time. And an old talk show host who still does an hour every week, Bob Grant … was absolutely hilarious … [A]s a person who hosts a show with an audience that is very much to the right of me, I think that I [am] striving for that sense that John Gambling gets that he’s fair—you might not agree with [me], but [I] will give [the] issues a fair hearing.
CS: Beyond your current job at WOR, what would you like to do next in your career?
DP: Last night, a friend of mine, who is a tenant leader up on the West Side—Columbus Avenue, where I started—and I went to a tenant’s meeting and I spoke … and the funny thing was, 27 years later, some of the same people were there [Laughs] … It reminded me how difficult advocacy is, and at the same time how to hone those skills and try to make change when you’re starting off with an idea that not many people believe [in] and you’re trying to organize. So I found that really exciting … I’m looking to find causes that I believe in and to go back to being an advocate.
CS: It’s refreshing to hear that you still have your idealism.
DP: The rigors of reality—in other words, the responsibility when you become governor—that whole sort of proverb that it’s lonely at the top, you really feel it. Because but for your actions, a lot of things can occur. I remember when I decided to ask the networks for time because I wanted to go on television and tell the citizens of the state how bad the economic crisis was and somebody called me up and said, “You’re asking the networks for time? You’re the governor! You sit around acting like you’re the president!” That was my mother who placed that call! So my point is that was very difficult, but as much as I would get agitated at advocates who were still saying, “We can’t take any money from education,” I realized after I left that I still respected that they made those arguments. And I didn’t always like that people didn’t understand why we had to do those things, but I certainly respected that people who had beliefs were not afraid to ride all the way to Albany to tell me about them.
Tags: 2009 coup, Andrew Cuomo, Barack Obama, Barry Gray, Bob Grant, David Paterson, Dean Skelos, Democrat, Election Day, Eliot Spitzer, George Pataki, John Batchelor, John Gambling, Kirsten Gillibrand, Malcolm Smith, minority leader, MTA, Pedro Espada, radio, recession, Republican, Richard Ravitch, Rockefeller drug laws, Sean Patrick Maloney, state senate, Superstorm Sandy, Tom Golisano