New York Democrats Tell Obama to Butt Out

In his ten months in office, President Barack Obama has tried publicly to influence state-level Democratic Party politics perhaps more than any president in recent memory.  But his efforts have not always met with success.

In New York, Rep. Carolyn Maloney initially resisted but later obeyed a command from the administration to sit out a potential primary for the Senate seat held by Kristen Gillibrand.  New York Governor David Paterson appointed Gillibrand to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former seat after an exhaustive process that included a public flirtation and private push by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.  

Paterson’s handling of the appointment, among other things, has cost him dearly at the polls.  The governor’s job approval rating in one poll is below 20 percent, and speculation is rampant that Paterson will face a primary challenge of his own from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo next year.  

Paterson’s vulnerability has made him the latest target of the Obama administration’s ballot-shaping efforts.  Reports surfaced last week that the White House had made it clear to Paterson that it preferred he not seek re-election.  Powerful behind-the-scenes White House political operative Patrick Gaspard reportedly delivered the message.

But Paterson, unlike Maloney, is not going along. The result has been an ugly public brawl between New York Democrats and the Obama administration, and within the state Democratic party.  

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers resent Obama getting involved in picking the Democratic gubernatorial candidate even if they don’t approve of the job Paterson is doing as governor.  Two-thirds of respondents in a Marist College poll said Obama should stay out of the governor’s race, although nearly the same number, 63% agreed with the White House that Paterson shouldn’t run.

One prominent New York elected official has made a public break with the White House on the issue.  Powerful Harlem Democrat and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Charlie Rangel told the New York Daily News over the weekend that Obama was wrong for attempting to strong arm Paterson out of the race.

“The whole thing to me was not presidential.  It wasn’t good for the president, and it wasn’t good for the governor," Rangel said.

But Rangel didn’t reserve his criticisms for the administration.  He had sharp words for Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens), one of the reported messengers who delivered the White House’s political advice to the governor.  “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near [the White House effort] then or now," Rangel said.  "And anyone who has been involved in this has to be embarrassed.  Period."

Rangel’s sentiments echo comments made by Michelle Paterson, the governor’s wife.  Mrs. Paterson has been quoted as saying that it was “unfair” that Obama thought her husband should not run for re-election.

“David’s the first African-American governor in the state of New York and he’s being asked to get out of the race,” Paterson said.  “I never heard of a president asking a governor not to run … so I thought it was very unusual that this would be asked of David and I don’t think it’s right.”

Paterson himself has been fighting back against the powerful forces arrayed against him.  He appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday and steadfastly declared that he would seek re-election.  “I am not going to run away from a fight when I know who I’m fighting for,” Paterson said.  “You don’t give up because you have low poll numbers.  You don’t give up because everybody’s telling you what the future is.”

Obama’s request benefits Attorney General Cuomo, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002 against prominent African-American and former state comptroller H. Carl McCall.  Cuomo withdrew from the race before the primary, but his name remained on the Election Day ballot as the nominee of one of New York’s many third parties.  

Cuomo’s primary campaign angered many in the black community, who were eager to see the party nominate an African-American. Obama’s attempt to dissuade Paterson from seeking re-election is seen in part as providing cover for a Cuomo primary challenge among the state’s black population.

The turmoil on the Democratic side heightens Republicans hopes that the party can take the governor’s seat next year. So far, former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, who ran an unsuccessful Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2000, has declared himself a candidate.  But the state GOP remains in a wait and see mode as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani weighs a decision on the governor’s race.  

Polls show Cuomo beating both Giuliani and Lazio in prospective match-ups at this early stage.  But Cuomo has not yet declared his intention to run for governor.  President Obama’s attempt to clear the field for him seems only to have muddied the waters.