Paterson Resignation Could Throw New York Into Chaos

Besieged New York Governor David Paterson has been hanging on to his job for the better part of the past week in the wake of a New York Times article that detailed his improper intervention in a domestic assault case on behalf of one of his closest aides.  Now a second scandal has come to light, and indications are that the governor’s resignation may be imminent.  Should Paterson step down, it could set in motion a chain of events that would throw the state into an unprecedented governing crisis that could have ramifications for the upcoming mid-term elections.

On Wednesday, the New York State Commission on Public Integrity released the findings from its investigation into Paterson’s acceptance of two tickets from the New York Yankees to last year’s World Series.  The commission said that Paterson sought and accepted the tickets without paying for them. New York State ethics law prohibits executive branch officials from seeking or accepting gifts from a lobbyist – the Yankees are a registered lobbying organization – if the gift appears intended to influence state policy.

Making matters worse for Paterson, the commission concluded that the governor lied in sworn testimony, saying that he had always intended to pay for the tickets.  The commission alleged that Paterson paid for the tickets only after media inquiries brought them to the public’s attention, and then provided the Yankees with a backdated check in an attempt to cover his intent.  The report charges Paterson with two violations of the Public Officers Law and three violations of the State Code of Ethics and turns the matter over to state prosecutors to investigate further.

Paterson denies any wrongdoing in the matter, but his already tenuous hold on his job may have been irreparably damaged by this latest revelation.  Reports surfaced that the governor had called an emergency meeting of his closet aides late Thursday afternoon, and a cadre of African-American leaders in the state was scheduled to meet later that night in Harlem, Paterson’s home base, to discuss whether to try and convince the governor to step down.

Should Paterson resign, the New York State Constitution provides that the Lieutenant Governor succeed him.  Paterson himself took over from former governor Eliot Spitzer in this way.  The current Lt. Governor is 76-year old Richard Ravitch, the well-respected former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  But there are indications that Ravitch may not want the job.  He has recently been quoted as saying that he has made no plans to succeed Paterson, and may not relish taking over the struggling state government right as New York begins its annual budget battle.

The state is projected to face a $9 billion budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year.  To help balance the budget, Paterson had proposed over $5 billion in spending cuts that the state legislature promptly rejected.  Both the governor and the legislature have to agree on a budget by March 31 or the state will be legally unable to pay its bills.  While delays are common – New York has produced an on time budget only once in the last twenty-five years – a Paterson resignation could throw Albany into chaos.

Should Ravitch decide to forgo the governorship, the state constitution provides that the Temporary President of the Senate shall serve as governor until a special election can be held to fill the position permanently.  State Senator Malcolm A. Smith would then succeed Paterson as interim-executive.  But because the Senate voted to expel former Democratic senator Hiram Monserrate for his role in a domestic violence incident, Smith’s ascension to the governor’s role would leave the State Senate in a 30-30 tie for control.  With neither party holding enough seats to pass legislation, a budget agreement would be near impossible to achieve.  State government could cease to function until the November elections.

The dysfuncion in Albany is already a major factor in those elections. Add in recent ethics scandals involving New York Democrats Rep. Charlie Rangel and Rep. Eric Massa, and it makes for perhaps the most toxic election environment in the nation for the Democratic Party.

New York’s two U.S. Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, will both face the voters in that environment, and bring along their own electoral baggage.  Gillibrand is tainted by her association with Paterson, who appointed her to the seat last year after a process marred by indecision and delay. Schumer has been a recent target of the voters, seeing his approval ratings slide below the 50% mark for the first time in eight years.

In the governor’s race, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio has made cleaning up Albany a central campaign theme, modeled on the success of Gov. Chris Christie in neighboring New Jersey.  Republicans running in several hotly contested congressional districts could see their fortunes boosted as well.

As of Friday, Paterson remained hunkered down in the governor’s office.  African-American leaders ultimately decided to back him, for now. But it seems likely that Paterson will not survive for long. What happens in the aftermath of his resignation could have impacts throughout state government, stretching from now until November, and possibly reaching all the way to Washington, D.C.