New York Gubernatorial Race Missing Strong Republican Candidate

“David Paterson’s having a meeting in Albany,” a trusted source on New York politics e-mailed me late in the evening of March 2nd. “The word in the state capitol is he’s going to resign tomorrow.”

As it turned out, Paterson is still governor of New York today — albeit a governor who last month abandoned plans to run for a full term in 2010 amid an almost-weekly drumbeat of scandal and resignations from his official family.  In a sense, this is tragic:  Paterson became the Empire State’s first-ever African-American lieutenant governor in 2006 — winning the office that his father Basil lost 36 years before — and then succeeded to the top job two years later after scandal forced out fellow Democrat Elliot Spitzer.

Now editorials increasingly call for the younger Paterson to go as well. 

But in all likelihood, it won’t happen.  All things considered, Paterson should fill out his term as governor, albeit as the state’s deficit reaches record high and the growing stench of scandal that continues to envelope Albany.

Why?  Because for all the talk of corruption in his administration, Paterson himself has yet to be indicted or even implicated in anything criminal.  His state police superintendent and press secretary have resigned over alleged requests to tamper with a domestic abuse case.  But the chances of any criminal liability for Paterson himself are fading.  The headline in the New York Daily News March 11 said as much: “Witness Tamper Charge Against Paterson is Weak.”  

In a surprise move last week, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (who is considered the likely Democratic nominee for governor) recused himself from investigating Paterson.  Instead, he tapped Judith Kaye, retired chief justice of New York State’s highest court, to investigate.  (Kaye, who has no investigative background, was appointed to the high court in 1993 and named chief justice in 1995 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father). 

Is politics involved in Cuomo’s “punting” the Paterson case to Kaye?  In February, a Marist College Poll in February showed Cuomo the gubernatorial favorite of 59% of likely Democratic voters statewide, with 21% for Paterson and 6% for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (who is now considering running for governor on the Republican ticket).  In the last weeks, however, Cuomo’s approval ratings in polls have dropped as much as 13 percentage points, with most of the dropoff coming blacks and New York City voters.

“But the timing is weird,” said historian David Pietrusza, who is wise in all things New York, “Cuomo admits that if Paterson was still running for governor he would have a conflict–but he didn’t recuse himself THEN. He recuses himself NOW when Paterson isn’t running and denies politics has anything to do with his decision. This is incoherent garbage.”

But Look at the Republicans! 

For Republicans, the sad part of all this is that so far they are missing the opportunity of a lifetime to return to power in New York State.  Former Rep. and 2000 Senate nominee Rick Lazio, who has the endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and is likely to carry the ballot line of the state’s Conservative Party, is so far the favorite to carry the Republican banner this fall.  But Lazio has not set the world afire as a campaigner and has so far raised only $637,000 — far less than the $16 million Cuomo has in his campaign kitty. 

Suffolk County Executive Levy, who has raised $4 million, may soon decide to run as a Republican.  State GOP Chairman Ed Cox has encouraged him to switch.  But whether Levy (who is a staunch conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social issues) will sell at the state GOP convention this summer or among primary voters in September is unclear.

Also unclear is the political punch of Buffalo multimillionaire Carl Palladino, who had threatened to start a statewide “Tea Party” and run on its ballot line for governor.  Last week, Palladino signaled he would run as a Republican for governor and spend considerably from his own wallet.  But while GOP leaders would obviously welcome a well-funded candidate with ties to the business community (and the tea party movement), Palladino’s views on most issues are unknown.

So there you have it: an embattled lame duck Democratic governor and Republicans in a quagmire of their own, ready to discard an historic opportunity.

The New York Times admits today it would be unlikely for Paterson to be removed for the New York Yankees World Series tickets scandal. Similar thoughts appeared in the New York Daily News.