Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blagojevich vs. Paterson: Who Do We Hate More?

By Steve Tiszenkel

Racked by scandal, alienated from his state’s political establishment and facing constant calls from the media and his colleagues for his resignation, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got an opportunity he called “golden” on Nov. 4 of last year. His state’s junior senator, Barack Obama, had been elected president, and it was left to him to fill the Congressional vacancy left by the new president-elect’s departure. Many of Illinois’ top Democrats desperately wanted the seat, and Blagojevich figured they’d be willing to pay—in cash and in favors—to get it. With such power, Blagojevich thought, maybe his tenure as governor wasn’t doomed after all.

But as precisely everyone but the governor could have figured out, because he was already under investigation for assorted other crimes, the feds uncovered Blagojevich’s scheme in record time. As he adamantly refused to resign while providing no real defense for his actions, an Illinois populace that already hated their twice-elected chief executive further turned on him. By the humiliating end, as the former most powerful man in the Land of Lincoln faced an impeachment trial with virtually no chance of acquittal, his approval rating stood at 7 percent.

Nobody has ever seriously accused David Paterson of taking bribes, or, really, corruption of any sort—by most accounts, he’s an honorable, upstanding public servant. But after dealing with a high-profile Senate vacancy of his own not long afterBlagojevich, Paterson’s approval rating is an abysmal 19 percent, just 12 points higher than a man who was recently ejected from office in disgrace and immediately attempted to sign up as a contestant on “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!”

It doesn’t seem to add up. Yes, Paterson faces a horrendous financial crisis and hasn’t done much to fix it, but the same is true of every governor in America. And sure, New York never voted for Paterson, but he did seem like a breath of fresh air after the self-destruction of Eliot Spitzer—even if he did acknowledge having a relationship with “a woman other than my wife” mere days before he was sworn in to replace our last elected governor.

What I find most confusing about Paterson’s monumentally low approval ratings is that he hasn’t seemed to do anything particularly bad—besides get mocked for his blindness on Saturday Night live—but has managed to defy the odds and accomplish some good. Most recently and notably, when commuters were held hostage by the MTA and threatened with shockingly high fare increases and service cuts that could have been devastating for working people in Queens and beyond, Paterson managed to broker a miraculous compromise that will see the cuts rolled back and the fare hikes reduced substantially. Commuter advocates complained about the compromise, but isn’t that just Paterson’s luck? It’s miles better than the alternative, which would have raised the price of a monthly MetroCard to $103.

So why is Paterson so unpopular? I’d venture it has almost everything to do with his Blagojevich moment, the Senate selection process I thought he handled beautifully but on which the local media skewered him at every turn. Political novice Caroline Kennedy, by virtue of her influential support of Obama and the most famous family name in American politics, decided she wanted to replace Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator when Clinton accepted a post as Secretary of State in the new administration. The Kennedy family has a whole lot of smart, powerful friends, and it seemed clear that some of them were working hard behind the scenes.

Though the law states that the governor and only the governor gets to fill a Senate vacancy, they expertly painted a portrait of Kennedy as frontrunner by manipulating the always-gullible tabloids—as if there could be such a thing as a frontrunner when race with exactly one voter. Though Paterson’s aides repeatedly said Kennedy wasn’t the frontrunner, and poll after poll after poll showed that New Yorkers didn’t want her in the job, when Paterson picked little-known moderate Kirsten Gillibrand instead, the Kennedy people managed to whip up a firestorm of outrage over the supposed snub and Paterson’s alleged mishandling of the situation. None of it really made sense, but in the New York media, things don’t really have to make sense.

If this had happened in Illinois, Kennedy’s people could have won the seat by writing a fat check. But they were dealing with Paterson, so they needed leverage of a different sort. They needed to threaten his young governorship with ruin if he dared deny them. And ruin his governorship is exactly what they did.

Paterson is up for re-election next year. It’s not looking good for him, even in the Democratic primary, where Andrew Cuomo is polling far higher and voters are even starting to express nostalgia for Spitzer, who’s hard at work trying to remake and redeem himself. But our governor has never really shown himself to be anyone other than someone who’s working hard for the kind of people at risk of getting left behind in 21st-century New York, the kind of people who live in our neighborhoods. I’m not here to make endorsements. Maybe Paterson is too liberal for you; maybe he’s just not your cup of tea. The statistics say you want him gone, and soon. It’s always nice to be part of an 81-percent majority, but whatever you decide, take a moment to ask yourself whether this is a governor worthy of Blagojevich-level contempt.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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