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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: David Paterson

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-26

David Paterson has a question for Eliot Spitzer.

"I would ask him, 'With all the tremendous opportunities you had in life, why did you choose public service?'" the state senate's minority leader, and Mr. Spitzer's running mate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said.

Then Mr. Paterson would direct another question at the attorney general: "As successful as you've been in fighting powerful people in the financial services industry, do you ever worry about threats?"

Mr. Paterson may or may not wait for Mr. Spitzer's responses. (He surely knows the answers: (1) "Because...." and (2) "Are you kidding?") After all, the two men are friends, and it's unlikely that either would take umbrage if the other moved on in typical rapid fire clip to the next thing on his mind.

Here's what Mr. Paterson would then say to the man who picked him to run as lieutenant governor:

"I gave up the chance to be the first Democratic majority leader in the state senate in 70 years - so that I could be your lieutenant governor. I would expect to have a significant decision making role in your administration. I know who the governor is - you. But for me to fulfill the expectations you have of me, I'd like to redefine the role of lieutenant governor."

Whether the ambitious Mr. Spitzer would readily consent to such a redefinition is anybody's guess, although he has told Mr. Paterson that he wanted to reshape the lieutenant governor's traditional role. It is also a matter of conjecture whether the lieutenant governor's office lends itself to any radical redefinition.

Indeed, it would be hyperbole to suggest that the lieutenant governor's role is anything more than ceremonial. New York's lieutenant governor presides over the state senate - which, should the Spitzer-Paterson ticket win in November, would take Mr. Paterson back to the 62-member chamber to which he was first elected in 1985 at the age of 31, representing the same Harlem district that had sent his distinguished father, Basil Paterson, to the senate.

But Mr. Paterson is optimistic. He already has a model in mind.

"It's Al Gore in the administration of Bill Clinton," he said.

Would Mr. Spitzer acquiesce to the kind of activist role that Mr. Gore played as vice president?

"When Eliot sees talent, he doesn't compete with it - he invites it in," Mr. Paterson said. "He listens to the best people. I've worked for too many people in my career who only look to have obsequious sycophants around them. They'll tolerate marginal performance so as not to be challenged. Not Eliot. Not me. When people challenge me - or him - I try to figure out how to hire them."

As he speaks about his political consort, Mr. Paterson conveys the impression that the two men enjoy not just a special friendship but also an unusual level of personal comfort.

"I met Eliot when we were debating back in 1995 whether school yearbooks should be kept out of police stations. I knew that I was beaten in that debate. But Eliot insisted that I'd beaten him. That's how our friendship began," Mr. Paterson said. "He said something quite startling to me, 'You know, it doesn't matter to me if you beat me - because if I come across smart people, then I want to be with them, I want to join forces with them."

It would be another 11 years before the two men got an opportunity to join political forces. Each man would flourish independently of the other. In November 2002, Senator Paterson was elected senate minority leader, becoming the first non-white legislative leader in New York State history, as well as the first visually-impaired senior member of the state's government. (As senate minority leader, Mr. Paterson is also the highest-ranking African-American elected official in the state.)

"It was on January 10 this year that Eliot and I met to discuss the gubernatorial race. The meeting was meant to last 30 minutes, but I think it took about 10 seconds for him to ask me to be his lieutenant governor. I was really surprised that he chose me," Mr. Paterson said.

"I told Eliot, 'I've tried very hard to become senate majority leader,' and he said, 'If you do this now, then you're in power in nine months,'" Mr. Paterson said. "But he also said, 'It would be hard for us to carve out a specific role for lieutenant governor right now - it would look arrogant.'"

Mr. Paterson said that he understood what Mr. Spitzer was saying.

"I know that, if elected, to some degree I'm going to have to subsume my personality. I suppose that once you become lieutenant governor, you move from initiatives to support, from creativity to compliance, from reacting to learning," Mr. Paterson said. "But I can already see that some issues may come not from Eliot Spitzer or his chief of staff but people on the governor's staff. The first thing that a governor's staff has historically done is intimidate the lieutenant governor's staff.

"If they start doing that to me, they'd be messing with the wrong guy," he said.

Mr. Paterson smiled as he savored that statement - or was it the second helping of a gazpacho?

"Eliot has made it clear to me that he doesn't want to squash my energy. But I think he understands that in me he's bringing a person who knows how the game is played," he said.

Mr. Paterson's game has heavily involved the question of reforming Albany. Barnstorming across the state, he has demanded reforms of the state lobbying laws, of state procurement procedures, and of campaign finance rules.

It has also focused on health care (he produced a comprehensive report on how New York's Medicaid program could be made more efficient). And his game has included proposing legislation authorizing a $1 billion voter-approved stem cell research initiative.

But the graduate of Columbia University and Hofstra Law School also recognizes that any political game is subject to the immutable law of electoral arithmetic. As a Democrat in the Republican controlled senate, his can be a distinctive voice - but it is nevertheless a minority voice.

As the lunch winds down, it's apparent that Mr. Paterson yearns for another gazpacho. He settles for a generous dessert instead - he can afford the calories on account of his vigorous daily exercise regimen.

It's also apparent that a redefined role of lieutenant governor is seldom far from his consciousness.

"Tell me, how many candidates for lieutenant governor raised $1 million in just five months for their ticket," Mr. Paterson said. "I've raised this all by myself. I could have been a candidate for governor - but with Eliot, I'm perfectly happy as lieutenant governor."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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