ALBANY, N.Y. — Former New York Gov. David Paterson found out that that he was about to become New York's top elected official via a phone call made from a bathroom, less than an hour before the New York Times reported that his soon-to-be predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, was a client of an expensive escort service.
Paterson was the Empire State's lieutenant governor at the time. Spitzer resigned shortly after the Times report was published in March 2008.
“My overriding thought about Spitzer’s departure and my elevation to the role of governor is that it’s the best benefit I ever got from sex — and I wasn’t even there,” Paterson writes in a new memoir, entitled "Black, Blind & In Charge."
While the former governor has used varieties of that one-liner before, the book includes unprecedented detail about how the most consequential week of modern New York politics unfolded for one of the key players. As he tells it, the day of Spitzer’s downfall seemed to be a fairly typical one for a lieutenant governor, although he kept having certain events, like a meeting with Cardinal Edward Egan, thrown onto his schedule while the governor was mysteriously stuck in Manhattan.
Paterson learned of the looming bombshell thanks to a surreptitious call from gubernatorial secretary Richard Baum, who contacted Paterson from Spitzer’s bathroom. Upon the advice of his father, longtime political powerhouse Basil Paterson, he proceeded to call the state’s other top officials so they wouldn’t be upset about being left in the dark.
The first to call him back was Sen. Hillary Clinton, then in the midst of her 2008 presidential primary campaign.
“[T]he governor’s health is fine but he is going to resign within the hour,” he recounts saying.
“Well, what is the reason causing him to resign?” she replied.
“I started to speak and then held my breath because I thought, ‘How do you explain a sex scandal to Hillary Clinton?’”
Spitzer did not resign that afternoon, choosing instead to see if he could hold onto power. He gave up, according to Paterson, after then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told the governor he’d have no support in an impeachment trial. Paterson then persuaded Spitzer’s team to make the resignation effective the following week so that he could fully prepare and avoid a rushed inauguration where he’d “look weak, alone, or unprepared … standing in Albany, by myself.”
He describes the rushed transition as “an orgy of cannibalism” where “a plethora of self-serving pariahs” seeking power tried to form connections.
One of the few people he characterizes as “magnanimous” during this time was then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When the incoming governor was overwhelmed on inauguration morning, Bloomberg pretended to be holding a meeting with Paterson, guaranteeing they’d remain unbothered while Paterson was able to rest.
His feud with Richard Ravitch
One of Paterson’s lasting legacies was the discovery that New York governors can fill vacancies in the lieutenant governor’s office.
There hadn’t been precedent for that. Then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo argued it was unconstitutional . But Paterson moved forward and chose longtime civic leader Richard Ravitch for the post. (Paterson writes that Cuomo ultimately “seemed relieved” when he made his choice: “I surmised because it was not [Nassau County Executive] Tom Suozzi … someone whom Cuomo deeply despised.”)
But Paterson’s recollections about his lieutenant governor are far from positive.
As his administration was enveloped in a series of scandals in early 2010, a stream of rumors involving his imminent resignation circulated through the halls of the New York's Capitol. They were fueled when Ravitch went off the grid for several days and held a meeting with Cuomo.
Plenty of theories have been offered about Cuomo’s role in the drumbeat against Paterson in 2010. But in the ex-governor’s narrative, Cuomo is generally treated very kindly, while Ravitch was the bigger problem during those troubled months.
He had been tasked by the governor with developing solutions to the budget woes of the Great Recession, coming up with the “ Ravitch Plan ” that would have entailed borrowing massive amounts of money to cover a shortfall. Cuomo ultimately persuaded Paterson that this was a backdoor way to undo recent court cases that shifted budgetary powers toward the executive.
“Ravitch, as Andrew Cuomo … warned me, was doing the bidding of the legislative leaders, and his rotund frame, the only thing I know of that is larger than his ego, was noticed in several of their offices while I was trying to pass the budget,” Paterson wrote.
… And Trump’s feuds with Ravitch
Paterson wasn’t the only one who seems to have a distaste for his lieutenant governor.
A certain New York City real estate developer warned him from the get-go that Ravitch was “incompetent and incapable of running government.” That feud seems to have dated to Ravitch's tenure as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority 40 years ago, when Ravitch said that Donald Trump would need to pay if he wanted a new subway exit built directly into the Grand Hyatt Hotel from Grand Central Station in midtown.
When Ravitch was promoting his budget fixes in 2010, Paterson got a call from Trump.
“Hey David, I warned you and look at this! This guy is an asshole, he is untrustworthy, and he is disloyal,” Trump proclaimed.
Trump quickly began telling reporters that Paterson had told him he regretted making his lieutenant governor pick.
“I never said that I’m sorry that I took Ravitch,” Paterson recounts telling Trump in a follow-up call.
“But it’s the truth, it’s the truth! You do wish you hadn’t taken him. Look me in the eye and tell me that isn’t the truth," Trump said, according to Paterson.
The Ravitch pick apparently riled Trump as recently as a 2014 New Year’s Eve lunch at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
Trump, Paterson says, approached him to reiterate his thoughts on the matter:
“You know, Governor, I probably wouldn’t have said what I did that day but I was completely frustrated that this Ravitch guy … wanted to borrow $6 billion and give it to the legislature to prolong the fact that they were continually refusing to cut the budget and I thought that was completely out of line for his position.”
The 2002 leadership fight in the state Senate
Leadership battles hold a special place in Albany lore, though Paterson’s 2002 ouster of Senate Democratic Leader Marty Connor hadn’t previously been detailed in any depth. But despite the lack of importance of the job at the time, it was a notable moment in recent Albany history, both because it made Paterson the first Black leader of a legislative conference and because of the players involved.
The plan was first developed over wine with fellow Sen. Eric Schneiderman near Paterson’s home in Guilderland, near Albany. Schneiderman unveiled a list of 10 senators who would support Paterson, just shy of the 13 needed to make him leader.
Paterson demurred. But after then-Sen. Malcolm Smith subsequently gave a motivational speech about living up to the legacy of people like his father and fellow Harlem leader Percy Sutton, Paterson’s imagination took him to lines uttered by Babe Ruth’s ghost in the movie "The Sandlot" — “There are heroes and there are legends … Heroes die and legends live forever” — and he decided to make a run for it.
Paterson eventually gathered a group of 13 senators in his Manhattan office. But one, then-freshman Martin Dilan, remained noncommittal.
He decided to trick a colleague, Carl Andrews, into thinking he had the 13 votes locked up — suggesting he’d be left out of any leadership team if he remained with Connor — and Andrews soon came from Brooklyn accompanied by another Senate colleague, Velmanette Montgomery, allowing Paterson to hold a news conference where he locked up support.
Gillibrand’s appointment to the U.S. Senate
“Probably the most qualified person to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate was Andrew Cuomo,” Paterson wrote about the bitter and drawn-out selection process to replace Hillary Clinton after she left the Senate to become secretary of state under Barack Obama. “But providing I got an appropriately qualified candidate, I wanted to appoint a woman.”
Paterson spends dozens of pages summarizing backstabbing by supporters of Caroline Kennedy, who was a possible candidate for the appointment, and his own staff.
He confirms that his ultimate selection of then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was made partially due to an incident that was completely unknown at the time — her kindness to the governor after "Saturday Night Live" began using him as a vehicle to make jokes about the blind. (Paterson is legally blind.)
Gillibrand was in his office and overheard discussions about whether to respond. She urged him to “fight for people who didn’t have a voice.”
“Congressman Gillibrand’s voice was one of support and encouragement,” Paterson wrote. “It wasn’t the sole reason I made the choice, but it was a contributing factor.”
Christie and Bloomberg
Paterson recalls an incident during Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the World Trade Center site in 2010, as he stood with then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie awaiting the monarch's arrival.
Christie said to him: “I was told by the protocol people that nobody escorts the Queen but Prince Phillip, but I bet you that Bloomberg is going to try to stand in front of us both and escort her."
“Yeah, Chris, Michael always takes charge like that. I’m OK with it.”
“Well I’m not putting up with it this time. If he tries it today, I want you to trip him and I’m gonna sit on him.”