WXXI Local Stories
2:46 pm
Thu December 17, 2009

Paterson's Strategy Begins to Pay Off

Albany, New York – Governor David Paterson is finally starting to reap some political benefits from his tough talk on the state's fiscal crisis. His poll numbers have risen for the first time in over a year. The governor seems intent on making a comeback, and remaining a candidate for governor in 2010, even though he still faces steep odds.

Paterson in recent months has focused on portraying himself as a leader, talking tough about cutting the state budget in the face of a multi billion dollar gap. The governor, once known as a liberal Democrat, has now positioned himself as a fiscal conservative, saying he's against new taxes. He's also earned the wrath of the powerful health care and education interests, including the state's school boards and largest teacher's union, who are currently suing him over school aide cuts.

Paterson acted unilaterally to partially delay payments to schools and local governments, he says, to keep the state from running out of cash.

"I will not let New York State run out of money on my watch," he said. It's a line he's repeated a number of times in recent weeks, and it often draws applause.

Paterson has also made a habit of bashing the legislature, targeting a group that has lower public approval ratings than even the governor. He blames state lawmakers for contributing to New York's financial crisis, by neglecting to fully fill the budget gap during several weeks of special sessions ordered by Paterson.

"The legislature made a choice," Paterson said. "I think it's the wrong choice. I think it's the irresponsible choice."

In addition to the relentless focus on the state's budget problems, the governor has also spent substantially from his campaign coffers on promotional television ads. Perhaps as a result, Paterson has seen his poll numbers rise for the first time in more than a year.

Polls from Siena College and Quinnipiac University released in mid December find that the governor's approval rating among potential voters has risen about 10 points, to 36% in the Siena poll and 40% in the Quinnipiac survey. Those numbers are still well below the 63% approval rating Paterson enjoyed in December of 2008. Siena's Steve Greenberg says while some of the poll numbers are encouraging, they also include some warning signs for the governor.

"The bad news for the governor is that his job performance, how people think he'd doing as governor, has not moved nearly as much, it's only inched it's way up," said Greenberg, who says the majority of New Yorkers prefer that someone else be elected governor next year, and polls consistently show that Paterson's potential rival in the 2010 governor's race, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, is about 40 points ahead of Paterson.

Paterson has said repeatedly he doesn't care about the poll numbers, and blames his struggles on bad timing. He replaced Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace after a sex scandal, in March 2008, just as the recession was hitting. The governor spoke recently at an event on Long Island that in part honored the outgoing Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who lost his re-election bid this year. Paterson told Suozzi he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I kind of can relate to that," said Paterson, to laughter. "I was sworn in the day the feds saved Bear Sterns. If I'd known, I'd have asked them to save me."

But many political analysts say it's not just the recession that's caused Paterson's problems. He was also pilloried for embarrassing fumbles during his appointment of a US Senator to fill a post vacated by Hillary Clinton, when he ultimately rejected the favorite, Caroline Kennedy.

Paterson, who says he's determined to stay in the race for governor, prefers to think he'll be credited for showing political courage.

"Even if I lose, people will know that at a difficult time in the state's history, I tried to do the right thing," the governor said.

Three dates will be key for Paterson in January, the State of the State speech and his release of his budget plan, when he'll likely be forced to make some unpopular choices to close a projected $9 billion dollar gap. The third is the January 15th campaign filing report, required by law. That's when Paterson will be able to show how much he's convinced major donors of the viability of his comeback.