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On the eve of change in Albany, former Gov. Paterson discusses the Cuomo-Hochul transition

Former Gov. David Paterson sits to sign legislation as he is surrounded by standing lawmakers
Office of the Governor
Former Gov. David Paterson (seated) signs legislation surrounded by state lawmakers of the time.

A New York state governor forced to resign because of his personal conduct. A lieutenant governor suddenly thrust into leadership. Certainly, that’s where Democrat Kathy Hochul finds herself today. But David Paterson had a similar experience in March 2008.

Paterson went from Senate Minority Leader, to Eliot Spitzer’s lieutenant, to governor, at a moment when Andrew Cuomo was the state's attorney general. Paterson spoke with Ian Pickus of public media's WAMC in Albany.

Abbreviated interview between WAMC's Ian Pickus and former New York Gov. David Paterson

What do you make of everything we've seen over the past couple of weeks, and the downfall of Governor Cuomo?

Well, it was obviously shocking, and particularly the catalyst for the downfall, which seemed to be reckless behavior, which was nothing that I ever observed in the governor. I never saw him act inappropriately toward women. I've never heard him talk, speak, inappropriately about women, you know, sometimes in all male circles or just him and me talking. So I was really perplexed, and still am at this development.

Have you had a chance to speak with Andrew Cuomo at all?

No, I don't think I've talked to him in a few years, actually. I was a party chair. And from there, I went to the MTA board. And then from there, I went to an investment bank. So I haven't talked to him for quite a while.

And you were the chair of the Democratic Party in 2014, 2015 or so. So we're talking a while back.


You were New York's first Black governor, and Kathy Hochul , will now become New York's first female governor. What's the meaning of that, in your view?

Well, it's certainly breaking the glass ceiling for African Americans and women. But in terms of governance, it's not much different than probably any other situation except that when you go to those groups, there's a tremendous amount of pride and in in you, people see their own achievement and their own accomplishment. And it's a duty to try to live up to the support that you get in that, in that sense.

When you were governor, did you feel a lot of pressure because you were the first?

No, I can't say that I did. Because I was the first, although the only thing that does happen sometimes is when you become governor, these communities, women or African Americans or different nationalities, they don't really know what the governor's powers are on what the governor's limitation. So you know, somebody in the summer of 2008, this is I've been governor three months. And somebody says, I don't understand why there aren't equal contracts for minority companies as there are for the white ones. I mean, after all, you've been there three months. I don't know why this hasn't been straightened out yet. And I'm just bemused that somebody could say something like that to me, because it takes a while. When you make change, for it to come to that type of fruition. Even 13 years later, we're still trying to get to a point of a level playing field. But I would say that Governor Cuomo following me did a tremendous job building the program even further.

How would you assess Governor Cuomo’s tenure, notwithstanding the way that it's ending?

Well, he passed same-sex marriage, we had a $15 an hour minimum wage, we had paid sick leave. He was extremely instrumental in fighting COVID, he was the national leader on fighting COVID while the president seemed to flourish in a fog of confusion, and really, as an administrator, I don't know that I've met anyone that administrates any better than he does. Or has.

Then, you know, unfortunately, with all those great things, kind of like with Governor Spitzer, it all changes when other conduct that is not appropriate occurs. And it's very sad because, you know, this was someone who was one of the major contributors to the state in the state's history.

Along those lines, in another recent interview you did, after Governor Cuomo announced that he would be resigning, you said that way back when Governor Cuomo tried to urge Eliot Spitzer not to pick you as his running mate. And you said that after that you felt you couldn't really trust Andrew Cuomo too much. And to be fair, Cuomo’s office disputes your account. So when you were LG, and then governor and Andrew Cuomo was Attorney General, what was your relationship like?

It was pretty good. I mean, it changed after that incident. The governor's office can say whatever they want, but the reality is there are plenty of people, Governor Spitzer, his former Secretary Richard Baum, Darren Dopp, who had been press secretary to the governor's father and who he knew very well, he was the original person that he called. And this is the kind of conduct that gets him in trouble, this sort of mischievous behavior. The fact is that he wanted another candidate to be chosen by Governor Spitzer: someone that the governor had already ruled out. I was not even one of the people considered when he was interviewing people, he just came to me and said, Why don't you do this? And that's why it sort of surprised some people. But I'll take a polygraph anytime and I’ll bet not one person in the governor's office could pass.

Why didn't he want you?

It was, as much as he didn't want me. It was that he wanted to try to trade an endorsement with some leaders. If he would endorse that candidate, if they would endorse him, he was trying to set something up like that. That's commonplace. But where I came in is when Spitzer picked me, that ended the whole deal. And, you know, when you get in the way of Andrew Cuomo and a deal, it's sort of like back in the old days when you got between Donald Trump and a camera.

It's interesting hearing you talk about this, because clearly anyone who pays attention to Albany knows that Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo are not best friends. So why did Andrew think that he could sway Eliot Spitzer on his LG pick?

Well, what he did was he picked somebody he knew in the administration, and was telling them a number of things about me that theoretically, they would repeat it to Spitzer. And this Spitzer would say, oh, wow, this is bad information. Maybe we shouldn't take it. No, they didn't have a good relationship. He was not an advisor to Governor Spitzer, and I never said he was, it was just that he had set up this deal that he thought could work out. And when he didn't, he lost his temper and called up there. And believe me, all the people who work there knew that he did it. And so does he.

Why did you take the invitation to become lieutenant governor, when obviously you'd been in the Senate for quite a while and you had your own power center there. Before long, the Democrats did take control of the Senate. How did you decide to take that leap?

So in 2004, I won four seats from the Republicans, cutting their lead in the Senate to three more seats. But by 2006, they had figured out what I was doing, I would only put money that we raised into the seats I thought I could win. We didn't just divide up all the money and lose all the races. So I knew I needed help, or I would never be able to win the majority. So Governor Spitzer and I had a deal. I would, in a sense, trade myself to his team, in exchange for him now fully engaging in trying to help the Democrats win the majority in the Senate, which we eventually did in 2008.

So becoming lieutenant governor, I went from, you know, a pretty prominent person in Albany to lieutenant governor, which the only job lieutenant governor has to call and make sure the governor is still alive in the morning and your work is done for the day. But my feeling was that if I could be instrumental in the Democrats winning the majority that sooner or later, they'd be a place for me and when I suggested to Governor Spitzer was that if Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2008, which we all thought she would, that he might be interested in appointing me as the United States Senator, and what Governor Spitzer said to me was quite prophetic. He said, I like the idea. Stay out of trouble, and I'll do it.

You ended up becoming governor instead.


OK, so let me apply that to where we are in 2021. You were a lieutenant governor, then suddenly you became governor. Kathy Hochul has two weeks’ lead time before she becomes governor. First of all, have you talked to her about your experiences and advice going forward?

Well, I have talked to her about my experiences all along. I've known her for a long time. She held the first event for me in western New York, when I ran for governor. We're pretty good friends. You see, Kathy Hochul, actually has more than two weeks, when I was sworn in as governor, the budget was doing 13 days. The legislature will not come back into session until January 2022. So my advice to Lieutenant Governor Hochul and Governor Hochul is that she take her time, work through her decisions deliberately, only come to hire people when she's absolutely sure that they're going to carry out her agenda, and that they don't have private agendas.

And I would think that maybe she might have reason to bring the legislature back in late September or October, or something like that. So she herself can go and speak to a lot of the individual legislators, go to the conferences, not just the majority, but the minorities as well. And that she would really get a chance to let everybody know that she wants to have a collaborative working environment. Too many times, and I'm not talking just about Governor Cuomo, but too many times it's been a sort of Imperial relationship between the governor and the rest of the legislature. And plenty others have done it, some of them more forcefully than this current governor, and would really promote a new atmosphere of cooperation, which I think she'd be very good at. I don't think she wants to be constantly the star that has all the attention on her. I think she'd like to empower agency heads, staff members. There was a time in the state where an agency would make a change, and list it, and you didn't even see the governor's name. But in this era of high publicity and constant campaigning, you see, not only in New York, but every other states, I mean, every time they change the linen in a state-run hospitals the new sheets have the governor's name on it.

You describe the transition from Spitzer to your term as governor as a messy time in Albany, a lot of people coming out of the woodwork and saying they were promised X, Y or Z. How does she avoid that? Because, you know, Governor Cuomo has been here for 10 years. So state government is really made in his image at this time.

You know, I don't think that Governor Hochul is going to have that problem. What happened, because this situation has been developing. So it's been going on since the end of February, she was well aware that it was possible that she would be governor before the end of the year. And the legislators understand that too. What happened in 2008, was at 1:45 on March the 10th, a Monday, this article comes out in the New York Times and it hits Albany like a megaton bomb.

And I think it part of the effects of it was that the ideas of character, cooperation, civility, honesty, all went out the window and people were running around as if someone had flown over Albany and dropped $10 billion in hundreds all over the neighborhood. And what you said is exactly true. There was a prominent person in New York, who told me that Spitzer was about to give him a job, but it wouldn't happen unless, you know, I would support it. I told him I supported it. The person that had the job, called me up the next week and said, governor, I've never cursed a governor in my life. But I’d sure like to curse you right now. If you wanted me to leave, just tell me, I would have left. And I said to the person, but I thought this was all arranged. And we found out the whole thing was a fraud.

There was another person who decided that I should look at an investigation report that the Albany DA was working on about some of Spitzer's staff. I said, yeah, I'll probably take a look at it at some point. The person went straight to the DA’s office and demanded the report saying that I wanted it brought to me and I got a pretty curtly message delivered by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli about how upset the DA was with me. So I had to write him an apology note, like I'm a little kid in class. I mean, all of these things happened.

There was one official that said that the Lieutenant Governor doesn't take over when the governor resigns, said it to my secretary Charles O'Byrne, in a restaurant the night that the Spitzer story worked and O'Byrne said, why not? It has to be certified. And apparently, this was the person who did the certification. And they refuse to do it unless there was a meeting. Now there's a shakedown. And we ignore the meeting and moved on. So I'm just saying that, that for a little period of time when I came in, I felt like I was in one of those movies where demons are attacking all the other people in the movie, and you're the only one trying to survive.

Kathy Hochul hasn't announced her pick for lieutenant governor as we speak, but she's expected to do it imminently. What's your advice for that selection? Because obviously two of the last three have ended up becoming governor.

Well, she said that she would like to pick a person from New York City because that's half of the state's population. She could never be as familiar with how the government works in in New York City. And you know, she could really get some help from a downstate lieutenant governor, the same way a person say like Andrew Cuomo took Robert Duffy and took Kathy Hochul to be lieutenant governor's under his term. And I just think that often there's a breakdown in communication between governors and lieutenant governors and know when Governor Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor to Governor Carey, they got to the point where they took his staff away and took his office, they were so upset with him. But in this new era, Governor Spitzer gave me more things to do. I was in charge of energy policy, domestic violence issues, Minority and Women's Business Enterprises and other things for that governor, then some governors have just frozen the lieutenant out. I think Kathy Hochul, will include anyone who wants to work for her best interests on her team.

And she wants to run for a full term in 2022. Do you think she would be the front-runner? Or will there be a lot of competition there?

Well, she starts out as a front-runner, because she's the only one that has said she's running. And she has a few months here where there's going to be a very great spirit of cooperation that comes to her I got it in my first few months. And if she can put together some workable and sensible plans for the state, and also demonstrate that she's going to sort of change the atmosphere in the workplace, which is an issue. This would be something that would really inure to her benefit. And it'll all depend on who is perhaps interested in, in running or becoming governor. She's gonna have a little bit of a problem because the primaries are always more to the extreme. Republican primaries go more right. Democratic primaries skew more left. Governor Hochul has pretty much been a middle of the roader but I think on the important issues for progressives, that she's going to be there and be there in a big way.

Governor Paterson, do you ever miss it?

Yeah, sometimes things come up and I kind of wish I was in position to do something about it, where I was years ago. And but I'll tell you, with all the media requests that I've gotten in the past week, I remember why it's very tiring, and why maybe I'd be best at home advising.

Just knock them all out at once. Come do a Red Room sometime.

Yes, sure.

Governor David Patterson, talking to us about this most interesting time in New York state government. And he has the perspective of having been the last lieutenant governor to become Governor of New York upon a resignation. Thank you for all this time and your memories. I appreciate it.

Thank you. I'll just tell you one thing, Ian.


I'll bet you didn't know this. There is actually an organization called the National Lieutenant Governors’ Association. And I went to one of the meetings I only went to one and then I became governor. And they said this governor who had been governor from Iowa said, you never know your state could be next. And I said, eh, that's Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming. These things don't happen in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, California and Texas. And I found out that they do.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.