A Curious State of Affairs

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008


Whatever is ultimately said about David Paterson and his term as the governor of New York, one verdict of history is already assured: The guy made quite an entrance.

His fine how-do-you-do started Monday, at his swearing-in, which spread palpable joy and relief among state politicians who seemed discombobulated not just by the call-girl-scandal-induced departure of Eliot Spitzer, but by Spitzer's tenure in office as well. You got the sense that a bully who'd menaced the whole playground had just been bounced out of school, and everyone was running for the swing sets for the first time in years.

Paterson, who spent decades in the state Senate and served as Spitzer's lieutenant governor, offered a friendly and familiar face to the mandarins who packed the State Assembly for his oath of office ceremony. And just by showing up he made history, as the first African American to assume the job and one of the few legally blind people ever to hold high office in this country. You heard the refrain all day long: This is the right man for the moment, a witty, well-regarded conciliator with few known enemies.

"He has courage, he has insight, he has foresight," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, sitting in the Assembly on Monday, waiting for the ceremony to begin. "In a time of moral trauma and economic problems, you need a person who has overcome obstacles -- and nobody understands overcoming obstacles like David Paterson."

"It reminds me of when I was a member of Congress and Nixon left and Ford came in," said former New York mayor Ed Koch, who on Monday morning was eating doughnuts and reading the newspaper in an office down the street from the Assembly, awaiting a let's-go cue. "You've never seen such a joyous response. The place just exploded, on both sides of the aisle. That's what I expect will happen here. We have a worthy successor and the catastrophe is over."

Even Joe Bruno, the Republican leader of the state Senate and Spitzer's former bete noire, implied in a Monday afternoon news conference that Paterson's arrival had improved the weather.

Then came Tuesday. That's when Paterson held a news conference, expanding on what he'd already told the New York Daily News: that both he and his wife had broken their marriage vows -- he with "a number of women" at the Quality Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near his home in Harlem. Oh, and at least one of these women is on the state payroll. Yeah, come to think of it, she now works in the governor's office, because she used to work for Spitzer and Paterson inherited all of Spitzer's employees. Uh-huh, and Paterson might have paid for those hotel rooms with campaign funds, on occasions when his own credit card failed, but he's pretty sure he reimbursed the campaign. He'll double-check and get back to us.

"I didn't break the law, I didn't violate an oath," he told a room overflowing with stupefied reporters. "I didn't knowingly use campaign funds. I didn't use state funds at all. I know that. I don't think institutionally there were any violations here."

A couple of quick questions came to mind. Like: Is there something about Albany that makes everyone, you know, frisky? And would the state employees now dutifully de-Spitzering all the state seals and state buildings -- removing the man's name from every place it appeared -- now have to de-Patersonize, too?

Yes and no, are the apparent answers. Yes, Albany is a hotbed of furtive boom-chicka-boom. No, Paterson is not in imminent danger of losing his job, though it's safe to say that word of his philanderings has left him with some major welts, and the bruising isn't over yet. On Thursday the Daily News reported that in at least one instance, Paterson may have failed to pay back his campaign for a $103.87 charge for a stay at his love shack of choice. And in 2002, Paterson gave his then-girlfriend $500 to reimburse her for a donation she'd made on his behalf to a candidate for governor. Unfortunately, the News reported, there is no record of that $500 reaching that candidate's coffers, and at any rate, election law prohibits this kind of "pass through."

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