Paterson Style More Likely to Attract Friends Than Spitzer

In one historic hour Monday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's once-unlimited political career will dissolve into disgrace, undone by hypocrisy, and Lt. Gov. David Paterson will be sworn in as New York's first black governor.

The transition in top Democrats means a tone of bipartisanship that Spitzer promised could finally come about under the milder-mannered Paterson, who will take his oath in a joint session of the Legislature.

The 53-year-old former lawmaker from Harlem already has a guide. His favorite governor was Hugh L. Carey, the Democrat who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s by making hard choices that, when they succeeded, became good politics.

"I thought he was very open, he made himself accessible, and he was very creative," Paterson said Friday.

He also cited two Republicans as defining influences: former Gov. George Pataki and current Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Pataki brought Paterson, then Senate Democratic leader and nearly powerless in the Republican-controlled Senate, into budget negotiations that had notoriously been limited to the governor and two legislative majority leaders. Paterson also praised Pataki's legacy in clean-fuel energy and environmental protection.

As a lieutenant governor stepping in for a scandalized governor -- Spitzer's downfall was being linked to a high-end prostitution ring -- Paterson has a role model in Rell, who took her oath before the Legislature in July 2004 after John Rowland resigned amid a federal corruption probe.

"Jodi Rell was sworn in with her colleagues and wanted to make the point that she is working with all of her colleagues," Paterson said.

By contrast, Spitzer used his January 2007 inauguration to lecture that New York under Pataki and the Legislature had "slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by." Sitting there, freezing in the outdoor coronation and just taking it, were Pataki and the Legislature.

In the end, it wasn't Spitzer's sex scandal that did him in, but his bullying.

A respected former Wall Street executive, John Whitehead, said then-Attorney General Spitzer once threatened that Whitehead would "pay the price" for criticizing a Spitzer investigation into financial misdeeds. As governor, Spitzer said Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat chosen by the Legislature, was "thoroughly and totally unqualified for the job."

When lawmakers didn't support his programs, Spitzer went to their districts and told constituents the people they elected were little more than puppets who didn't represent their interests. He said there was an "aura of unseemliness" about Albany as a whole.

It left little popular reserve for Spitzer to turn to when he was linked this month to a $5,500-an-hour prostitution ring.

The vitriol that followed those revelations didn't take into account Spitzer's early reform of ethics, the state budget process, worker's compensation, the reining in of health care spending, and other initiatives that have changed New York for the better. Revisionist historians may choose to forget that Spitzer was one of New York's most popular politicians, besting even Gov. Franklin Roosevelt's best winning margins.

In 2002, much of New York was so impatient for Spitzer to run for governor after his first term as attorney general that it got in the way of his campaigning for the Democratic nominee, H. Carl McCall, who would have been New York's first black governor. Republican leaders for eight years called the Democratic attorney general a friend, and not just because they were afraid of him.

Even early this year, polls and reaction in the Legislature showed signs that Spitzer was coming back after allegations of a plot to discredit Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno blocked the governor's reforms for half a year. Some of that tension eased because Spitzer finally started relying more on the counsel of one person who had had experience and a rapport in the Legislature: Paterson, who walked to Bruno's office Friday for their first official meeting since Spitzer resigned.

"He and I worked on the issue of governing and campaigning -- knowing the line of when to come to work and work together, and when to leave work and beat each other up over who wins legislative seats," Paterson said of Bruno.

It is that relationship with 212 diverse legislators from small towns and big cities, from farms and the world's financial capital, where the contrast between Spitzer and Paterson is clearest.

Paterson lives in his longtime house in Harlem, with a home in a middle-class suburb in Albany County.

"If you look at my tax return, you'll see there's nothing about me that is elitist," he said.

In January, Spitzer mentioned to reporters it would be "the perks" of office he would miss most when he leaves, which most assumed would be after his second term ended in 2014. He loved the idea of walking out the door to a waiting car with a driver, reserved seats to Bruce Springsteen concerts, simply asking for a sandwich or dinner reservation and getting it, and having everyone answer his call immediately.

Some of that you can buy, the millionaire noted. But he said it was somehow better as governor.