New York Governor David Paterson severely damaged his Administration with his botched process for filling the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he's been in a downward spiral ever since. A new Marist poll shows his approval rating - now only 26% - at the lowest point of any New York governor since 1982, when the poll began. But New Yorkers still need an effective Governor - especially in this economic crisis - and there are five steps that Paterson should take immediately to steady his Administration:
o Surround himself with trusted advisors. The Governor is rightly rebuilding his staff, which has been in turmoil since late October when his chief of staff, Charles O'Byrne, left amid a tax scandal. The turmoil has grown to the point that the Governor even approached O'Byrne about coming back - an offer that O'Byrne rightly declined, presumably not wanting to provide another reason for the Governor to be parodied on Saturday Night Live.
O'Byrne did agree, as the Governor subsequently announced, to "work as a volunteer in a leadership position with my 2010 campaign." But the Governor should be surrounding himself with other informal trusted advisors as well - not for the next campaign but for broad advice now.
All elected officials need trusted advisors. It's not clear who the Governor's are, and he needs them more than ever. The problems that arose during the Senate selection process, especially the unnecessary embarrassment of Caroline Kennedy, were ones that could easily have been avoided with the help of informal advisors. President Obama relied on just such advisors - including Caroline Kennedy ironically - to help him select his Vice Presidential nominee. The Governor should follow that example.
o Take full advantage of the Office of Governor. Paterson is becoming increasingly isolated, as business and civic leaders sense his political weakness and look toward a gubernatorial election in just 20 months. The Governor was not helped by a recent Quinnipiac poll, which predicted that he would lose a Democratic primary to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by more than two-to-one (55 to 23).
But Paterson is still Governor in a crisis, and virtually no one in the state's business and civic leadership would turn down a request for help. Paterson, therefore, needs to create opportunities to associate himself with those leaders, and them with him. He should create blue ribbon panels or commissions - not for show but to address serious problems in the State and make substantive recommendations for reform. The commissions would help him in devising and achieving those reforms, and they would enhance his own political strength by association.
o Don't worry now about 2010. Invitations were recently sent out for a fundraising event in support of Paterson in 2010. That should stop. Paterson and all of his political apparatus should be focused on 2009. The State is facing a fiscal crisis of enormous proportions, the Governor's Administration is widely viewed as adrift, and the public is looking for leadership now.
Conventional political wisdom suggests that an incumbent can strengthen himself by looking as though he will be a force for many years to come. But Paterson was never elected Governor, so he took office without any public assumptions about how good he would be in this role. He, therefore, must prove himself now. Looking ahead is just a distraction - and a dangerous one for someone who is already down two-to-one in the polls within his own party.
o Capitalize on the current legislative session. The next four months will be crucial for the Governor. With the Legislature in session, they are the peak months for State action on the fiscal crisis and State budget, on future funding of mass transit in New York City, on education funding, tax issues, and other needed reforms. And for the first time since the New Deal, the Democrats control the Governor's Office and both houses of the Legislature.
Inherent in Democratic Party control is an assumption that the Governor should be strengthened by that arrangement. That raises both the expectations and the stakes for Paterson and reaffirms his need to demonstrate impact now. Paterson took office in the midst of last year's legislative session, and by next year's session the Governor's race will be in full swing. This is the only full session where he can make a timely imprint, and with single-party control there will be no excuses.
o Make reform the priority. Reform is Paterson's best bet. He was at his strongest last summer when he was warning the public about the pending fiscal challenges and demanding that the State cut its spending. New York has enormous need for reform (from taxes to education funding to the budget process to electoral reform and beyond), and Paterson's best chance is to show what he can accomplish. If he can positively and significantly reform State government, using the current crisis as the catalyst, he will have his best argument for 2010.
The author, Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, worked in the Administrations of New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins.