Paterson’s pick, for the ages

Paterson and Cuomo. (AP Photo/The Albany Times Union, Paul Buckowski, pool)
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ALBANY—Andrew Cuomo put in a written application for Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate seat, emphasizing in conversations with then-governor David Paterson that he was “available” for the job, according to interviews and newly available records.

In addition, Kirsten Gillibrand, who was ultimately selected by Paterson to succeed Clinton, cemented her standing by commiserating with the governor after a mean-spirited parody on "Saturday Night Live;" teachers' union leader Randi Weingarten was the only candidate who returned Paterson's consolation call after the Gillibrand pick in Jan. 2009; and Caroline Kennedy got an unsolicited boost from Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Documents related to the appointment process are among 56 boxes of papers recently sent by Paterson, the state's 55th governor, to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

Capital reviewed the files—which include correspondence with eight finalists—earlier this month, and spoke with Paterson about one of the more tumultuous chapters in his administration.

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The governor emerged from the 10-week selection period for the Clinton seat politically battered, with Kennedy loyalists bitter that a Paterson aide questioned her fitness and character, several incumbent members of Congress upset they had been bypassed for a junior colleague, and a local political establishment dismayed by the inconsistent public signals coming from the governor himself.

And the Gillibrand appointment almost didn't happen. Paterson said his first instinct was to appoint a caretaker to the seat, who would serve out Hillary's term and promise not to seek re-election.

He briefly considered appointing himself—the previous governor, Eliot Spitzer, had enlisted Paterson to be lieutenant governor with an understanding that he might be appointed to the Senate if Clinton were elected president. But a pending partisan change in the State Senate, and attendant growing pains, made Paterson uncomfortable with the idea.

“There was so much opinion about this that it was kind of overwhelming,” Paterson recalled, in an interview last week. “I'm lucky because no one will ever complain about my Gillibrand appointment, but my theory … is that the caretaker's probably the best way to go.”

On December 29, 2008, Paterson's chief counsel Peter Kiernan sent a 25-page application to Cuomo, Gillibrand, Weingarten, Kennedy and Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi as well as congress members Brian Higgins, Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler and Steve Israel. Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, who was up for an appointment in the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, was listed as a recipient but crossed off; Buffalo mayor Byron Brown got the application on January 9, the deadline by which other members of the “select group” were asked to reply.

Many of them were quite open about their desires. Israel accompanied Paterson on a trip to visit National Guard troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the holidays, where during a visit to the presidential palace Hamid Karzai urged Paterson to pick Kennedy, the governor said.

Kennedy's phone calls to Paterson were chronicled on the front page of The New York Times; she hired SKDKnickerbocker to advise her and counted Kevin Sheekey, then a deputy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among her public boosters.

But Cuomo was coy. The son of a former governor, he had unsuccessfully sought the Executive Mansion in 2002 and was believed to still have his sights set on it when was elected attorney general in 2006. Spitzer's implosion and Paterson's difficulty grappling with severe fiscal stress were seemingly improving his chances by the day, and Paterson acknowledged that from the perspective of his own self interest, neutralizing Cuomo's threat by sending him to Washington made the most sense.

But he felt pressure to appoint a woman, and says he himself felt inclined to do so. Paterson says he looked at Cuomo and Israel as outstanding choices who would do the job admirably, but should be subordinated to an equally bright and promising female candidate.

“He was the one candidate, oddly enough, who even when he was a candidate—because he and I would talk—we talked about how the whole thing would look, one way or another,” Paterson said of Cuomo.

If Cuomo were appointed, a vacancy in the office for attorney general would be filled by a vote of the state Legislature, which is numerically dominated by Democrats in the Assembly.

Paterson said he and Cuomo were concerned there wasn't a clear female choice given that process.

“The two of us left to just each other will go through every possible. Almost like sports fans—what if we trade so-and-so," Paterson recalled. "We would go through those types of conversations and we always have. But at no point did he ever say, 'David, Look, I really want this, and if I don't get this I'm going to be pretty unhappy.' But he wasn't pushing it the way other candidates were. I'd say he was available.”

At the same time, Cuomo was doing his best to keep his options open. Kennedy declared her interest in the middle of December, generating a suffocating amount of buzz. But her roll-out was rocky at best, her grasp of issues thin, and her public remarks punctuated, a lot, by "er" and "um."

The papers at Columbia include three boxes of email messages sent through a state website, a large number of which attacked Kennedy as unfit and undeserving.

“Andrew Cuomo is by far the better candidate as he has proven to be a good attorney general in the short time in office as you have in being governor. There is no reason to appoint a Kennedy to Hillary's seat,” wrote one man from Long Island. “What has she said she can do for us? NOTHING! Has she discussed her qualifications other than saying she is a Mom, lawyer and from a family that is in public service?”

A top Cuomo aide, Joe Percoco, reportedly called labor leaders and upstate officials to question Kennedy's credentials and urge them to refrain from a public embrace. Cuomo also grew frustrated that Kennedy—whose cousin is his ex-wife—sucked up so much of the limelight.

Cuomo denied this by calling into an Albany radio station, where he was interviewed by New York Post columnist and state editor Fred Dicker, who at that time was a regular Cuomo sounding board.

“My position is very simple, and I’ve been very consistent with it: I am very happy doing what I’m doing,” Cuomo said on December 22. "I could campaign and lobby and I could offer opinions, I could say he really should appoint Fred Dicker. … I don’t think that is appropriate, I don’t think that is appropriate for me because I serve as attorney general.”

Paterson said the application packets—which asked candidates about any outside business histories, criminal run-ins and other potentially damaging landmines—were sent to applicants who requested them, and Cuomo's was dated December 29.

Both Paterson and Kiernan said Cuomo did not want to fill out the application as it was presented.

“He definitely wanted to be considered, and he was. But he didn't feel that as the attorney general he would have to complete the application—it wasn't as if we didn't know who he was,” Kiernan said. “I remember having a conversation with him in which he didn't want to submit the application in the precise form that we were asking people to do so, but in fact, he submitted much of the information in a manner that was requisite to allow consideration to go forward.”

“The purpose of those applications were to allow people to put forward what they wanted us to know, but was to make sure that you'd appoint someone, and find out there was something horribly wrong,” Kiernan continued. “I don't want to give you the impression that Andrew was pushing or not pushing it. Obviously, had the governor appointed him, he may have accepted.”

Cuomo and his aides never said whether or not the attorney general submitted an application, a silence that preserved his plausible deniability of interest.