Paterson’s pick, for the ages

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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. 

Other finalists met privately with Paterson in December and January, including Gillibrand, then a sophomore member from the old 20th District, which followed the Hudson Valley from Poughkeepsie to Lake Placid but was gerrymandered around Democrat-rich areas in like Albany and Troy.

Paterson said he had met Gillibrand in her official capacity several times, and huddled with in his Capitol office on Sunday, Dec. 15, before he attended a Yeshiva University convocation and she flew to England to spend the holidays with her husband's family.

The timing was fortuitous. Paterson awoke to learn that Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen had portrayed him the night before as a bumbler hobbled by his visual impairment, a caricature that hurt him deeply. The bitterness was compounded when his aides suggested he make light of the matter, severely misjudging his reaction, he now says.

Gillibrand, Paterson recalled, offered well-timed sympathy.

“You could play along. Go on, laugh it up with them. But there are a lot of people for whom that kind of depiction is in the back of people's heads when they interview blind people or people in wheelchairs,” Gillibrand said, according to Paterson. “You have a chance to speak for them.”

Paterson was impressed.

“I was very touched at how she made me feel as a human being, and I thought, that was one area that I didn't know about her—I knew she was smart, I knew she spoke well, I knew she worked hard, I knew she could win because she got Republican votes,” he recalled.

Paterson said an announcement would be made in the last week of January, and was the man of the hour when he attended festivities related to the first inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20. Washington buzzed that Paterson would name Kennedy, but he was schizophrenic in his public comments, saying he had made up his mind, then that he hadn't. The confusion angered many, and prompted head-shaking among the very state legislators Paterson would have to work with for the next two years.

“I was in a place where, if you asked me the question, I'd stop, and think about it, and whatever I thought at that moment I'd repeat. And that didn't help. It's honest, but it's a type of honesty that elicits more questions than it answers,” Paterson said.

Kennedy withdrew, publicly citing personal reasons, on January 22. A day later members of Paterson's team, speaking on background, told various news outlets that Kennedy was never the favored candidate and that problems arose in her vetting. The governor continues to maintain that Judy Smith, a communications consultant he had hired, directed the leaks without his direct acquiescence.

But he still hadn't made up his mind. With Kennedy out and his desire to pick a woman cemented, Paterson narrowed his options to Gillibrand, Maloney and Weingarten. The governor said Weingarten was often misunderstood and miscast as an ultra-liberal labor leader, but he was impressed that she could see multiple sides of an issue. But Gillibrand, Paterson felt, had the most long-range potential to grow into the job and thrive.

The rest is history. Both faced immediate criticism that, five years later, has been proven moot. Gillibrand is even discussed as a some-day White House aspirant, and is currently a leading voice on congressional efforts to prevent sexual assault in the military.

She expressed her gratitude to the governor in several hand-written notes, one of which came in December of 2010, after Gillibrand had cruised past a challenge from former congressman Joe DioGuardi.

“Thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart, for appointing me and giving me the opportunity to serve this great state,” Gillibrand wrote. “I believe 62% of the voters soundly endorsed your judgment and decision. I will be eternally grateful to you for your choice.”

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