ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. David Paterson took office one year ago with an emphatic introduction and was immediately hailed as a healer — practically a savior — who would erase the memory of Eliot Spitzer's shocking resignation amid a prostitution scandal.
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But after starting out by dazzling New Yorkers with his candor and intellect, the former lieutenant governor endured a series of missteps culminating with his clumsy search for a new U.S. senator. Now, Paterson finds himself less popular than Spitzer was when he left the governor's mansion in disgrace.
Now the state's first black governor, who's also blind, is hoping to go forward by going back. Old confidants are returning, and seasoned national political staffers will help him try to regain his footing before running next year for the office he inherited.
"I realized that no matter what else was going on, I've got to stop, get my house in order," Paterson said in an interview with The Associated Press just days before the March 17 anniversary of his inauguration.
'I just acted on instinct'
He brought back Charles O'Byrne, his former chief of staff, enforcer and confidant who resigned in October after it was revealed he didn't pay taxes for five years. O'Byrne isn't on the government payroll; he's a campaign adviser for the governor.
"There was so much to do, it was overwhelming and I just acted on instinct," Paterson said of his first months in the top job. "Then, later in the year, the issues kept coming ... There was a point when I thought to myself `When is this going to end?'"
The media hasn't been easy on him, either. A New York tabloid ran a photo illustration of him dressed as Pinocchio, with his nose growing with each perceived lie; union bosses paid for effective million-dollar campaigns saying he threatened the lives of children and the frail elderly with his funding cuts; "Saturday Night Live" portrayed him as a clueless bungler.
He didn't help himself. Beside O'Byrne's problems, Paterson spent $23,000 on a trip to Obama's inauguration (he later paid for it out of campaign funds), scheduled — then canceled — a trip to Switzerland for an economic summit and paid $21,000 for two carpets for the governor's mansion. All the while, he was scolding everybody else for failing to cut spending in the face of fiscal calamity.
The low point was his admittedly mishandled job of appointing Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate successor when she was named President Barack Obama's secretary of state. The secretive process was marred by leaks, his own mixed signals and the star power of candidate Caroline Kennedy, whom he later abandoned as she fizzled in public. Hours after Kennedy's puzzling midnight withdrawal from consideration, a person close to Paterson peddled stories to reporters that Kennedy had problems with a nanny, taxes and her marriage — none of which were substantiated.
Approval rating sank to 26 percent
New Yorkers hated it and Paterson heard it. His approval rating sank from 64 percent in November to 26 percent in February, lower than Spitzer when he quit.
"His year was almost as turbulent as his entrance," said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at Baruch College. "His grade is incomplete, but he's going to have to work harder, and smarter."
But Paterson said his new team and a revised system have the "steadfast discipline and organization" that brought him from a blind kid in Harlem to state senator to lieutenant governor in 2006 on Spitzer's gubernatorial ticket.
Last week he stood up and took back $1.3 billion in taxes on music downloads, haircuts and other everyday fees that he proposed in his 2009-10 budget. He agreed with legislative leaders to use federal stimulus money to replace the taxes he always called annoying but unavoidable in the face of a $14 billion deficit.
"I haven't exactly floated through life," Paterson said, ticking off setbacks like the high school guidance counselor who told him blindness would keep him from graduating a year early or the daunting second year of law school.
The 54-year-old Mets fan remembers cheering through the woeful inaugural season of the 1962 Mets and how sweet it was to attend the fourth game of their 1969 World Series championship. He's hoping for parallels.
"I had personally and politically the posture of being counted out," he said. "We're really measured by our resilience, not by the fact that there are difficult periods."
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