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Governor's blindness now fodder for jokes, jabs

New York Governor David Paterson, facing a tough battle to keep his job, has fallen so low in public opinion that even the visual impairment that once earned him respect is being held against him.
New York Governor Paterson and New Jersey Governor Corzine speak about economy at luncheon in New York
New York Governor David Paterson, the second blind governor in the nation's history, could face tough challengers in his re-election bid next year.Chip East / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

New York Governor David Paterson, facing a tough battle to keep his job, has fallen so low in public opinion that even his visual impairment that once earned him respect is being held against him.

The legally blind Paterson, grappling with grim poll numbers and criticism for unsteady leadership, has become a target for late-night comedians, political detractors and, most recently, News Corp head Rupert Murdoch.

Paterson is "blind and can't read Braille and doesn't really know what's going on," Murdoch told a conference, in comments captured in a Wall Street Journal video and posted online this week. Murdoch later apologized.

On television, NBC's Saturday Night Live regularly lampoons Paterson's disability in comedy sketches.

A local state senator, Democrat Diane Savino, told a newspaper that Paterson is hobbled by his visual impairment.

"He has people reading newspapers to him. He listens to tapes of staffers briefing him. All that takes an enormous amount of time," she was quoted as saying over the summer.

Paterson, a Democrat, became governor last year after Eliot Spitzer resigned from the job amid a prostitution scandal.

Paterson has since come under fire for bumbling leadership of a state wrestling with a recession-driven slide in tax revenues and a ballooning deficit.

He also was condemned for what was widely viewed as crass treatment of Caroline Kennedy, a member of the politically royal clan who was a contender for the New York U.S. Senate seat Hillary Clinton left to become secretary of state.

Paterson at first supported Kennedy, but his staff planted disparaging stories about her after she withdrew her nomination. He then infuriated the party's liberal wing by naming a conservative pro-gun rights Democrat to the post.

While Spitzer left office with voter approval ratings scraping bottom, Paterson's ratings are even worse.

Just 19 percent of voters gave him positive marks in a poll last month. Another poll showed a majority of voters liked the scandal-tarred Spitzer more than Paterson.

"He was not providing leadership on a variety of fronts, and people were sensing that," said Lee Miringoff, head of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

Formidable challengers

The governor's job comes up for election next year, and Paterson faces potentially formidable challengers.

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose father Mario Cuomo was governor for 12 years, and Rudolph Giuliani, former New York City mayor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, are believed to be interested.

And the administration of President Barack Obama reportedly asked Paterson to stay out of the race.

A spokesman for the governor declined to respond to Murdoch's remarks but pointed to Paterson's speech last month to the National Federation of the Blind.

"Anything I did got associated with the fact that I do have visual impairment ... That's an insult," Paterson said.

An early campaign ad unveiled this month begins with a reference to Paterson's vision. It shows blurred white lights across a black screen, as an announcer says: "When this is what you see of the world, you learn to listen."

Paterson initially was hailed as a champion for the blind. He is the second blind governor in the nation, after Bob Riley in Arkansas in 1975. Paterson also is New York's first African-American governor.

These days, advocates for the blind are more reticent with their praise.

"The fact that he's gotten to where he is a great thing and I'm sure that that's inspired a lot of people," said Karen Gourgey, president of the New York City chapter of the American Council Of The Blind.

But she said she "would not go so far" as to call him a role model, adding: "People might disagree with how he's running ... the state."