Gov. David Paterson, who repeatedly and defiantly said he would let voters decide if he should run the state, abruptly quit his nascent election bid Friday amid a stalled agenda, faltering popularity and criticism of his handling of a domestic abuse case involving one of his most trusted aides.
"I cannot run for office and try to manage the state's business at the same time," Paterson said at a televised news conference announcing his decision.
The governor said that he is "being realistic about politics," and will step aside after serving out the remainder of his term.
Paterson, who had publicly prided himself on beating the odds, including overcoming blindness to rise through treacherous New York politics, formally announced his campaign last weekend but faced mounting calls to drop out of the race in the midst of controversy. A top aide is ensnared in a domestic-violence scandal, the governor was finding dwindling support in his own party and his campaign bank account paled in size to those of his rivals.
Alluding to allegations that he personally intervened in a domestic violence case involving trusted aide David Johnson, Paterson insisted that he did not use his position improperly. "I have never abused my office. Not now, not ever," he said.
Paterson became governor in 2008, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal. Paterson's decision paves the way for Andrew Cuomo to make an unimpeded run for the Democratic nomination.
"The governor isn't feeling pushed out," said a person who talked with the governor about his decision and who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity. "He certainly realizes it's very difficult to do a campaign and govern, and the focus now is on governing and the best interests of the state."
At the White House — which had called earlier for Paterson to drop out of the 2010 race — press secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday called the recent reports "disturbing" and said "it's safe to say" that they vindicate the administration's earlier position.
Paterson was the scion of a Harlem political power base that included his father, former state Secretary of State Basil Paterson; the late Percy Sutton, who was Manhattan borough president; Rep. Adam Clayton Powell; former Mayor David Dinkins; and embattled U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel.
Calls to step aside
On Wednesday, the most alarming call for Paterson to end his campaign came from state Sen. Bill Perkins, the Democrat in Paterson's old Harlem seat, who told the AP that Paterson's cabinet is "falling apart" and his campaign was crippled.
"The crisis we are suffering in this state and in the community is being distracted by these reports and very, very serious allegations," Perkins said. "What we are learning is unacceptable, and the viability of his candidacy is obviously crippling."
It has been widely expected — and among some Democrats, eagerly awaited — that the more popular Cuomo would run for governor and help prop up the state's reeling Democratic party. Cuomo, son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, has already built a campaign fund five times larger than Paterson and consistently outpolls Paterson among New York Democrats, who hold a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans statewide.
Paterson's campaign "was going nowhere very quickly and the numbers couldn't have been any more bleak for him before this," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College poll. "Regardless of the legalities involved and this specific controversy, the odds of him taking the oath of office next January were very remote."
Paterson's decision lets Cuomo avoid an expensive and divisive primary, Miringoff said.
For Republican candidate Rick Lazio, it means he can no longer try to split the Democrats and now must confront the far better funded and more popular Cuomo.
"The fundamental issue is not who is going to be nominated for governor, at this point the fundamental issue is governing," said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and former dean at SUNY New Paltz. "You have a lame duck governor, a governor that has been ineffective already."
Paterson has been weighed down by low approval numbers for months. His problems intensified in recent weeks with a series of critical articles in The New York Times. The last, published Thursday, raised questions about how Paterson and state police officials responded to a domestic abuse complaint lodged against Johnson.
Court papers said state police may have pressured the woman to not level criminal charges against Johnson. The newspaper also said Paterson spoke with the woman personally, although the governor's office said it was the woman who placed the call.
Renewed calls for Paterson's exit were made hours after the story's publication, including one from a longtime ally, Rep. Steve Israel. The Long Island Democrat said he felt compelled to tell his friend that he should not seek election to a full term.
Paterson, an affable, slightly built politician, was never really seen as gubernatorial in the eyes of legislators, lobbyists or voters. Until he recently insisted on more formality, his staff and even rank-and-file lawmakers referred to him as "David."
He had been forced to confront allegations of sexual affairs and drug use since the day he rose to office on March 17, 2008, some of which were true. He held an extraordinary news conference detailing past affairs he and his wife were involved in during an 18-month period when it appeared their marriage would end. He also recounted past drug use from his youth.
He said he made the extraordinary admissions so that he couldn't be compromised as governor and to avoid further fracturing of a government rocked by Spitzer's resignation.
"We in public service and in life have all these great plans," Paterson said in a press event in Queens in the fall. "There's an old Jewish expression, I can't quote it, that man plans and plans and plans and God laughs. Because things change in a moment ... 24 hours in politics is a lifetime."