The audacity of hopelessness: thoughts on regime change in Albany

In Sunday’s paper, Grant Reeher has an op-ed wondering if New Yorkers could have ever possibly chosen David Paterson as governor of their own free will. In Reeher’s opinion, Paterson’s temperament may be much better suited to the current political climate in Albany in a way that Spitzer’s never was. At this point I agree – although I think there are deeper reasons why Spitzer was elected by such a landslide that went beyond hype and money. There’s no indication that New Yorkers didn’t want a standard-bearer of reform, or at least of change in business as usual. But the expectations for such a standard-bearer were very high and strict — expectations that Spitzer’s candidacy rested wholly upon. When he could not live up to those strict expectations, he was rejected not only by Albany’s power structure and the by the media, but by the voters, who according to one poll felt he should immediately resign, in almost the same number that he was elected by (about 70%).

Although the media establishment has been interested in Paterson’s failings, the New York Times did stay on the Spitzer story and published a few very eye-opening, and saddening, stories. From a March 23 article:

    The e-mail message was time-stamped Dec. 18, 2007. It was sent at 5 a.m. It did not mince words. “I’ve been up all night, I haven’t been able to sleep thinking how we’ve gotten to this position,” it began, according to one recipient’s recollection… The author of the e-mail message was Eliot Spitzer, the 54th governor of New York. His administration was just days from the end of its first year, and his poll numbers were abysmal. And now the morning newspapers had another report of another set of subpoenas issued as part of an investigation into the administration’s effort to tarnish a Republican rival… Mr. Spitzer ordered a 7:30 a.m. conference call. He canceled plans to attend a forum in the Bronx on predatory lending in poor neighborhoods, suggesting it was a waste of time when “everything was falling apart.”

The story goes on with several examples of the same anger and confusion from earlier in Spitzer’s first and only year in office, with the anecdotes seeming to end in dispiritedness, a sense of What’s the use? There had been a feeling, only privately expressed and never in the papers, coming from people close to Spitzer that they felt he might not run for a second term, if only because he appeared to dislike the job. All this at a time when most New Yorkers saw fireworks coming from Albany, but still felt mostly confident that Spitzer could get things on track, and little suspecting that he felt otherwise. Spitzer didn’t really admit it to himself either. He had said, “we will not waste this crisis,” and yet he found no use for his own hopelessness.

What we got with Paterson’s ascension was precisely one day of celebratory hope (his inaugural) that felt like a spring breeze, followed by more scandal — and the distinct sense that, even if he didn’t seem to be in immediate danger, that our new governor would be publicly scrambling for his political life from his own Day One. Perhaps Paterson’s honeymoon was perfect in being so brief. After a dozen years of a blandly magisterial Pataki administration, and one year of a governor who had only a veneer of control, a lot of people in this state have felt as if they have been scrambling for their own lives for a long time. It almost feels a perverse relief to have a governor who is obviously doing the same.

Or, as Emily Dickinson said, “I like a look of agony, because I know it’s true.”

From frying pan to fire, I think I’d rather have Paterson distract the media with his own flaws (ones that half of Albany shares, and in a bipartisan way) than with the quietly radical (or are they just liberal?) things he’s been doing and saying, that the media has barely noticed. He went up to Rochester (arguably the Upstate metro area with the biggest gap between rich and poor) the other week and got an ovation after he reassured people that they didn’t need to be nervous about him because he was from NYC; because he represented an area that also knew what it was like to be out of the centers of power.

Then he went back to Harlem and in the face of the homecoming cheers he told his constituents to remember Upstate New York cities. Here’s what he said: “Just as it is always important not to forget where you came from, which I will not do, it is also important not to exclude anyone else in the way we were excluded for so many years by others.”

The theme of Paterson as an affable consensus-builder, while true, is also a perhaps deceptively comforting one. Beneath his sanguine political temperament, he is a bringer of new conflicts. And no one should pretend that there are not powerful interests that do not want this kind of concerted message to be received and understood by those outside of the centers of power. Beyond the populist appeal of such messages to his own Democratic base, he could alter the old upstate-vs.-downstate paradigm enough to screw up the GOP’s “region card” that they traditionally play (although that card is getting less and less useful, as we have seen). Paterson appears to have the instinct to do in New York what the Democrats ought to be doing on the national level (but won’t). Because in order to survive politically in a term that began under a cloud, he has to kick away like the proverbial frog who fell in the bucket of cream. The cream may churn into a solid butter to stand on, or it may not. There are no more “Day One”s from now on; every day is Day One.

What if Paterson kicks even more of the puzzle together? The Federal Reserve is making continued efforts on Wall Street (re JPMorgan and Bear Stearns) to mask just how bad the economy is, and that is to Paterson’s disadvantage at the moment. It was a more propitious moment on Monday the 17th, the day of his inaugural, when the Fed didn’t have the “situation” under control. (And we all know whose district Wall Street is.) Paterson appears to be the only major political figure in America right now who publicly acknowledges the gravity of the recession as a matter of fact. If the new governor’s tenure has already been given over to some chaos, his political and ideological adversaries are none too secure either at this moment in time.

Everything has changed, and yet nothing has really changed. We already know all the players very well in Albany’s ongoing drama. And the storyline is essentially the same. The only thing that’s different is that “the wrong kind of Democrat” is now in the state house — and one who has been thinking, as Senate minority leader, for several years about ways to politically conquer a diverse state. Spitzer may not have been the “wrong kind” of Democrat; but he also did not know how to play Albany’s game, and I think his departure was a true and unwelcome shock especially to the cast of characters in the Legislature and in the media.

For the moment, there’s a governor who not only has personal ambition but can play the game pretty well… and must. We’re already seeing things happening that are designed to draw everyone into this game (speeches connecting people in regions not ordinarily connected; significant statements on things like congestion pricing for NYC and legislative pay raises; attention-getting press releases about upstate development grants…)

The result of chaos could be gloomy, or it could be interesting. But if chaos it is to be, don’t pretend that the New York electorate wouldn’t finally decide to dive into the scrum and chaotically throw out a few more bums. There is only so far you can drive people into hopelessness before they just go all Meatballs… where the pathetic Camp Northstar team figured out they had no hope of winning the intra-camp basketball tournament, and so they thought up their own solution to the problem.

Essayist Margaret Wheatley, writing on the uses of hopelessness, quotes Rudolf Bahro: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” Spitzer’s ascension to the governorship was triumphalist — an attitude that I fear is creeping into all the presidential campaigns this year. Here in New York State – always outside the swirl of presidential politics – it is an uncertain and more hopeless season. It could be business as usual, or it could be season that certain powerful forces in New York may never get back.