New York scandal threatens Gov. David Paterson's election bid

New York Gov. David Paterson, already facing low poll numbers, now is dealing with reports that state police may have interfered with a domestic-violence investigation involving an aide. The state cabinet official who oversees the state police resigned Thursday.

David Paterson's poll numbers were already low when reports started coming in that a close aide had been involved in a domestic violence scandal. Questions have been raised about why state police may have contacted the woman who made the complaint against the aide.

The political problems of New York Gov. David Paterson are intensifying.

Governor Paterson, already facing extremely low poll numbers, now is contending with reports that an aide may have been involved in a domestic violence incident and that the state police interfered with the investigation.

The new reports have increased calls for Paterson to either drop out of the race – which he officially entered Feb. 12 – or resign. So far, he’s still in the race and running the state.

On Thursday, one of his cabinet officials, who supervised the state police, resigned after reports state police officers contacted the woman who made the complaint.

“The behavior alleged here is the antithesis of what many of us have spent our entire careers working to build, a legal system that protects victims of domestic violence and brings offenders to justice,” Denise O’Donnell, deputy secretary for public safety, wrote in her resignation letter. Ms. O'Donnell said that she was misled about events by the superintendent of state police.

Fallout from the scandal doesn’t seem likely to end with her resignation.

“There was a part of me not too long ago saying, 'Don’t count him out,' ” says John Zogby, founder of Zogby International, a political polling firm in Utica, N.Y. “But now, it’s hard to see how he gets out of his position gracefully.”

Paterson is far from the only big state governor in trouble, points out Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

“Big state governors are in trouble everywhere,” says Mr. Sabato, pointing to Florida’s Charlie Crist, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, and Illinois’s Pat Quinn. “With the economy the way it is, it’s a terrible time to be the governor of a big state.”

The dismal economy has certainly hurt Paterson, who inherited the governor’s position after Eliot Spitzer resigned three years ago after he became embroiled in a call-girl scandal.

The state is running a large budget deficit, forcing Paterson to ask for spending cuts in an election year.

“He scores points for having the courage to raise budget issues,” says Mr. Zogby.

But Paterson’s problems go well beyond the state budget. There have been reports that President Obama has asked Paterson not to run for office. At one point, a poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed him with a 17 percent approval rating – even lower than Mr. Spitzer’s rating after the scandal became public.

Despite the low ratings, he has soldiered on. 

Questions arose two weeks ago after he awarded a contract for gambling to a former congressman, the Rev. Floyd Flake, whose support he needs in the democratic primary. Soon afterward, the governor’s office said the US attorney’s office had subpoenaed records from the New York State lottery, which was involved in the decision to award the contract.

Paterson’s latest problem began last fall, when a top aide, David Johnson, was accused of domestic violence by a woman he had lived with for four years. According to a New York Times account, the governor had a short conversation with the woman.

“What did he do besides comfort this woman and keep a jerk on his staff and make a phone call?” asks Zogby.

But state police officers, who did not have any jurisdiction in the case, went to the woman’s apartment to speak with her, an action the woman is reported to have interpreted as harassment. 

Paterson has asked State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to run against him in the Democratic primary, to investigate.

“It basically puts Cuomo in the mix in a political way he has been avoiding,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “If Cuomo finds something, the governor will say, ‘What did you expect?’ But if [Cuomo] finds no wrong, [Paterson] can say ‘I’m clean.’ ”

Zogby thinks the state has little choice but to keep Paterson in office, at least through the election. The lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, was appointed by Paterson. His appointment as governor would likely be challenged, says Zogby.

“It would throw us into a constitutional mess at the same time we are in a fiscal and political mess,” he says. “This is a serious crisis here.”

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