Which was why the political class was once again shocked when he joined Spitzer’s team. It defied logic. He was stepping away from the power he had built to take a largely meaningless post under a pugnacious, autocratic governor who would surely not share the stage. And he was doing it in open defiance of the machine with which his name was synonymous; Harlem’s establishment had already publicly backed someone else, Leecia Eve, a black lawyer and former counsel to Hillary Clinton. Once again, everyone assumed he was an affable fool.
Whatever his calculations were—and who knows, really—now he’s New York’s first black governor. And in the wake of Spitzer’s disastrously combative reign over Albany, the same political class that pooh-poohed his affability has largely marveled at his ability to work with folks and keep the state’s doors open in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis.
So why Kirsten Gillibrand? Why pick the one person whom no power broker supported, who appears to offer him no useful political chit? Whoever tells you they know the answer is a liar.
But the fact is that Paterson will face a bruising re-election campaign in 2010. Maybe he figures Gillibrand’s upstate base will be an ace-in-the-hole for him against Democratic and Republican challengers alike. Maybe he relates to her bio: She beat the establishment candidate to take her congressional seat in 2006, without having ever held elective office. Maybe he felt like he just couldn’t trust Andrew Cuomo—he certainly wouldn’t be the first to feel that way.
Whatever his reasons, know this: Paterson’s not the fool he wants everyone to think he is. He told the New York Times on the eve of his nomination to be Spitzer’s second-in-command that his biggest mistake in life was overcoming his blindness a little too well. Suddenly, he complained, nobody ever wanted to help him out, even when he needed it. Maybe that lesson has informed his politics, too, which he described to the Times this way: “You should have your friends underestimating your strengths and have your adversaries overestimating your weaknesses.”
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.