By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
Faced with an increasingly popular rival in Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo and a growing loss of confidence among top Democrats, Gov. David A. Paterson is making a pointed pitch to New York’s political establishment: I’m not dead yet.
In a series of phone calls and private meetings with top Democratic officials, major donors, leading business executives and union leaders, Mr. Paterson has apologized for his administration’s mistakes, asked for their support and insisted that he intends to run and win in 2010, according to those who have been on the receiving end of Mr. Paterson’s efforts.
“The terms are, ‘This is why I think I have a problem, this is what I am trying to do about it, and I would like your ideas on how to improve,’ ” said H. Carl McCall, the former state comptroller and a prominent Democratic figure. “The implicit part of it is, ‘I’m not going anywhere, and I will try to provide the leadership that New York needs.’
”Mr. Paterson’s aggressive behind-the-scenes effort — coming 17 months before the 2010 primary — is remarkable simply because it is necessary. In essence, Mr. Paterson was making an early move onto the campaign trail, several advisers said, from rolling out a new campaign logo and Web site to assembling a dedicated “war room.” The goal is to reignite enthusiasm for Mr. Paterson, mount a strong defense of his record and fend off suggestions from worried party leaders that he step aside next year and allow Mr. Cuomo to head the ticket.
Underscoring the pressure Mr. Paterson faces, some close friends and allies have privately been discussing — apparently without Mr. Paterson’s knowledge — where the governor might land if he did decide not to run. One idea that has come up is a position at Columbia University, where Mr. Paterson earned his undergraduate degree and where he has been an adjunct instructor, according to some of those involved in the discussion.
“I don’t think anyone has broached that subject with him, but we are all talking about it with each other,” said a friend of the governor’s, who requested anonymity because Mr. Paterson would probably not appreciate any suggestion that he step aside. “At some point, someone is going to have to broach that with him.”
But at a moment when Mr. Paterson’s low approval ratings and successive fumbles have many top Democrats concerned that he will drag down the entire party ticket in 2010, the governor appears determined to fight on.
“The governor is reaching out, sitting with business leaders, assuring them that he has got his second wind and is going to move on key issues,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an association that includes some of the city’s top business leaders, many of them major donors and fund-raisers for campaigns for governor.“There is general confidence that he means it,” Ms. Wylde said.
Mr. Paterson has also delivered his message to some of his key financial backers, some of whom might otherwise be inclined to sit on their money until they know whether he will recover.
“It was, ‘This is what I did, Steve, and I’m going to be staying, and continuing to fight,’ ” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents New York’s major landlords and developers. “He clearly needs to get his message out.”Mr. Spinola, who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mr. Paterson from developers when he first became governor, noted that his group was unhappy with the governor for agreeing to a major tax increase on high earners as part of this year’s budget. Asked whether he would be as supportive of Mr. Paterson next year, Mr. Spinola replied, “The answer is, there is plenty of time left for people to get their message across.”
Mr. Paterson delivered his message in a more public setting last Friday, when he spoke in Saratoga Springs at an annual conference of Democratic leaders from rural counties. Mr. Paterson gently tweaked Mr. Cuomo, who was also there, for his ambition, joking, “There’s no ‘I’ in A.G.” Mr. Paterson also declared that Democrats would be victorious in 2010, “starting with me.”
“No brag,” Mr. Paterson added. “Just fact.”
Reasserting himself among fellow Democrats is one element in a broader strategy that Mr. Paterson and his staff have outlined since the budget was passed this month. At a recent meeting at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Manhattan, the governor and more than a dozen of his top advisers and fund-raisers discussed how Mr. Paterson can reconnect with the Democratic base, soothe wounds left over from the budget battles and ward off a potential primary challenge from Mr. Cuomo.
Following Mr. Paterson’s proposal last week to legalize same-sex marriage, he is counting on his leadership role on the issue to bolster confidence in his ability to lead on important items and draw support from liberals. His staff is carefully orchestrating the announcement of public-works projects paid for by the federal stimulus package to reap maximum political benefit. In the coming weeks, Mr. Paterson will ask the Legislature to move on his proposal to cap property taxes, a matter of great concern to suburban voters.
Meanwhile, the campaign’s new war room will focus on promoting and defending the governor’s record, especially the passage of this year’s $131 billion budget, for which Mr. Paterson and his aides believe he has not gotten enough credit.“This is a real campaign, and this is going to have all of the elements of a campaign,” said Tracy Sefl, a political consultant to Mr. Paterson. “He is going to run hard, and he is going to run on his record.”
But underscoring the failing confidence within his own party, Mr. Paterson has focused much of his behind-the-scenes outreach on major Democratic forces, such as large labor unions. Mr. Paterson met at his Manhattan office several weeks ago with Michael Fishman, the president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which has been frustrated with the slow pace of legislation to require higher wages on projects sponsored by the state’s industrial development agencies.“The governor wanted me know that he was intent on working more closely with us,” Mr. Fishman said. “I asked him to support reform of the state’s industrial development agencies, and he agreed to do so.”
But Mr. Paterson’s overtures have not all been warmly received. The governor got a polite but tepid reception on the phone from George Gresham, the head of 1199 S.E.I.U. United Healthcare Workers East, according to one person close to the union. That person said the governor seemed overconfident and unaware of how much anger remained from his recent battles with the union over budget cuts. The union is close to Mr. Cuomo, and support from its members would be pivotal in a primary.
Some of the governor’s calls do appear to be bearing fruit. After consulting with Mr. Paterson, for example, the United Federation of Teachers has entered the fight over bailing out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a crucial test of Mr. Paterson’s administration, and is now lobbying recalcitrant lawmakers to back the governor’s bailout proposal. “I don’t think for a minute he doesn’t have a long road to go, and have a lot of challenges,” said Randi Weingarten, the union’s president. “But I think he can be a great governor.”