Paterson seeks to show he’s still in charge, gets some support at NYC town hall meeting

By Deepti Hajela, AP
Monday, March 8, 2010

Paterson seeks to show he’s still in charge

NEW YORK — Gov. David Paterson was adamant about governing Monday, taking questions from the public at a town hall meeting and trying to make clear his authority to negotiate a state budget amid two scandals that threaten his job.

“Recently, I’ve been the target of rumors and innuendo, but it hasn’t stopped me,” he said in his opening remarks, one of the few references to the situation swirling around him.

In their questions, audience members at the session in Brooklyn were clearly more focused on their own concerns rather than the governor’s, who is being probed over whether he illegally had contact with a woman who had accused a Paterson aide of abuse. He is also facing an ethics charge for obtaining free World Series tickets.

Few questioners mentioned the scandals, with one offering support for Paterson finishing his term before going on to ask a question on another topic.

The reaction reflected findings in a poll from Siena College released Monday, which found that 71 percent of those questioned thought he should be allowed to finish his term instead of being impeached if he doesn’t resign. Twenty-one percent said the Legislature should impeach him if he doesn’t step down, although Paterson hasn’t been charged with a crime. The rest didn’t know or had no opinion.

That comes even as Paterson has slipped to his lowest approval rating yet, at 21 percent, with 67 percent of those polled having an unfavorable opinion of him and 12 percent saying they didn’t know or had no opinion.

Paterson has already given up his bid for a full term but refused to give in to critics who want him to resign altogether. He became governor in 2008 after his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned in a prostitution scandal.

Those attending the Brooklyn meeting struck a respectful tone. They asked and debated questions about spending priorities in the state budget due April 1 as if speaking to a key player, not a lame duck. There was little mention of the scandals as Paterson showed sympathy to personal stories backing up arguments for more aid.

The only other reference to Paterson’s political reality came when the governor responded to a question challenging the idea of taxing soda for revenue. He spoke about the public health benefits of such a tax, and he recounted some of the state’s obesity statistics and the concerns for children’s health.

“I’m speaking for a class of people that don’t have a vote,” he said. “I’m not running for re-election, so I can speak for them; it’s the children of this state.”

At one point, Paterson flashed the humor that was an effective tool for him for 20 years as a state senator. One speaker who said he has thoughts of running for mayor said, “I have just one question, and it’s a statement.”

“Before your town hall meeting starts, can I finish mine?” Paterson shot back, to laughs in the packed Borough hall.

Following the town hall meeting, Paterson told reporters he met with his personal attorney on Saturday as a result of the scandals.

Paterson also defended Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whom many Democrats prefer over Paterson as the candidate for governor and who is investigating the scandals.

Paterson said appointing a special prosecutor would give up control over the cost and time spent on the case and he has confidence Cuomo will do a timely and fair job. Cuomo, a Democrat, is widely expected to run for governor. Paterson dropped his own bid for the Democratic nomination shortly after Cuomo started his investigation.

The Siena poll found two-thirds of voters prefer an independent prosecutor for the case, but a majority of voters questioned also have faith in Cuomo’s ability to be fair. Some in the legal community share that concern.

“We live in times of extraordinary cynicism,” said James Tierney, director of the National State Attorney’s General Program at Columbia University. It’s natural for citizens to view the political system with cynicism, he said, “but I see nothing at all in this case which indicates anything but the attorney general is proceeding in an absolutely appropriate manner.”

The Siena poll questioned 712 registered voters by phone on Sunday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Associated Press writer Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.

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