David Paterson’s honeymoon was still going strong Monday, with the new governor’s first speech to a packed Assembly chamber getting universally positive reviews.
Paterson, the first black person and the first legally blind person to serve as New York’s governor, spoke after being sworn in shortly after 1 p.m. by Chief Justice Judith Kaye. The audience included every statewide elected official, governors of three neighboring states, two former governors of New York and a former U.S. senator.
Paterson inaugurationTo view Gov. David Paterson's inauguration at the state Capitol on Monday, click here. To read the complete text of Paterson's inaugural address, click here.
Eliot Spitzer, Paterson’s predecessor, whose resignation became effective at noon, was not present. He resigned because of his involvement in a prostitution scandal that became public just one week before Monday’s events.
Paterson, as usual, gave a speech full of laugh lines — including a story riffing off his blindness about how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, prevented him from breaking a glass with his gavel while preparing for January’s State of the State ceremony. Paterson delivered the punch line, “I will not allow you to turn the State of the State into a Jewish wedding,” in a good imitation of Silver’s gravelly speaking style.
Paterson spent much of the speech introducing leading politicians — past and present — from both parties, along with his family members, while not laying out much in the way of substantive policies.
But the speech also noted that “Our economy appears to be headed toward crisis,” which, Paterson said, means the state’s leaders need to “adjust our budget accordingly.” Just what those adjustments need to be was not spelled out, although aides said details of his budget agenda would be coming soon.
In post-speech news conferences, Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, had praise for Paterson but not for each other. Each legislative leader criticized the other’s one-house budget, with Silver particularly vocal in complaining that the Senate’s was $3 billion out of balance.
Bruno claimed that the Senate budget spends less than the Assembly’s, which Silver disputed. Also at issue is a temporary income tax increase on those making $1 million and more per year, which is in the Assembly budget but not the Senate’s. Bruno and other Republicans, along with the state Business Council and the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy, oppose the tax increase, while liberal groups support it.
Spitzer had opposed the Assembly tax increase, but Paterson has declined to rule it out. Spitzer and Paterson, like Silver, are Democrats.
Another New York Democrat, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, said he has concerns about the Assembly’s tax increase proposal because of the possibility of driving businesses out of the state, but is not familiar with the details and has not taken a position on it.
The main focus Monday was on Paterson and his speech, which Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton said had “the words that the people of the state of New York needed to hear.” Stratton, a Democrat, said earlier that “it was still a sad day,” referring to Spitzer’s downfall.
But the last week showed the former governor, once spoken of as a future White House contender, had very little political support and few friends in the state Legislature. While many last week expressed sympathy for his family, his political self-destruction did not cast a pall over Monday’s events, where most people were in a celebratory mood.
Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, was among those praising Paterson, although he said he had some qualms because he had also had at one time been hopeful about Spitzer.
“It was an extraordinary moment, certainly unprecedented,” said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, a historian of local and state politics. The new governor’s speech, McEneny said, was “typical Paterson,” combining “humor and depth.”
Paterson, referring to the need to chart a course for the state and his own visual impairment, said, “I know a little bit about finding one’s way through the dark.
“Let me tell you a little about myself,” he continued.
“I was born in the borough of Brooklyn. I was educated on Long Island. Harlem is my home. This is where I learned love for family and appreciation for community.
“I have confronted the prejudice of race and challenged the issues of my own disability. I have served in government for over two decades. I stand willing and able to lead this state to a brighter future and a better tomorrow.
“Let me reintroduce myself. I am David Paterson and I am the governor of New York state” — whereupon the chamber erupted in applause.
“It was a grand statement of a warm human being who’s trying to bring us together as we so desperately need,” said Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, a Democrat, on his way out of the Assembly chamber.
“It’s a historic moment,” said Schenectady County Republican Chairman Thomas Buchanan, who was among those standing jammed together on the Assembly floor before the speech. “I’m quite pleased to see Eliot Spitzer gone,” he added. Later, Buchanan said Paterson had given “a very good speech” — although unlike many others in the audience, Buchanan did not applaud Paterson’s lines about how “we are going to have to help single mothers who have two jobs. We are going to have to give children better schools and families who don’t have health care some redress.”
Assemblyman Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, said Paterson’s was “one of the best speeches I ever heard,” and done without notes or a teleprompter. He said it was better than previous State of the State addresses he has listened to in the same place from Spitzer and former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.
Pataki himself, who recently had surgery for an intestinal blockage, was singled out by Paterson: “I don’t know if I am [more] touched by the appearance of anyone else here today than to have back with us our former governor, George Pataki.”
Pataki returned the compliment afterwards, praising Paterson’s “inclusive address,” and expressing confidence that New York’s leaders can put partisanship aside and successfully address the fiscal and economic problems facing them.
Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, said he hopes Paterson will pay attention to the needs of small businesses and farms.