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Paterson comfortable in new role as New York's governor

Associated Press | 2/13/2009, 6:51 a.m.

ALBANY, N.Y. — David Paterson has been known around the Capitol for 20 years as a quiet guy, self-effacing and unlikely to talk about himself or his disability without prompting.

That ended emphatically when he was sworn in Monday as the state’s 55th governor.

“Let me reintroduce myself,” Paterson bellowed to hundreds of colleagues who had never heard him raise his voice. “I am David Paterson, and I am the governor of New York!”

Paterson set a tone of collegiality and bipartisanship, sprinkled with his trademark humor. But his reintroduction was a surprise — and an absolute necessity if he is to truly govern — and it brought down the house for a 45-second standing ovation.

Lawmakers in Albany tried to set aside, for one day, the prostitution scandal that forced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer from office, focusing instead on Paterson’s strong, forward-looking and unifying message.

The 53-year-old Paterson, who until noon Monday was the state’s lieutenant governor, said he would have to get to the people’s work immediately, with the most pressing issue being the state’s budget.

And beyond the well wishing and basking in history, it was clear that hard work is at hand. By the end of Monday, Paterson had signed five bills into law, which are designed to enhance subway track safety, boost the Green Thumb Environmental Program, encourage corporate blood drives, and improve the Health Research Science Board.

But the budget will be a test not easily signed away. New York Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith estimated the deficit at $5.1 billion on Monday, up from the projected $4.6 billion deficit the Spitzer administration reported in February. Budget officials noted the deficit is deepening as the economy continues to slump and New York and the nation draws closer to a recession.

Paterson, who is legally blind and delivered his 26-minute speech from memory, said it’s time for New York politicians to put power struggles aside in the interest of public service.

“What we are going to do from now on is what we always should have done all along,” he said. “We’re going to work together.”

While the initial mood of the inauguration was unity and progress, that may have lasted all of an hour.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in his post-inauguration news conference criticized Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno for claiming the Assembly Democrats want to spend too much despite hard fiscal times.

“The senator unfortunately came out of the box being political, rather than trying to join together,” Silver told reporters.

Just before Silver spoke, Bruno said at a news conference that his conference is pushing for a budget that would reduce spending closer to the cost of living, or about half of the current 5 percent growth that Spitzer proposed. Bruno also said he might push for a “bare bones” budget that could be passed by April 1, then return months later to tackle as much as 40 percent of the spending plan. Under law, lawmakers’ pay is suspended when a budget is late.

Silver also said it’s unlikely that the budget can increase school aid at proposed levels without raising taxes. His conference seeks a temporary higher tax for New Yorkers making $1 million or more a year. Bruno opposes it.

Spitzer resigned at noon after allegations were made public last week that he hired a call girl from a high-priced escort service. It was a dramatic fall for Spitzer, who was elected with an overwhelming share of the vote and who had vowed to root out corruption at the Capitol.

“This transition today is an historic message to the world: That we live by the same values that we profess, and we are a government of laws, not individuals,” Paterson said.

His wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, had tears in her eyes for most of the ceremony.

“Every time I hear David speak I want to cry,” she said afterward. “I’m just very happy I was able to live to see this day.”

She said it won’t take New Yorkers long to get to know her husband better.

“He always knew he was a heartbeat away from being governor, but he never thought it would happen this way,” she said. “It would have been better if he’d been elected by the people. But in the next couple of years, people will see what me and my family know. He’s a very special person.”

Special interest groups and politicians will be knocking on the new governor’s door in the next few weeks as they try to determine where Paterson stands on various issues.

State Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. joked with reporters before the ceremony Monday that the state’s chief judge wouldn’t swear in Paterson until he approved a pay raise for judges — just one of many contentious issues in Albany.

Lawmakers past and present, including presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and governors from three neighboring states, attended the ceremony. Spitzer was not in attendance.

“It is extraordinarily historic, but it is also a great moment of personal achievement for Governor Paterson, and I love the way he had his story connected with the story of New York,” said Clinton, walking out of the Assembly chamber with Paterson. “I really thought that he was able to take the moment about himself and really marry it to the challenges facing New York. And it was brilliant.”

Paterson was Spitzer’s lieutenant governor for just 14 months. Before that, he was a Democratic state senator since 1985, representing parts of Harlem and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is the first legally blind governor to serve more than a few days in office.

Federal prosecutors must still decide whether to pursue charges against Spitzer. The married father of three teenage girls was accused of spending tens of thousands of dollars on prostitutes — including a call girl “Kristen” in Washington the night before Valentine’s Day.

AP writers Michael Gormley, Michael Hill and Michael Virtanen contributed to this report from Albany.

(Associated Press)