Wednesday, July 22, 2009

N.Y. Labor Leaders May Drop Support of Paterson


Leaders of some of New York’s most influential unions are discussing abandoning Gov. David A. Paterson as he prepares to run for a full term next year, a sweeping defection that could prove lethal to his hopes of winning his party’s nomination.

The leaders, who represent a broad cross section of labor groups, expressed concern, in a series of interviews, about whether Mr. Paterson, who has been troubled by low job-approval ratings and a loss of confidence in his ability to tackle the state’s financial problems, can rebound in time for next year’s election.

That such conversations are taking place among a constituency that plays such a crucial role in New York Democratic politics signals the tenuous position that Mr. Paterson finds himself in, particularly as Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo considers the possibility of challenging him in a Democratic primary next year.

Some labor leaders made it clear that time was running out for Mr. Paterson. Without a dramatic improvement in Mr. Paterson’s standing, they said, many labor groups would rally behind another candidate, possibly Mr. Cuomo.

“Time is his enemy,” said Stephen McInnis, the political director for the New York City District Council of Carpenters, who nonetheless reiterated that his 21,000-member organization still worked very closely with the governor. “He and his guys are going to have to pull this together.”

Arlea J. Igoe, the secretary-treasurer of the Public Employees Federation, a 59,000-member organization whose endorsement is up for grabs, expressed a similar view. “Is he going to be a viable candidate in the future?” Ms. Igoe asked. “The sense right now is that he has a long way to go to come back up.”

Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for the Paterson campaign, dismissed the idea that labor leaders would desert the governor next year. “The governor has enjoyed strong labor support in every election he has been in,” she said, referring to his years as a state senator. “And he looks forward to working with labor in the 2010 campaign.”

While labor has long been a critical part of the Democratic coalition, some unions have supported Republicans in the past and may do so again under the right circumstances.

But many labor leaders said in interviews that they were committed to keeping the governorship in Democratic hands and were feeling pressure to act much sooner than normal, and to try diplomatically to get Mr. Paterson out of the way before endorsing someone else.

Many contend that taking overt steps to elevate a strong Democratic candidate for governor as early as this fall might discourage a big-name Republican, like former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, from entering the race. Based on recent surveys, Mr. Paterson would lose badly to Mr. Giuliani, while Mr. Cuomo beats the former mayor.

And underscoring Mr. Paterson’s weakened status, nearly 7 out of 10 voters approved of the job Mr. Cuomo was doing as the state’s top law enforcement official, while only 3 out of 10 approved of Mr. Paterson’s performance, according to a poll in late May and early June by The New York Times, Cornell University and New York 1 News.

The possible abandonment of Mr. Paterson by some labor leaders reflects a larger anxiety among Democrats, not just over their chances of maintaining control of the governor’s mansion, but also over the prospect that his problems will hurt other Democratic candidates on the ballot in 2010.

One powerful labor official said he felt it was a matter of time before leaders in the party asked Mr. Paterson directly to step aside for the sake of the party.

“There will be pressures from many quarters, not just labor,” said the official, who did not want to be identified for fear of antagonizing the governor. “Nobody wants a failed Democratic Party in New York — or a Republican governor.”

The power that labor unions have in city and state politics stems from the resources that they can bring on behalf of a candidate or party. The groups can crank out mass mailings, deploy legions of campaign volunteers, set up phone banks and organize rallies — all without any direct cost to the candidates they back.

Labor has also shown itself to be pragmatic. Although former Gov. George E. Pataki was a Republican, many unions either remained neutral or supported him in his 1998 and 2002 re-election efforts, calculating that it was pointless to declare war on a popular incumbent who was favored to win both elections.

This time around, even union officials who defended Mr. Paterson did so in surprisingly measured language.

“I think it’s much too early to write off David Paterson,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who recently announced that she is stepping down as president of its New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers, and is perhaps the governor’s best union ally.

Asked directly if Mr. Paterson should step aside in order to potentially pave the way for Mr. Cuomo, Denis M. Hughes, the president of the 2.5 million-member New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O., responded simply, “I don’t know.”

Since taking office in March 2008, Mr. Paterson has spent much of his time in heated battles with union leaders, most recently over his efforts to reduce pension benefits for public employees. The bitterness is a stark reversal from Mr. Paterson’s days as a senator, when he and labor enjoyed a warm relationship.

Relations with the governor have become so damaged, in fact, that Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said the 600,000-member union’s endorsement was still up in the air. “There’s no question that the governor needs to re-establish a record that shows a commitment to labor,” he said.

Any chance for Mr. Paterson to turn things around was severely hampered, labor officials said, by the power struggle in the Senate, which dragged on for more than a month and re-enforced the perception that the governor is too weak to take control of the agenda in Albany.

Mr. Paterson sought to take control of the Senate impasse by appointing Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to the vacant lieutenant governor’s position, which could allow him to cast the tie-breaking vote.

But the deadlock in the Senate ended when Pedro Espada Jr., who had allied himself with the Republicans, returned to the Democrats, giving them a 32-to-30 majority.

Now Mr. Ravitch’s role is unclear, after a State Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday blocking him from carrying out the duties of the office.

Ms. Igoe, of the Public Employees Federation, said the “debacle in the Senate is not helping him at all.”

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