ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. David Paterson, who repeatedly and defiantly said he would let voters decide if he should run the state, abruptly quit his nascent election bid Friday amid a stalled agenda, faltering popularity and criticism of his handling of a domestic abuse case involving one of his most trusted aides.
Democratic officials in Washington and a person briefed by Paterson in New York were informed of his plans early Friday. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because Paterson had not publicly disclosed his decision.
Paterson planned a 3 p.m. news conference at his New York City office, where he was expected to announce that he's quitting the race.
Paterson, who had publicly prided himself on beating the odds, including overcoming blindness to rise through treacherous New York politics, formally announced his campaign last weekend but faced mounting calls to drop out of the race in the midst of controversy. A top aide is ensnared in a domestic-violence scandal, the governor was finding dwindling support in his own party and his campaign bank account paled in size to those of his rivals.
Paterson became governor in 2008, when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal. Paterson's decision paves the way for Andrew Cuomo to make an unimpeded run for the Democratic nomination.
"The governor isn't feeling pushed out," said a person who talked with the governor about his decision and who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because Paterson hadn't yet announced why he was ending the campaign. "He certainly realizes it's very difficult to do a campaign and govern, and the focus now is on governing and the best interests of the state."
Paterson's decision comes just 19 days short of his two-year anniversary as governor.
"He started out as a nice guy with the best wishes from everyone, and it just went downhill," said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac University poll. "As a personal story, it's too bad because everyone who ever knew David Paterson liked him. As a governmental story, it's partly him and it's partly Albany. Albany is dysfunctional, and collectively they are awful."
Paterson was the scion of a Harlem political power base that included his father, former state Secretary of State Basil Paterson; the late Percy Sutton, who was Manhattan borough president; Rep. Adam Clayton Powell; former Mayor David Dinkins; and embattled U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel.
Now, Paterson's gubernatorial campaign will end amid a domestic violence scandal involving a trusted aide from Harlem, David Johnson. More than a decade ago, Paterson took Johnson on as an intern as part of his efforts to give youths snared in Harlem's crack epidemic a second chance.
On Wednesday, the most alarming call for Paterson to end his campaign came from state Sen. Bill Perkins, the Democrat in Paterson's old Harlem seat, who told the AP that Paterson's cabinet is "falling apart" and his campaign weakened.
"The crisis we are suffering in this state and in the community is being distracted by these reports and very, very serious allegations," Perkins said. "What we are learning is unacceptable, and the viability of his candidacy is obviously crippling."
It has been widely expected — and among some Democrats, eagerly awaited — that the more popular Cuomo would run for governor and help prop up the state's reeling Democratic party. Cuomo, son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, has already built a campaign fund five times larger than Paterson and consistently outpolls Paterson among New York Democrats, who hold a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans statewide.
Paterson's campaign "was going nowhere very quickly and the numbers couldn't have been any more bleak for him before this," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College poll. "Regardless of the legalities involved and this specific controversy, the odds of him taking the oath of office next January were very remote."
Paterson's decision lets Cuomo avoid an expensive and divisive primary, Miringoff said.
For Republican candidate Rick Lazio, it means he can no longer try to split the Democrats and now must confront the far better funded and more popular Cuomo.
Paterson has been weighed down by low approval numbers for months. His problems intensified in recent weeks with a series of critical articles in The New York Times. The last, published Thursday, raised questions about how Paterson and state police officials responded to a domestic abuse complaint lodged against Johnson.
Court papers said state police may have pressured the woman, Sherruna Booker, to not level criminal charges against Johnson. The newspaper also said Paterson spoke with the woman personally, although the governor's office said it was the woman who placed the call.
Booker's attorney, Lawrence Saftler, declined to comment on the Paterson matter Friday, "pending the outcome of an investigation by the attorney general's office and his capable staff."
Renewed calls for Paterson's exit were made hours after the story's publication, including one from a longtime ally, Rep. Steve Israel. The Long Island Democrat said he felt compelled to tell his friend that he should not seek election to a full term.
Paterson, an affable, slightly built politician, was never really seen as gubernatorial in the eyes of legislators, lobbyists or voters. He was Senate minority leader when he was picked by Spitzer to be his running mate.
Five days after the Spitzer prostitution scandal broke, Paterson bounded into office March 17, 2008, loudly proclaiming, "I am your governor!" It was welcomed statewide after 14 months under Spitzer, who started with a rush of reform only to be bogged down in scandal and gridlock after his aides were accused of using state police to track a political enemy.
Paterson immediately confronted allegations of sexual affairs and drug use, some of which were true. He held a news conference detailing past affairs he and his wife were involved in during an 18-month period when it appeared their marriage would end. He also recounted past drug use from his youth. He said he made the extraordinary admissions so that he couldn't be compromised as governor and to avoid further fracturing of a government rocked by Spitzer's resignation.
His honeymoon was brief. He gained some popularity with voters when he — nearly alone — warned of impending fiscal crisis in Albany. He also developed an image of talking tough but ultimately giving in to lawmakers.
His slide was hastened when his most trusted aide was forced to resign after press accounts revealed he hadn't paid taxes for five years.
Paterson's bungled handling of the appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton angered Democrats, including the Kennedy family, when he passed over Carolyn Kennedy and then an aide leaked unsubstantiated rumors about her.
Paterson was also unable to stop a Republican-orchestrated coup in the Senate last year, then fought lawmakers over the budget, further weakening his support in the party.
He spent most of the last month denying persistent, unprinted innuendo about his personal behavior. Although none of it was proven, the rumors eroded the slight comeback he had made in polls since December.
"We in public service and in life have all these great plans," Paterson said in a press event in Queens in the fall. "There's an old Jewish expression, I can't quote it, that man plans and plans and plans and God laughs. Because things change in a moment ... 24 hours in politics is a lifetime."
AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti in Washington and AP Writer Valerie Bauman in Albany contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.