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Paterson shakes up staff as poll numbers plunge

Stung by plummeting poll numbers and staff dissension, Gov. David A. Paterson began shaking up his administration Wednesday, replacing his top adviser and bringing on a new communications director to try to right his listing political ship.

Larry Schwartz, a former senior Westchester County official, will succeed William Cunningham, brought on last year as secretary to the governor following revelations about the tax problems of Charles O'Byrne.

Paterson has needed a trusted aide to say "no" to various constituencies and other administration officials, which is still a mix of those held over from the days of Eliot L. Spitzer, Paterson's predecessor, and the governor's own loyalists.

Paterson also replaced Risa Heller, his communications adviser, with Peter Kauffmann, a former Naval intelligence officer. Heller resigned two weeks ago but agreed to stay on during the transition.

Kauffmann, who once served as press secretary for former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also ran the media for state Democrats in 2000 and was a deputy press secretary at the Democratic National Committee. He comes directly from Glover Park Group, a lobbying and consulting firm with close ties to the Clintons. He will make $175,000 a year once he assumes the job March 23.

Cunningham, who sat in a front row at Paterson's meeting with legislative leaders earlier in the day, had no comment. He resigned effective Wednesday afternoon, but will remain an adviser during a transition period.

The governor has come under a weekly barrage of polling results showing his numbers declining sharply among voters. He also trails far behind State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo in a hypothetical 2010 Democratic primary match-up for governor.

The timing of the staff changes comes as the governor is in crucial negotiations with the Legislature to close a $14 billion deficit in the budget for the fiscal year that will begin April 1.

Paterson had said Tuesday he planned to make changes in his administration and had not had the opportunity -- in part because of the state's budget woes -- to assess his staffing needs adequately following Spitzer's resignation last March.

Schwartz, the new secretary, has served as the top aide to Westchester County Executive Andrew J. Spano. He started only a month or so ago as Cunningham's top lieutenant. His new job pays $178,000. He also has worked in top staff positions in Suffolk County and the State Senate.

Paterson called Schwartz a "skilled and capable leader who understands the inner workings of government, but he also recognizes how public officials must serve everyday New Yorkers."

Cunningham's plight became apparent last week when Paterson floated the idea of bringing back O'Byrne, his former trusted adviser who resigned amid a tax scandal.

But O'Byrne then turned down the offer and said he would volunteer for Paterson's re-election campaign; various Democratic sources, however, say they have been told O'Byrne will have a growing role in helping Paterson's governmental side of the operation.

Also, Tracy Sefl, a Washington-based Democratic media strategist, is joining the Paterson campaign operation as a consultant; she also has ties to the Clintons. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling company that has done work for Bill Clinton, also will assist Paterson's effort.
e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com1

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