Can these retired NY Democrats show Biden how to say goodbye?

For politicians, it can be hard to know when to say goodbye.

The most common route to the exit is the one marked by electoral defeat. But there are moments when other circumstances — like age, health or scandal — make it clear that it’s time to step aside.

As Democrats continue to clash over the viability of President Joe Biden’s candidacy, retired New York Democrats told Gothamist about how they made their own calls to relinquish power. While none gave up a post as high as the presidency, each faced a deeply personal decision with significant ramifications for the people they served.

“When you have taken responsibility and decided it would be better for the country and even for the party to take that step back, I think history remembers you fondly,” said former Gov. David Paterson, who chose not to run for a full term in 2010, two years after succeeding scandal-plagued Eliot Spitzer.

As New York’s first Black and legally blind governor, Paterson inherited a state government in freefall and a yawning multibillion-dollar budget gap. But it was his own scandal that made him so unpopular. Paterson interfered in a domestic abuse case involving an aide, and then, he told Gothamist, “I realized that it was going to be very difficult for me to defend myself and run the state at the same time.”

The former governor said arriving at the decision not to run for a full term meant enduring a growing pile-on of doubts from former allies and friends. He described a call he received from then-Rep. Steve Israel, of Long Island, telling him he should not run for re-election – and then being surprised to see Israel’s side of their private conversation in a press release.

“People pretend they’re helping you, but they’re really not,” Paterson said. He suspended his re-election campaign less than a week after launching it.

Israel, who served for 16 years including a stint in Democratic House leadership, has also since retired. He opted not to run again in 2016 in a race he was likely to win. He told Gothamist he had simply had enough with the fundraising, “which I thought was corroding democracy.”

“I made the decision it was time to pass the torch,” said Israel. He now runs an independent bookstore in Oyster Bay.

Even when a politician’s departure arrives without public duress, the decision can get complicated.

“When I was 13 years old in 1960, John Kennedy was running for president,” said former Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who is now 77. “I was quite enamored with him, as millions of Americans were, and decided I wanted to go into politics.” He was elected to the Assembly while he was still a student at Columbia University Law School, and went on to become the body’s longest-serving member.

By early 2020, his wife Louise, who spent decades as a nursery school teacher at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side, was ready to retire. Gottfried decided it was something they should do together – until the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New York and the rest of the world.

“I felt like the beginning of a pandemic was not a good time for the chair of the Assembly health committee to be retiring,” he said. He delayed his retirement by one term and retired in 2022, after more than five decades representing parts of Midtown and the Upper West Side.

Gottfried said watching Biden debate Trump was difficult, and even “painful in spots.” But for now, he still supports the president.

“I think Joe Biden continues to be up to the job,” said Gottfried, who acknowledged concerns over the president’s age. “There are people who are unfit for office at a much earlier age than he is.”

Paterson sees it differently. Assessing the president’s recent remarks, he said Biden’s move to discount fellow Democrats’ calls for him to consider the good of the party has been his biggest mistake since his troubling debate performance. He cited Biden’s call into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, when the president said, “I don’t care what those big names think” in reference to other party leaders.

“That, to me, is outrageous,” said the former governor.

Israel said that he developed a friendship with Biden after years on Capitol Hill.

“I adore him and have a very close relationship with him,” Israel said, describing the current moment as “a very emotional and conflicting time.” His sense was that the president was receiving a deluge of competing advice.

“At the end of the day, this decision will be left to the president,” said Israel. “And he’s going to have to make it based on his own sense of what’s best, not only for himself, but for his party and for democracy in America.”

The decision to leave can be emotionally fraught, even when it seems vital. Former Assemblymember Cathy Nolan, 66, retired after nearly four decades representing neighborhoods in northwestern Queens following a cancer diagnosis in 2020.

“So [it] seemed best to focus on health,” she said. “No way I could have the kind of intense treatments needed and serve in Albany.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy to walk away.

“I loved it,” Nolan said, pointing to the work she did chairing the labor and education committees and enacting the state’s paid family leave law.

Now she said she is just grateful to be alive, mentoring young women, staying active in community and charitable groups, and spending time with her family, which she said “sacrificed a lot for me to be in politics.”

George Artz, a political consultant and one-time press secretary for Mayor Ed Koch, has seen the process from the other side. He remembered advising Koch in 1989, when the mayor ran for a fourth term and lost the Democratic primary to then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins.

“Things were up in the air and we sort of rode it out, along with my blood pressure. It tends to go up in those situations,” said Artz, who is now 77. “I just remember trying to calm Koch down in those moments.”

In other cases, Artz helped lawmakers transition gently out of office. He recalled a day in 2017 when the late Assemblymember Herman “Denny” Farrell summoned him to his corner at Coogan’s, a venerable Irish pub and restaurant in Washington Heights that closed in 2020.

Farrell was first elected to the Assembly in 1975, and went on to represent parts of West Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood for more than four decades. He invited Artz, who worked on his campaigns, to join him and his then-Chief of Staff Rev. Al Taylor at Coogan’s. Artz said Farrell told him to “‘do everything to school him,’” nodding toward Taylor.

Taylor said the meeting caught him by surprise, but he was ready to run as Farrell’s successor when the assemblymember resigned that September. Taylor, now 66, won the seat in a special election later that year and has fended off challengers in every cycle since.

Artz said if he were advising the Biden campaign now, he would deliver a stark warning about the risk of staying in the race.

“I would certainly be telling him, ‘why do you want to embarrass yourself? You’re going to lose and you’re going to bring down the Democratic ticket with you,” said Artz. “And your legacy will be trashed after that.”

Paterson echoed that sentiment.

“If you move forward and get beaten by 10 points in a general election, history looks at you as someone that didn’t know when to say goodbye,” he said. “And I think that’s the weight of the decision that the president has to make.”

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