Leaning back against the cushion at a table in IC Square, Ashley Dennis has a lot on her mind.
On a predictably chilly February night, she’s glancing at the pages of the thickly bound constitutional law book sprawled out in front of her. But the 5-foot-8-inch Harlem, N.Y., native seems to be consumed more by her personal problems than by writing legal briefs for class.
“I’m kind of letting myself grow away from my boyfriend,” she says, letting slight signs of apprehension show through her usually calm and collected demeanor.
The 20-year-old junior integrated marketing communications major has been dating her boyfriend, Sean Scotese, a chef in Manhattan eight years her senior, for more than a year. Like most college women, Dennis is finding that juggling school, a job, a boyfriend and responsibilities to her family a bit daunting.
But unlike most women her age, Dennis’ relationship to her family doesn’t rely on daily or weekly phone calls and bimonthly visits. In fact, as the stepdaughter of New York Gov. David Paterson, she doesn’t need them — any glance at a newspaper or time spent channel surfing is a chance to check up on what her father is doing fewer than 200 miles away in Albany.
For Dennis, this was a comfort early on in her stepfather’s transition when the governor was high in the polls. Tonight, sitting under the pub’s brash incandescent light, it is just as much a stress as her classwork.
In the year following her stepfather’s inauguration, stories in the media began to pile up — those criticizing Paterson’s handling of the state’s budget deficit; the firestorm that erupted over Caroline Kennedy’s candidacy, and subsequent withdrawal, to replace Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate; and a depiction of the legally blind governor in a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
“David is my best friend,” she says, conveying the passionate anger of someone who found out their friend has been talked badly about.
Politics isn’t new for Paterson. He was elected to the State Senate in 1985, three years before Ashley was born and seven years before he married her mother, Michelle Paige Paterson. He remained there until running as lieutenant governor alongside Eliot Spitzer in 2006.
Throughout his political career, Paterson has intentionally kept his stepdaughter separated from his political life.
Dennis is unsure if this is still the case.
“I think, less so,” she says, her face momentarily lost in thought.
Struggling to find words, her eyes well up. Tears slowly stream down her round face.
“I’m so upset about my relationship with my boyfriend,” she cries quietly. “And there’s so much work I have to do … and my family.”
She is composed again in a minute’s time.
“I think he’s trying to protect me less because he’s needed me.”
Last March, Dennis was vacationing in Belize with Scotese when she heard about The New York Times article that reported Spitzer had been a client of a prostitution ring under federal investigation. Spitzer resigned two days later, and Paterson rose to governor.
“I got back from Belize on Sunday, and the inauguration was on Monday,” she said. “It was kind of all at once.”
She was scheduled to return to Ithaca that Tuesday following Paterson’s inauguration, but instead, Dennis found herself staying in Albany for an extra day as her parents made their own public revelation.
Coming off the heels of Spitzer’s sex scandal, David and Michelle Paige Paterson wanted to defray any personal scrutiny into their own marital affairs by revealing they had both had relationships outside their marriage in the past but had resolved to stay together.
“At the time it was hurtful,” Dennis said. “I didn’t want to hear that. The lesson I learned is that you’re always careful with what you say but at the same time, that you can still be honest about what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.”
Michelle Paige Paterson, Dennis’ mother, said there was little the family could do to prepare for the media attention.
“We were thrown in the spotlight, and I don’t think that’s such a good thing,” she said. “It just happened overnight, and I think that for my daughter, as well as my son, it was an adjustment being in the public eye.”
The thrust into the spotlight demanded a certain level of discretion. When strangers began harassing Dennis on Facebook after Paterson was inaugurated, she made her account private and asked her friends to keep personal information like her telephone number under wraps.
As a result, most students who pass Dennis don’t know who she is. That’s the way she likes it. She said she takes luxuries like living in the 41-room executive mansion with a grain of salt.
“There are things that come along with it that are not exciting, like when the State Police do surveillance and security,” Dennis said.
Terry Martinez, director of student engagement and multicultural affairs, is also the director of the college’s Martin Luther King Scholar program and knows Dennis as one of those scholars. Martinez attended a governor’s town hall meeting Jan. 31 in Auburn, N.Y., which Dennis attended as well. Martinez said it was the first time she was able to see Dennis act as a public figure.
“She was able to, in a really mature, positive way, negotiate a crowd that seemed to want something from her,” Martinez said.
Paterson said Dennis has been someone he turns to for comfort since she was a child.
“She is really a compassionate person, a person who cares about people, who gets upset over the things that happen to other people, who worries about her friends,” the governor said. “It’s not all about her.”
Dennis’ only complaint comes from having to be the “fly on the wall,” as she so often feels she is when she hears Paterson being criticized while eating at restaurants or riding the subways in New York City.
“You want to come to his rescue, but it’s not appropriate,” she said.
FEELING THE HEAT
Dennis has been able to come to her father’s rescue in other ways, such as when she spoke on his behalf at the funeral of prominent New York political operative Terence Tolbert in mid-November.
Living a public life has meant more than just occasional speaking engagements for Dennis. Last spring, State Troopers were dispatched to follow her every move after a few crimes reported in Ithaca gave the family a scare.
Before she was familiar with the burly troopers, Dennis said she briefly secluded herself out of fear she may be spied upon the way Spitzer had allegedly used the troopers to spy on then-
Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno.
“It was really good for me because I got more work done than I had ever gotten done,” she said.
Eventually, she grew to trust the troopers, who were in plainclothes with their guns concealed, but that trust did not compensate for the awkwardness that ensued when she went out on the weekends — troopers following her down the block.
As Paterson spent more time in office, his popularity began to fall.
On Oct. 5, New York Magazine published a cover story on the governor by Geoffrey Gray that likened Paterson’s managerial style to that of a smooth-talking improvisational jazz musician. He wrote the governor’s career sprouted out of a series of legacy connections and lucky coincidences.
Dennis described it as “one of the most racist pieces of writing” she’d ever seen.
“If David were white it wouldn’t even be a question of how badly he wanted something and how he got where he was,” Dennis said.
On Oct. 24, The New York Post reported Paterson’s Chief of Staff Charles O’Byrne resigned after the paper had uncovered he had failed to pay his taxes for five years. Dennis hadn’t picked up on the piece at the time, which surprised her, since she had gotten into the weekly habit of doing a Google name search on the governor. Instead, she found out from Paterson himself when he called her.
Paterson’s low point came in January when Caroline Kennedy withdrew her candidacy for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. On Feb. 21, a New York Times article revealed the governor had ordered his staff to deny Kennedy had ever been his top choice in the wake of her withdrawal, as well as spread false rumors that tax, nanny and marriage issues had deemed her an unfavorable candidate throughout the vetting process.
Today, Paterson is viewed favorably by only 27 percent of voters — lower than Spitzer’s ratings when he had resigned, according to a Siena Research poll.
Paterson said he and his family have been able to keep perspective in the face of bad press.
“As much as the media tries to define you, inevitably you define yourself,” he said. “You don’t really have to worry about all the people that are seeing it that don’t know you, because it’s the people who know you who know who you are.”
“A big part of family is being part of a support system,” Dennis says. “David and my mother have needed a lot of support lately.”
Discussing the issues that arose with the Caroline Kennedy debacle, and the backlash it created for the governor, her manner of speech becomes more terse.
“It’s just about finding the strength to not let that kind of stuff bother you,” she says somberly. “That’s hard, but we do it.”
Letting the bad press consume her is not her style. So Dennis, who has reconciled with her boyfriend, keeps busy at the gym, working as a training specialist for ITS and preparing for an internship with Teach for America.
“I’m working, and I’m doing school work, and I am … ,” she pauses, grinning mischievously, “behaving badly.”
She doesn’t elaborate — she knows better. Her point is that life isn’t so bad, even despite, literally, all the bad news. She attended President Obama’s inauguration, a reminder that being the governor’s daughter has its benefits.
“I’ve never been so happy to be freezing my ass off,” she says.
But none of this compensated for the pain that came with watching “SNL” cast member Fred Armisen depict Paterson as a clueless blind man in December and again in February.
“You don’t make fun of blind people,” she says softly. “David doesn’t come off like that at all, which is what I didn’t understand, because whenever he’s in the public, he is not like this fumbling idiot.”
Dennis admits while her parents’ bad press has taken a toll on her, she’s been spared.
“I’ve been really lucky to be at school, to be able to walk away … when I need to,” she says.
Above all, Dennis is excited for Paterson’s 2010 re-election campaign, which she says she’ll volunteer for in any capacity.
“I’m just so tired of this ‘accidental governor’ b——-,” she says referring to the moniker he’s received in the press. “It’ll be really nice to once and for all prove to the world that David is no accident.”