David Paterson: Activist, Progressive...Governor

In 1999, when New York City activists organized civil disobedience to protest the police shooting of African-immigrant Amadou Diallo, one of New York state's most prominent legislators arrived at police headquarters in Manhattan to be arrested as part of the a remarkable civil rights protest.

The veteran state senator who was rising to a leadership role in Democratic circles took a place symbolically blocking an entrance to One Police Place and held his wrists out. Police officers attached plastic handcuffs and led the distinguished gentleman away to be charged with disorderly conduct.

The legislator's name was David Paterson.

On Monday, he will become the 55th governor of New York state.

Little known outside New York until now, Paterson becomes an instant political celebrity as he prepares to replace scandal-plagued Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose career was ruined by his association with a money-for-sex scandal.

Paterson is a radically different political player than Spitzer, a wealthy lawyer who grabbed headlines for battling Wall Street insiders but who always acted a little more like the bankers and brokers he challenged than the victims of corporate excess.

There was nothing grassroots, neighborhood-level or community-based about Eliot Spitzer's activism. As New York's Attorney General, he would as an outgrowth of the controversy surrounding Diallo's death, announce plans to conduct inquiries into police practices.

But Spitzer did not get his hands dirty in that fight or many others, and he did not hold them out to be handcuffed.

That's why, when Spitzer prepared to seek the governorship, he asked Paterson to run with him. Spitzer recognized that he needed the state senator's credibility with community activists and progressives, even if the gubernatorial candidate never quite embraced his running-mate as a full partner.

As is often the case with lieutenant governors, the No. 2 man in New York was not always treated fairly by the No. 1 man. They clashed a bit during the 2006 campaign, and no one was surprised when Spitzer grabbed all the headlines once the team took office.

But Paterson's decision to accept the second position on Spitzer's ticket in the first weeks of 2006, which many questioned at the time, has two years after the fact made him the man of the moment.

Paterson has been handed a remarkable opportunity to be not just a state officials but a national leader. And his long experience makes its likely that he will handle the spotlight and the job with aplomb.

Democrats like Paterson's ex-boss, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, say he will be a "superb governor," and even Republican partisans like New York Congressman Peter King describe the veteran pol as "a class act."

That will distinguish Paterson from Spitzer, and may well be the key to his success in a role that no one expected him to be taking at this point but that most serious observers of New York politics say Paterson is uniquely prepared to fill as an experienced and capable progressive leader.

Spitzer, egotistical in the extreme and never much of a team player, personally picked Paterson to run with him. The move was a political one, designed to strengthen Spitzer's hand as he grabbed for New York's top job after a brief but high-profile tenure as state Attorney General.

There were predictable turf wars between Paterson and Spitzer during the campaign and in its aftermath, particularly with regard to questions about staffing and the role Paterson would have in the new administration.

More significantly, there were policy differences, including one related to the Diallo case.

Paterson had sponsored legislatioin to establish reasonable restrictions on the use of deadly force by police officers, but Spitzer publicly disavowed the bill during the campaign.

Such incidents put distance between the candidates. But both men were smart about their circumstance; they didn't let things get too ugly or too public. And they won in November by a landslide.

Paterson--who, while his ambition may not rival that of Spitzer, has always kept a politician's eye on the ladder to higher positions--wanted the lieutenant governorship.

And Spitzer wanted Paterson on his team.

Paterson's strength was not so much that he was a prominent African-American official, although that certainly didn't hurt his prospects in a state with a large and politically-active African-American voting bloc. What really mattered was that, while Spitzer seemed like a man who was pushing everyone else aside in his rush to the governorship, Paterson was a Democrat with deep roots in the party, a long record of public service and a good measure of activist credibility.

David Paterson is a member of a great New York political family who grew up in and around the state's public life. His father, Basil, was New York's secretary of state, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1970 and the first African-American vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. Basil Paterson, a long-time hero of urban liberals, remains a well-regarded labor lawyer and outspoken progressive -- as well as his son's closest counselor.

More than two decades ago, David Paterson won his father's old state senate seat and began a rise that would take him to the top post in the chamber's Democratic caucus, that of minority leader.

Paterson has always had better ties to progressives than Spitzer.

Paterson has, as well, a particularly strong track record of taking bold positions on civil rights issues--especially gay rights. "David Paterson is a terrific, progressive guy--extremely LGBT-friendly," says Ethan Geto, a Democratic strategist with a history of activism on behalf of New York's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Indeed, Geto told The Advocate magazine that was thought Paterson would be a champion in the struggle for to advance same-sex marriage initiatives in the state.

Paterson will, as well, emerge as a national leader on issues of concern to people with disabilities--both as a passionate advocate and someone who can speak from experience.

Paterson is legally blind--he suffers from optic atrophy, a degeneration of the fibers of the optic nerve--but the condition has rarely seemed too much of a burden for this graduate of Columbia University in 1977 and Hofstra Law School.

As it happens, Paterson will be the first legally blind governor and only the fourth African-American governor in the nation's history.

He will, as well, become Hillary Clinton's highest profile African-American backer.

Paterson has worked hard to elect Clinton, earning high marks for his campaigning on behalf of the senator's presidential run in Iowa and other states.

The speculation was that, if Clinton won the presidency, Paterson would be Spitzer's choice to succeed the senator. And Paterson would have been an able senator. Now, he will be an able governor.

Paterson has to handle the transition smartly, which will be tough because of the usually rapid decline in Spitzer's fortunes--and because the outgoing governor did not always keep his lieutenant governor in the loop.

But Paterson, because of his background as a senator, is likely to work better and smarter with the legislature than did his edgy -- often confrontational -- predecessor.

And in a year that is likely to see Democrats do very well in New York's fall elections for legislative seats -- whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama heads the national ticket, and especially if they are both on it -- Paterson is likely to go from strength to strength.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy -- The New Press.

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