Wednesday, March 12, 2008

New York Gets Its First Black Governor

Taking the office after the spectacular fall of Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson becomes only the third black governor of any state since Reconstruction.

The 53-year old Paterson is widely reported to be liked by pretty much everyone - in contrast to his disgraced predecessor. The New York Times describes the Brooklyn-born and Harlem-bred Paterson thus: "Widely considered smart, amiable and disarmingly candid."

He's also legally blind.

"Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo recalled playing basketball against him in a charity game a decade ago.

“David was on the other side,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I said: ‘What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be blind.’ He said, ‘I’m guarding you.’ Just what I wanted: a blind guy to guard me. The second time down the court, he stole the ball.”

He’s got a wonderful sense of humor, a very gentle man,” said Betsy Gotbaum, the New York City public advocate. “In that sense, he’s the opposite of Eliot.”

And yes, what about Eliot?

Spitzer seems to have had a knack of insulting and antagonizing, usually unnecessarily. The New York Times recalls Spitzer's inaugural address: "delivered in his usual from-the-mount cadences, stood out for a singular lapse into gracelessness.

"With his predecessor of the previous 12 years, George E. Pataki, sitting in front of him, the new governor likened New York to Rip Van Winkle, a state that “has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by.” Even if one accepted that assessment, having it delivered with Mr. Pataki sitting right there reflected both self-righteousness and exceptionally poor manners." On another occasion, Spitzer referred to the State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno as “old” and “senile” in startlingly vulgar language.

(Read the rest of the article, Long a Public Scold, Now Facing Life as a Punch Line)

As Margot Adler said on NPR today, it seemed like Spitzer had no friends. Republicans and Wall Street clearly hated him, but even Democrats didn't show much love lost. His downfall began when banks, acting on rules Spitzer himself instituted as New York Attorney General, uncovered questionable money transfers. The irony approaches the proportions of Greek tragedy. (NPR's Adam Davidson did a fascinating piece on how and why banks were looking into Spitzer's financial transactions in the first place - listen to it here.)

Still, is David Paterson be too nice to be a governor?

Former Governor Cuomo thinks Mr. Paterson “will make a more than good governor.” But, he added: “I think in his heart of hearts he’d rather be a legislator. It’s easier to intellectualize, to deal with problems as a senator, because you don’t have to solve them.”

Here's what we know about the David Alexander Paterson.

He was born into a powerful Harlem political family. Father Basil was former state senator, who in 1970 became the first black nominee for lieutenant governor and later served as deputy mayor to Mayor Edward I. Koch and secretary of state to Gov. Hugh L. Carey.

"As an infant, Mr. Paterson developed an infection that left him blind in his left eye and with severally limited sight in the other," reports the New York Times.

"Because the public schools in New York City could not guarantee him an education without placing him in special education classes, his parents bought a house in Hempstead, on Long Island, where he became the first legally disabled person to attend the district’s public schools. He did well enough to be admitted to Columbia University — he graduated in 1977 with a degree in history — and Hofstra Law School.

"His impaired vision has helped make him a good listener. Aides brief him by leaving lengthy voice mail messages. He memorizes his speeches.

“When I say I saw something, it’s more like I sensed it,” he said in a recent interview. “I think people’s perception of me sometimes is that I see more than I actually do.”

"Mr. Paterson, who has completed the New York City Marathon, has said that his “truest disability has been my ability to overcome my physical disability.”

“As soon as people see that I can be independent, then they hold me to the standard that everyone else is,” he said. As a result, “I don’t act the way I did when I was 17, like I can do everything myself, because I realized the minute I do that, no one helps me. So I learned to be a little more pragmatic about life.”

"He remembers becoming furious when Shirley Chisholm, the former congresswoman from Brooklyn, said she had encountered more bias because she was a woman than because she was black.

“Internally, I probably felt myself more discriminated against as a disabled person,” Mr. Paterson said in 2006. “And when I would experience discrimination from another African-American I would go ballistic. I thought black people were supposed to understand.”

In the state senate, Paterson became minority leader, where he borrowed a page from Mario Puzo in dealing with the Republican majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno.

“When I came to the Senate minority, I thought that we were very bellicose and very antagonistic at times out of frustration of failure,” Mr. Paterson said. “So what I followed with Senator Bruno was something I read in ‘The Godfather,’ in the actual book, that you should have your friends underestimating your strengths and have your adversaries overestimating your weaknesses. So I always acted as if I was trying to — and I sincerely was trying — to have a more collegial atmosphere in the institution.”

"In the Senate, Mr. Paterson offered small gestures to Mr. Bruno that helped smooth their ideological differences, agreeing to adjourn early on days when Republicans were holding fund-raisers and to shorten debates. But he also helped orchestrate campaigns in 2004 that cost the Republicans three seats."

So a politician CAN be civil and cooperative, and still be effective!

"As lieutenant governor, Mr. Paterson has advanced his own agenda, focusing on stem-cell research, domestic violence and improving opportunities for women and minorities in business.

Asked what kind of governor Mr. Paterson would be, Mr. Green, who befriended him during the 1993 campaign, replied: “One word: different. Obviously, Eliot Spitzer got where he is by being pugnacious. David has gotten where he is by being accommodating.”

Where Spitzer once proudly called himself a *&^%$@!* steamroller, the consensus is, Paterson is no steamroller. In fact, Shift in Tone Likely With New Governor (New York Times.)

Paterson becomes governor when Spitzer's resignation takes effect on March 17.