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Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen
First-year Senate Minority Leader David Paterson struggles against the odds—and old-boy politics—to give his party a stronger voice in New York state government
By Travis Durfee

Upon accepting his post as Senate minority leader late last year, David Paterson, 49, knew the odds were stacked against any successes he envisioned—but he was looking for a struggle.

Just like he was looking for a struggle in October 2002 when he was arrested for blocking the entrance to Gov. George Pataki’s Manhattan office to protest the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. It was his third arrest: Previously, he had been motivated to civil disobedience by apartheid and the excessive force used to kill Amadou Diallo.

Though his beliefs drive him to such actions, Paterson, a small-framed, spry black man, says that while he has been willing to get arrested, he always dreads the trip downtown.

“It is very troubling for me to get arrested because I used to work in the district attorney’s office,” Paterson says. “So anybody that walked in and had been arrested, as far as I was concerned, should be locked up. And I’ve always been afraid I’d run into someone I used to work with or maybe I’d run into someone I’d put inside.”

“Oh, look who’s here,” Paterson bellows, mimicking someone he’d locked up in his former life as an assistant district attorney in Queens. But as quickly as Paterson jokingly lightens the air, the 18-year senator makes his point.

“But I think the Rockefeller Drug Laws have unfairly put people behind bars and destroyed their lives over, sometimes, one evening’s mistake in which no one else got hurt,” Paterson says. “You know, I’m not talking about drug dealing and cartels and that sort of thing. I’m talking about people who are young and being experimental, and the only difference between me and them is they got caught.”

Paterson’s experiences with civil disobedience have been relatively few, but he recognizes the importance of engaging such actions; sometimes you have to put up a fight to show where you stand. Although the task of keeping his party relevant in the Republican-controlled Senate is daunting, Paterson is ready to stand his ground. Born legally blind, Paterson has been preparing for such struggles all his life.

As a child, David Paterson went to great lengths to hide his disability. He never learned to read Braille, preferring books on tape and having others read to him. He never sought special services for his disability in the Hempstead public school system that agreed to educate him in the classroom along with the general population.

“I think what I thought was, the more I fit in with people, the more they would accept me,” says Paterson, a natural orator whose voice carries the slightest of rasps. “I was never a person to complain for not getting the services I thought I should get. There were times when I wasn’t getting the services I needed and I didn’t say anything. I thought it was great that everybody was letting me be there that I didn’t think I deserved anything beyond the opportunity to be in the classroom with everybody else.”

Paterson says it took him years to come to terms with his disability, and tells the story of a law-school colleague who helped him recognize his denial.

When Paterson was 28 and in his last year of law school at Hofstra, he was asked by a colleague to speak to a handful of visually disabled students at Baldwin High School on Long Island. Paterson remembers not wanting to go.

“The woman, who was white, said to me, ‘I came to a black law-students dinner and you told the students, ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’ But why is it that as a blind person you don’t want to help these kids?’” Paterson remembers. “I was really antagonized by this remark that she’d made to me, and for two or three days I thought of a number of terms I used to describe her—none flattering. But she had hit a core issue; I realized I had sort of lost touch with my connection to other people in that area.”

Paterson said the event led him to reconsider his disability and how it had shaped him.

“The popular notion about disabled people is, ‘They’re just like everyone else. You’ve just got to give them a chance,’ ” Paterson says. “Well no, they can perform like everyone else, but when you have a disability you’re not like everyone else. There is a uniqueness to being disabled and you often think differently than other people.”

Paterson has applied what he has learned from living with a disability to his role in the state Senate.

“I realized when I became elected to office that I always had to get things done by using other people,” Paterson says. “People read to me, people drove me, assisted me going to the bank. So I realized my whole life I’d been working with people [to get things done], and time management and the use of others—that is the whole skill of being an elected official. It is even more enhanced being a leader.”

Paterson’s astuteness to the needs of the disenfranchised was apparent during the debate over the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act in December 2002. As the final draft of the three-decade-old bill was being debated on the Senate floor, it became apparent that New York’s transgender population would be excluded from the change to the state’s civil-rights law. Paterson was a vocal advocate for the transgenders’ inclusion.

“I don’t think I’m transgendered and I don’t really understand the definition totally,” Paterson says, “but I know that they are people who live their life in a different kind of way and they feel ostracized. In my opinion, as long as they are not selling drugs to people, killing people, or abusing people they deserve to work and live in our society. And what makes our society great is that we champion the uniqueness of people and the differences among us.”

But despite the outcry from the transgender community and threats to kill the bill unless they were included, Paterson voted for SONDA.

“I don’t like voting for bills that are supposed to make life easier for more people but still exclude people,” Paterson says, “but I understand that in the inertia of life, improvement is based on a continuum of positive experiences.

“The reason I voted for it was that I’d once killed a hate-crimes bill in 1987—that was my own bill—because the Republicans didn’t want to include gay and lesbians, they didn’t want to include sexual orientation,” Paterson says. “But I realized that in killing the bill I killed the movement. What I’m beginning to understand now is that you do allow for incremental change because what inspires people are not the injustices—what inspires people is hope.”

Paterson rose to power as Senate minority leader last fall after Democrats produced a poor showing in elections at both the state and national levels.

“People were upset after losing the gubernatorial election so badly, losing the House and the Senate in Washington,” says Eric Schneiderman (D-NYC), Paterson’s deputy minority leader. “The party wasn’t really as energetic as it needed to be, and in our little corner we decided to make a change for the better.”

Though Paterson’s predecessor, Martin Conner (D-Brooklyn), was harshly criticized for offering legal support to Independence Party gubernatorial candidate B. Thomas Golisano during his primary battles with Gov. Pataki, Senate Democrats say the problems with their caucus ran much deeper.

Members say the bloc’s old hand was infamous for operating out of self-interest, being overly secretive and not reprimanding members cozying up to the majority.

“Legislators were more concerned with what they got than how they were serving their constituents,” Paterson says. “What I wanted to do was really have a new leadership. We still have a problem of getting crumbs from the majority and knowing that they don’t represent a victory. We still have to work on the culture of the Democratic conference.”

Schneiderman says Paterson has been successful in achieving that goal, beginning with being more open with the members of the conference than his predecessors. For example, the minority leader’s office creates a list of important legislation coming up for debate on the Senate floor and distributes it to other members in the party.

“That is the kind of thing that sends an important message,” Schneiderman said. “He is not trying to hide things from the members. If there are important bills coming up, he wants his members to know and he wants their feedback.”

Overall, Schneiderman says the minority conference is tighter and much more open than it once was, something Paterson expected to achieve all along.

“It’s great to campaign in poetry, but the question is, can you govern in poetry?” Paterson says. “Can you still champion that ideal and have the fortitude to actually practice it?”

Paterson has used an atypi- cal tack as minority leader, trying to foster cordial relations with the majority while maintaining his party’s ideals and independence, and nowhere was this more apparent than in this year’s budget negotiations.

Much to the majority leaders’ chagrin, the governor had broken off all budget negotiations early in the process. With Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Troy) at odds with the governor, Paterson was provided ideal circumstances to flourish as minority leader: He was free to take full advantage of his bully pulpit and raise the public’s awareness of his conference’s ideals.

Paterson blasted the governor’s budget staff for painting a rosy picture of the state’s fiscal straits during Pataki’s reelection campaign. The Senate Democrats were also the first conference in the state Legislature to issue a plan to ease the blow from the governor’s budget, many aspects of which were eventually adopted into the final budget.

Paterson’s political stock truly took off after Pataki vetoed the Legislature’s budget. In order to override the governor’s veto, the Senate needed 42 votes, or four more than the 38-member Republican majority, and Paterson could have played politics as usual. He could have bargained with Bruno for more discretionary funds or more staffing, but he chose not to.

“On the issue [of the budget], I knew that the override was the right move,” Paterson says. “I told [Bruno], ‘What you want to do is run the table, and that’s what I want to do because I want the veto overridden. So that makes us partners.’ I think he was a little astounded.

“Every democratic leader that I’ve heard of thought that the way to negotiate was to wait until you have an advantage, and to show your adversary the advantage,” Paterson says. “I promised [Bruno] that I’m never going to mix the issue with the politics, and I think that surprised him.”

If the Senate majority leader was surprised, he was equally impressed with and grateful for Paterson’s integrity. Paterson says Bruno asked him to provide a list of his party’s needs—an oddity in Albany.

“I knew that was different,” Paterson says. “What they usually tell you is, ‘You know we’ve got some special needs [in the majority]. You’ve got 40 parking spaces, but we’re going to have to cut them to three. You’ve got five cars, well we’re going to have to take them all, but we’ll give you a bike.’ I mean they’ll kill you. But they asked me to write up a proposal. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but we did OK. We did all right.”

Less than a month after the Legislature successfully overrode Pataki’s veto, Bruno also invited Paterson to be a part of the Senate Taskforce on Medicaid Reform, a testament to their working relationship.

“Sen. Bruno sees Sen. Paterson as a gentlemen, and that leads to a solid working relationship between the two of them,” says Senate majority spokesman Matt Walter. “We can definitely say that they’ve had an excellent relationship, and that has helped form a fantastic working relationship.”

Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Delmar) was reported in the June 5 Times Union as saying that this was the first time in his seven years in Albany that he has seen a joint committee on any topic.

“I think [Paterson has] had an incredibly successful start,” says Rachel Leon, executive director of the citizen advocacy group Common Cause/NY. “There has been a whole new level of communication with leadership this session and a new level of involvement for the minority in decision making. This has just been an unprecedented year.”

But Paterson says he isn’t satisfied with one good year, nor is he looking for favorable press coverage. He wants to make his party a force in the state Senate.

“I don’t like to talk about it grandiosely, but there is a plan,” says Paterson. “If we follow that plan for six or seven years, we can become competitive, and if we follow the plan for six or seven more years, maybe we can take the majority.

“But what I want to talk about is the struggle,” he says. “Because people remember the struggle, and we can build from the struggle.”

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