First-year Senate Minority Leader David Paterson struggles
against the oddsand old-boy politicsto give his
party a stronger voice in New York state government
By Travis Durfee
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.”
rose to power as Senate minority leader last fall after
Democrats produced a poor showing in elections at both the
state and national levels.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
what I want to talk about is the struggle,” he says. “Because
people remember the struggle, and we can build from the