After Spitzer: Paterson brings political acumen to New York politics

Set to become governor Monday, the politician is known for his drive and affability.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Departure: New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced his resignation Wednesday. His wife, Silda, stood by.
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    Paterson: To lead New York.
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    Then and now: In happier days (above), Eliot Spitzer (center) and running mate David Paterson (left) campaigned together in Brooklyn in their bid to go to Albany.
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    State Assembly staff members gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to watch Mr. Spitzer announce that he would resign his post as governor effective March 17.
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The man in line to be New York's next governor is, in many ways, the accidental governor.

And as David Paterson has done all his life, the legally blind African-American is counting on people to underestimate him.

He will be sworn in Monday, catapulted into the governor's chair after a sex scandal forced Gov. Eliot Spitzer to announce on Wednesday that he will resign.

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Governor Spitzer rose to national prominence as the scourge of corrupt corporations but was forced from office amid allegations that he had been a longtime client of an international prostitution ring. In announcing his resignation, Spitzer again apologized to his family and the public.

"I'm deeply sorry I did not live up to what was expected of me," Spitzer said in a brief statement Wednesday morning. "To every New Yorker and to all of those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize."

Spitzer's resignation will become effective on Monday. He told reporters that Lieutenant Governor Paterson had asked for that additional time to allow for an orderly transition. As Spitzer ended his political life, he also made it clear he did not intend to disappear from public life.

"As human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling but in rising every time we fall," he said. "As I leave public life I will do first and foremost what is needed to heal myself and my family and then I will try once again, outside of politics, to serve the common good."

Paterson is the scion of a powerful Harlem family. But his rise to power through New York's sometimes arcane political system is due to his intellect, determination, personable character, and political skills, according to people who have worked with him over the years.

And they're counting on those attributes and skills to bring healing to the state, which has been shocked by the sudden fall from grace of Spitzer. Spitzer had come to Albany just over a year ago priding himself as a "steamroller" determined to reform the moribund state capital. Instead, he alienated lawmakers in both parties and found himself with few if any allies in his current troubles. Paterson, on the other hand, has 20 years of legislative experience and is known and well-liked on both sides of the aisle for his humor and candidness.

"You can see he's a fighter, people have underestimated this guy in the past, but I think he'll prove to be every bit up to the challenge," says state Sen. Martin Golden, a leading Republican. "He knows how this process works, he comes from the city of New York, he grew up hard – his blindness has forced him to overcome lots of obstacles."

Paterson lost most of his sight while only three months old, but he refused to learn Braille, carry a white stick, or use a guide dog. Instead, the young man became the first disabled student at his public school. Using his limited ability to see shapes, he did his best to appear as normal as any other student, according to biographies of him. Depending on recorded books and people to read to him, Paterson graduated with good enough grades to go to Columbia University and then Hofstra University School of Law. While a student there, Paterson could be seen regularly jogging down the Hempstead Turnpike, a six-lane highway with no sidewalks.

"He used to jog five miles on that road every couple of days – and remember he's blind," says Eric Lane, a professor of law at Hofstra, who was one of Paterson's teachers and later worked with him in the legislature. "This is a guy with fabulous fortitude; he's impressive. When he wanted to overcome his disability, he really pushed hard."

After law school, Paterson worked in the Queens, N.Y., district attorney's office, then signed on with former Mayor David Dinkins's campaign. Mayor Dinkins was a close friend of Paterson's father, Basil, a leading African-American politician, former state senator, and New York secretary of State. In 1985, when the seat that his father had held became vacant, Paterson easily won it. In 2002, he became the Senate minority leader.

"In the Senate, where he rose from a freshman senator to minority leader he showed great political skills," says Professor Lane. "He's got a good sense of humor. He knows how to talk to people; he understood what they needed, what they wanted. He's got that combination of good political skills and very impressive fortitude."

But some political analysts wonder whether Paterson will be tough enough to wrestle New York's two major political machines into line. New York political analyst Douglas Muzzio points out that he hasn't yet been in a real position of authority. In New York, that's traditionally been the governor, Senate majority leader, and Assembly speaker.

"As minority leader, he wasn't one of the three men in the room [who dictate Albany's politics] – in fact minority leader is a fairly powerless position," says Mr. Muzzio, who teaches political science at Baruch College. "The question for Paterson now is does he have the focus, the drive, and a focused agenda. And right now, we don't know."

But Paterson's history indicates that he made a study of proving such skeptics wrong. He told The New York Times that when he first became minority leader, he took a lesson from Mario Puzo's book "The Godfather."

"You should have your friends underestimating your strengths and have your adversaries overestimating your weaknesses," he said.

Soon after Spitzer announced that he would resign, Paterson released a statement saying that he was "saddened" by what he'd learned over the past few days. He also asked for all New Yorkers to pray for the Spitzer family. He then made it clear it was time to move on.

"It is now time for Albany to get back to work – as the people of this state expect from us," he said.

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