Friday, March 14, 2008

A man of vision

A year of expected firsts in presidential politics will also see breakthrough in the fractious world of New York politics.

As we know, the abrasive, combative New York governor Eliot Spitzer will resign his office on Monday, after his being implicated in a prostitution ring. The Spitzer scandal may yet result in criminal prosecution for the former prosecutor known, with some derision, as Mr. Clean.

With Spitzer’s resignation a year and four months after taking office, the way’s clear for his successor, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, to put his stamp on politics in the Empire State. When Spitzer bows out, Paterson will become the first black governor of New York State, only the fourth black governor in American history, and the first legally blind governor in the nation’s history.

Even before being sworn in, Paterson, 53, seems to realize the shoulders he’s standing on. “In some ways I feel I’m sitting on a sandcastle that other people built,” Paterson said Thursday at a press conference in Albany.

Two of those shoulders belong to his father, Basil Paterson, a former New York secretary of state, first black vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, one-time deputy mayor of New York City and a savvy operator within its rough, labyrinthine politics.

A childhood illness left David Paterson totally blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other. But it didn’t stop him from building a career that’s used consensus as a tool for change in his native state.

After working to get David Dinkins elected as Manhattan borough president, Paterson was elected in 1985 to represent the black-majority district of Harlem and parts of New York’s Upper West Side in the state Senate, and established his bona fides there. He lost in two bids for city offices in the 1990’s, but burnished his rep in the state Senate, becoming in 2002 the minority leader of the state Senate, the first such non-white officeholder in the state’s history.

In 2004, Paterson became the first legally blind person to address the Democratic National Convention, the same event at which Barack Obama electrified the nation. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2006. In the roughly sixteen months he’s been there, Paterson has been an able advocate for stem cell research, minority-owned businesses, initiatives against domestic violence, and renewable energy.

His political advances as a blind person have been inspiring in ways that transcend the purely political. "We don’t see a lot of people with disabilities in positions that important," said Suzanne Ressa, marketing director at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, in an interview with The Associated Press. "He could be a great role model to all those individuals who are transitioning into the work world, because he’s saying, ’Yeah I’m making it happen.’”

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Now, Paterson’s poised to be an even bigger change agent in New York politics. He already has a groundswell of support from the state Republican leadership. “I want to partner with him,” said Joseph Bruno, the state Senate Majority Leader. “I want to help him, I don’t want to be his adversary,” he said in an interview with NBC’s Mike Taibbi.

Bruno’s comments make sense, of course, since he assumes the powers of lieutenant governor, if not the office itself, when Paterson succeeds Spitzer. Honeymoons don’t last long, especially in Albany, but Bruno’s conciliatory gesture suggests this marriage is off to a good start.

The inevitable question is how this plays out in the national political race. When Spitzer resigns as governor, Monday at noon eastern time, Hillary Clinton loses one of the superdelegates in her current tally. Paterson is also a superdelegate, and a Clinton supporter, but CBS News reported Tuesday that “The Democratic National Committee will likely offer Paterson's original superdelegate vote, which he received through his DNC membership, to someone else.”

Barack Obama, the other most prominent African American politician of the day, may enjoy some popular emotional linkage to Paterson — gilt by association — as he makes his own groundbreaking run for the presidency. Paterson's reputation as both agent of change and conciliator in New York may reflect well on Obama's own similar assets.

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But Paterson’s already shown signs of being his own man in Albany. He held a press conference Thursday, attended by state workers and a room full of reporters.

“Have you ever patronized a prostitute?” one asked Paterson, clearly thinking he’d put the future governor on the spot.

Paterson took this fastball from the tough, no-nonsense New York press and parked it in the center-field stands.

“Only the lobbyists,” Paterson said, with the timing of a standup comic, to gales of approving laughter.

With a professional sense of purpose, and a wry, playful sense of the way Albany government works, Paterson is set to take a seat in the New York governor’s chair on an upbeat note. Early indications are, it’s likely to be a good fit.

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