Paterson Ready to Take Over Spitzer's Office

New York State's next governor could not be more different than the man he is about to replace.

Eliot Spitzer famously called himself a "steamroller." David A. Paterson considers himself a conciliator. Spitzer's ambitions for higher office were always well known to those around him. Paterson, by contrast, surprised even his family when he decided to follow his father into politics.

Paterson, the lieutenant governor for 14 months under Spitzer, will move from political understudy to a starring role on Monday when Spitzer leaves office in disgrace after being linked as a client to a prostitution ring.

In his first act as governor-designate, Paterson issued a statement Wednesday about the startling events catapulting him to the pinnacle of power in New York.

"Like all New Yorkers I am saddened by what we have learned over the past several days. On a personal level Governor Spitzer and [his wife] Silda have been close and steadfast friends. As an elected official, the governor has worked hard for the people of New York," Paterson said.

"My heart goes out to him and to his family at this difficult and painful time. I ask all New Yorkers to join Michelle and me in prayer for them. It is now time for Albany to get back to work as the people of this state expect from us."

Paterson, 53, will become New York's first African-American governor. He also will be the first-ever legally blind governor. He lost all his sight in his left eye from an infection when he was three months old, and he has extremely limited sight in his right eye.

Paterson is the son of Basil Paterson, an influential power broker and labor lawyer in New York. Basil Paterson served in the state Senate and was the Democrats' unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 1970. With former Mayor David Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel and former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, the elder Paterson has been part of the so-called "Harlem Clubhouse" that has been a powerful force in New York politics for nearly 40 years.

Those connections have helped David Paterson climb the political ladder. However, unlike many children who follow their parents into politics, Paterson never was groomed for elected office.

Indeed, after graduating from Columbia University and Hofstra Law School, Paterson surprised his father and the rest of the Harlem Clubhouse when he announced at a Democratic Party meeting in 1985 that he planned to run for a vacant state Senate seat in Harlem.

Paterson won and served relatively anonymously in the Republican-controlled state Senate. As a reform-minded junior member of the minority party, he had little influence in the chamber, but he was able to build relationships on both sides of the aisle. His first bid to move up was defeated when he lost a bid to become New York City public advocate.

Frustrated by the Democrats' second-class status and his own lack of influence, Paterson helped engineer a coup in November 2002, toppling the Senate minority leader, Martin Connor. The once anonymous legislator became the Democrats' new leader.

Under Paterson, the Democrats captured three seats held by Republicans, putting them within striking distance of becoming the majority party in the chamber for the first time in 40 years. One of the Albany officials Paterson impressed was Spitzer, then the attorney general.

In 2006, as he was running for governor, Spitzer began sounding out Paterson about being his running mate. Spitzer had upset influential black Democrats, especially in Harlem, with some of his actions as attorney general. He believed that adding Paterson to his ticket would smooth relations with this vital part of New York's Democratic base, and help build bridges to the legislature should he win election.

Paterson accepted. The alliance stunned New York's political establishment and blindsided the Harlem Cubhouse. It was announced just as three of Paterson's political patrons – Dinkins, Rangel and Sutton – announced they were backing someone else for lieutenant governor.

"Did David take this job because he wanted to be governor one day? I don't think so," said one close associate. "He was working to become the majority leader of the Senate; that was his goal. I think he was just tired of being in the minority party. When this came along, I think he felt, 'Why not?'"

Now, come Monday, he will be New York's governor.

"I am sure he feels a huge burden. New governors get a transition period of two months, not a few days, and here we are in the middle of trying to get a new budget through. And lieutenant governors, much like vice presidents, don't have huge staffs. It is an enormous challenge and burden to place on him," said Connor.

"But David is extraordinarily intelligent. He enjoys enormous goodwill with the legislature and the public at large. He is charming, witty, a good consensus builder, not a confrontational person. That should help him in dealing with the challenges ahead."

Paterson lives in Harlem with his wife, Michelle. They have two children, Ashley Dennis, 19, and Alex Paterson, 13.