Spitzer’s Mate David Paterson Is Mystery Man

State Senator David Paterson’s bid to be Eliot Spitzer’s candidate for Lieutenant Governor and campaign-trail partner was launched last month in a flurry of confusion and political intrigue. It stunned his Harlem-based world, and left him for a few days opposed by a candidate who had been endorsed by his wife and father. And when things settled down, Mr. Paterson unsettled some of Mr. Spitzer’s supporters with a public promise of a “Paterson-Spitzer administration.”

Those who follow the Harlem Senator’s career were not surprised.

Mr. Spitzer selected a man described as “a living contradiction” by one longtime associate. Indeed, Mr. Paterson’s 20 years in public life have been characterized by an array of contradictions, some of them openly stated, many irreconcilable. He’s a maverick champion of the younger generation whose Senate seat was handed to him, via a special election, by top Harlem Democrats allied with his powerful father, Basil Paterson. He’s a self-described reformer who spent nearly two decades in a comfortable political sinecure before launching a reform campaign as Senate Minority Leader.

The contradictions extend to his official biography: for years it stated, falsely, that he had been born and raised in Harlem, and it offered a shifting description of his legal career. His stance on a defining issue, the death penalty, is nuanced to the point of contradiction.

Mr. Paterson’s gifts—penetrating intelligence, an immediate human connection and an inspiring story of overcoming near-total blindness—make him a natural running mate for the stiffer, privileged, decisive Mr. Spitzer. But the chaos that has followed him through public life makes him a natural choice in another way. Mr. Spitzer has a strong stomach for risk, and Mr. Spitzer’s campaign, according to Mr. Paterson, engaged in no real vetting of its lieutenant-governor candidate—a man who brings to the campaign a complicated relationship with the truth and a difficulty in saying no.

When it was suggested that he is too quick to agree, Mr. Paterson had a ready answer: “I think that’s right. How do you like that? I think that’s a good criticism. I think I’m by nature a conciliator, and knowing that I’m not perfect when I feel I have erred, it’s in that direction—of trying too hard to keep people together and to keep everybody happy, which is not always what should be your first mission in government.”

Mr. Paterson spoke in the Minority Leader’s high-ceilinged office on the third floor of the Capitol in Albany. It was a busy day—the Senate was in session—but the office, with its government-issued furniture and red carpet blazoned with the state seal, feels out of time. Mr. Paterson spared a visiting reporter an hour and a half. His disability—while legally blind, he has some vision and can read for short periods—means his office is indifferently decorated, the walls mostly empty and plaques and awards scattered around, including one, prominently set, in which his surname is misspelled. His desk is clean. He gave the interview alone, unhandled, unminded and undisturbed by staff. He took just two calls during the 90 minutes.

Mr. Paterson is 51, but looks younger. His hair and close-cropped beard are graying, but otherwise he’s almost totally unaltered from his official photograph in the 1987-1988 New York State Red Book, which shows him with an earnest and slightly out-of-focus gaze.

“The 32-year-old Democratic Liberal who entered the legislature last year, grew up in the district”—centered in Harlem—“and has a long history of work in the community,” reads his entry in the Red Book, the official directory of state government. The Senator’s official biographies through 1992 echo that statement, the last describing him as “a life-long resident of this district.”

Mr. Paterson does have deep Harlem roots. His father and his friends—Charles Rangel, David Dinkins and Percy Sutton—have long dominated Harlem politics, and the elder Mr. Paterson once served the same Harlem district, and ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor in 1970. But David Paterson was born at St. John’s Hospital in Brooklyn, and when he reached kindergarten age, his parents chose to send him to school in Hempstead, Long Island— the only one, the younger Mr. Paterson said, that would educate a nearly blind boy with the other children.

Mr. Paterson said he’d never read the official biography, which would typically be prepared by a Senator and staff. And he said he didn’t know who prepared it. But he said he’d never distorted his own story.

“I’ve read that myself, and no matter how many times I say I didn’t grow up in Harlem, I read, ‘David Paterson, lifelong Harlem resident.’” If that claim was in his official biography, “then we helped it along,” he said with a shrug.

Mr. Paterson won his seat in a special election to fill the place of a Senator who died in office. His father and other Harlem power brokers gave him the Democratic Party line in that election, ensuring his victory. Mr. Paterson also got the endorsement of The New York Times that year.

“David Paterson, a Democrat, has gained varied governmental experience as an Assistant District Attorney in Queens …. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he seems most likely to make an immediate contribution to the district and the Senate,” the paper’s editors wrote.

The next day, a correction ran: Mr. Paterson “should have been described … as a criminal law associate for the Queens District Attorney,” the correction read.

Fresh out of Hofstra Law School, Mr. Paterson was hired by the Queens D.A.’s office before the results of his bar exam were in. In that capacity, lawyers can perform almost all the same duties as assistant district attorneys, including appearing in court on the people’s behalf.

But Mr. Paterson had a hard time with the bar. By his account, he ran out of time and found the accommodation made for his vision—an amanuensis read him the questions and transcribed his answers—inadequate.

“I can do some reading on my own, but the bar exam I couldn’t, because it was grueling. Six hours,” he recalled, adding that he had worked later to change the way the test treats the blind. “It was a big problem for me. I didn’t realize the time had expired. I was told later …. I didn’t feel I had enough time.”

Mr. Paterson said that he’d intended to return to take the bar, but his election to the Senate and subsequent appointment to a deputy leadership post consumed his time.

In his first year in the Senate, his official biography omitted all reference to his legal career. But the Red Books dated 1989 to 1992 describe him as an “assistant district attorney.”

The Red Book in 1993 seems to correct the record: “He was a criminal investigator for the Queens District Attorney from 1983-1985. Though not admitted to practice law in New York State, he tried criminal court cases as a member of the District Attorney’s Forensic bureau,” it says. Later books return to referring to the Senator as an assistant district attorney.

“When he learned of these things, he corrected any ambiguity,” said Mr. Spitzer’s campaign manager, Ryan Toohey.

“It was later determined that I could use that title, because that’s what I was acting as,” Mr. Paterson said. The terminology appears to differ office to office. A spokesman for the Queens District Attorney’s office said that “when it comes to actual job titles,” what Mr. Paterson did is considered “a criminal-law associate.” But an aide to Mr. Paterson pointed out that people in Mr. Paterson’s position describe themselves to the court as assistant district attorneys, entering the title on the public record.

In any case, nobody really was paying much attention to State Senator’s page in the Red Book, or to the Senator himself. Mr. Paterson had vanished, more or less, into the State Senate minority, where he has said he found himself frustrated by his dual status as a Democrat and junior legislator in a body controlled totally by the Republican Majority Leader. Well liked in political circles, he butted up against the choices of his Harlem elders from time to time, running once for Public Advocate and once for Manhattan Borough President without the endorsement of even his father.

Coup Plotters

In 2002, however, Mr. Paterson shot to unusual prominence for a Senate Democrat. With two other Manhattan legislators, Eric Schneiderman and Liz Krueger, he staged a coup that ousted the sitting Senate Minority Leader, Martin Connor. The Manhattanites saw Mr. Connor, of Brooklyn, as overly resigned to Republican control of the body. They wanted to fight more actively to retake it.

Rumors of a coup surfaced immediately after the 2002 election, prompting Mr. Connor to demand that Mr. Paterson make his position public. On Nov. 8 of that year, Mr. Paterson issued a statement that he was not seeking Mr. Connor’s job. Five days later, he stood flanked by 14 other Democratic Senators, declaring that he had the support he needed to take Mr. Connor’s job.

His public leadership of the conference has been largely successful. Minority leadership posts in Albany are notoriously weak, but with an engaging public profile and an often-stated purpose of retaking the body, Mr. Paterson has been a favorite of reporters. He’s also been successful in pushing the Democrats somewhat closer to control of the body, picking up three seats from the Republicans in 2004.

“He elevated the office to something it had never been before,” said C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan Borough President.

At the same time, Mr. Paterson has been criticized as being too eager to please the Republican Senate leader, Joseph Bruno. Democrats griped when their leader agreed to serve on a Medicaid reform panel that Mr. Bruno assembled, lending it a bipartisan sheen. (Mr. Paterson said he’d had the idea for such a panel months earlier, but that his staff had failed to execute it. “I’m standing there smiling, but I’m seething inside.”) But by all accounts, he and the equally frank and charming Mr. Bruno get along easily. On the Democrat’s desk is a silver box, with the script:

“Happy Birthday David, the always eloquent statesman.” It’s dated 2005 and engraved with Mr. Bruno’s name.

While Mr. Paterson has been a reliably liberal Democrat on votes, his ideological stance has been what critics describe as “flexible,” friends as “nuanced.” A prominent advocate of publicly funded vouchers for private schools, Clint Bolick, has given Mr. Paterson money and describes him as a “very good friend of the school-choice movement,” though Mr. Paterson says he favors the principle of choice, not the tactics of the conservative arm of the movement.

And on the crucial area of the death penalty, Mr. Paterson’s stance is even more complex. He has been described in the press recently as disagreeing with Mr. Spitzer, who supports the death penalty. “I think that the human life and why it exists is something we don’t understand, so to cut it off—I just get the feeling it’s out of our realm as other human beings,” he said. He’s also said that he sheds no tears for executed cop killers, for example. (Although, it should be noted, nobody has been executed in New York in years, even though the State Legislature and Governor George Pataki brought back the death-penalty statute in the mid-1990’s.)

In a 2002 interview on WROW-AM radio, however, he seemed to say that his opposition to the death penalty was linked to how it is enforced, not to spiritual principle. As a member of a jury, he implied, he would vote for the death penalty.

“So what is it that you’re opposed to?” the host, Fred Dicker, asked.

“Oh, I’m opposed to the distribution of the death penalty,” Mr. Paterson said. “I don’t think a person should or should not get the death penalty based on their ability to afford counsel …. I think if you’re going to have something as serious in terms of its moral and legal ramifications as the death penalty, it has to be administered scrupulously, and I don’t think we do in this country.”

Mr. Paterson may not, in fact, have stood on two sides of the issue. But he certainly stood close to each side. It’s a pattern that is, among his friends on the local political scene, almost a joke: In races from Surrogate Court to President of the United States, different candidates have felt—from his warmth, his encouragement—that they had his endorsement, and then felt betrayed when he turned up beside a rival.

A longtime chief of staff to Mr. Paterson, Woody Pascal, who now works for another legislator, recalled his boss’s difficulty in saying no.

“He is a kind, gentle person and does not want to see anyone hurt,” Mr. Pascal said of Mr. Paterson. “One of my favorite duties was—somebody has to be the bad guy. Sometimes you have to tell people no. That’s what I used to do.”

It’s a pattern that’s held, even in the current campaign for Lieutenant Governor. Leecia Eve, a Buffalo-born lawyer and former counsel to Senator Hillary Clinton, was running for Lieutenant Governor with the blessing of Basil Paterson and the junior Mr. Paterson’s wife, Michelle. Ms. Eve’s supporters thought they had Mr. Paterson’s support, and the Harlem leadership was furious when he decided to come in on his own.

The decision was not, of course, Mr. Paterson’s. It was Mr. Spitzer’s. And that decision came after two months of semi-serious offers from the Attorney General, Mr. Paterson said. The two men had met on a television talk show in late 1995 or early 1996, said the Senator (whose memory for dates and figures is legendary), before Mr. Spitzer was elected State Attorney General. They debated the merits of the police use of high-school yearbook photographs.

“Boy, did we have it out, and yet I thought, ‘Boy, this is the most prepared person I think I’ve ever debated,’” Mr. Paterson said. “He really moved me.”

They became friends, and began talking about the Lieutenant Governor position last fall. Finally, in January, Mr. Spitzer pushed harder. “He said, ‘I want to be able to look people in the eye and say, “God forbid, should anything happen to me or if I were to leave, [the Lieutenant Governor] could run the state,”’” Mr. Patterson recalled.

A Big Risk?

To some in Albany, it was an astonishing risk. “Eliot sees the public David, the press-spin David,” said one Democrat. “He doesn’t know him like we do.”

But Mr. Paterson said yes, and the deal was done. There was none of the formal process that accompanies a Vice Presidential nomination or even a staff hire—no vetting, Mr. Paterson said.

“When he asked me, on my own I did opposition research on myself and sent it to him,” the Senator said and proceeded to give a nine-minute summary of two lawsuits by former employees against the Senate in his tenure. Both cases are pending, and Mr. Paterson offered them unprompted. It’s a tendency that has astonished reporters. Not long ago, he volunteered to a reporter that he had underpaid his income taxes. “Give him points for honesty,” Daily News columnist Bill Hammond remarked.

Mr. Paterson also has a reputation for not keeping a tight rein on his small district-office staff or on the 104 staffers he directly oversees in the Senate minority. When one $31,500 part-time receptionist turned up in the Charlotte Observer answering questions about skin-care products, Mr. Paterson said that the man was no longer on staff. In fact, the employee isn’t set to depart until the end of this month.

But by most accounts, he has made progress toward instilling some order in the last year, since a staff shake-up that included the elevation of Charles O’Byrne, a former Jesuit priest who is close to the Kennedy family.

“I think sometimes I would disperse and dole out responsibility so much that you didn’t know who was the leader around here,” Mr. Paterson said. “I think in the last year and a half that I have changed.”

The techniques of administration aside, Mr. Paterson’s new status as a candidate for Lieutenant Governor has added no calculation to his approach to public life. Mr. Spitzer faces a likely primary challenge from the Nassau County Executive, Tom Suozzi, but Mr. Paterson couldn’t find a bad word to say about his running mate’s rival. His only worry, he said, was that a primary would force the Democrats to spend too much money.

“I don’t see any reason to beat up on Tom Suozzi when I think he did a great job,” he said. “I had suggested Suozzi for Lieutenant Governor. I think he’d be great.”