Spitzer’s Mate David Paterson Is Mystery Man

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.