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.