David Paterson, who takes over as governor in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal, has worked for years to forge black-Jewish relations and is seen as a legislative bridge-builder, in sharp contrast to his former boss.
The Spitzer revelations have thrust the 53-year-old former state senator from Harlem into arguably the toughest gubernatorial job in the country. He becomes the state’s first black governor and the first with a handicap — he is legally blind.
But those who have worked with him over the years insist that this graduate of Columbia University and Hofstra Law School is well prepared.
“After a year of Spitzer ‘reforming Albany,’ David Paterson can really heal Albany — both sides of the room,” said Paterson’s former executive assistant, Wolf Sender, alluding to Spitzer’s hardball tactics. “He can actually be a healer, and at this point it would be fantastic. The state will be lucky for somebody like that to fall in as its governor.”
Sender, district manager of Community Board 12 in Borough Park, Midwood and Flatbush, characterized Paterson as “warm, mild-mannered, caring and considerate.”
“It’s amazing to find a person like that in politics,” Sender added.
Spitzer as state attorney general made many enemies with his aggressive approach to rooting out corruption on Wall Street. In fact, when news spread Monday afternoon that Spitzer had been a client of a call-girl ring, there were cheers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Saying he would not allow his “personal failings to disrupt the people’s work,” Spitzer on Wednesday morning said he would step down from office effective Monday, on Paterson’s request, giving his successor ample time for an orderly transition. Spitzer also said he was “deeply sorry I didn’t live up to what was expected of me.”
Federal prosecutors allege that Spitzer — who was elected governor in a landslide in 2006 and had once been touted by supporters as the man who could become the first Jewish president — had been a client of the Emperors Club VIP, a prostitution ring. It was reportedly founded by an Israeli, Mark Brener, 62, of Cliffside Park, N.J.; Spitzer was said to have paid its prostitutes a total of about $80,000.
Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who had worked on Spitzer’s successful campaign for attorney general in 1998, expressed regret at Spitzer’s downfall.
“When we build idols, we forget they have clay feet,” he said. “Here is a guy whose feet were made of serious clay. … An extraordinary political career has ended.”
Spitzer’s tenure as attorney general included a focus on he protection of religious rights, taking on several cases of people who faced discrimination because of their Sabbath observance or for seeking to wear a kipa or other religious garb. He also came out with a report for increasing public aid to private and religious schools and called on the IRS to prevent charity groups linked to Middle East terrorism from fundraising here.
His investigations of two major Jewish organizations led to reforms at the World Jewish Congress and National Council of Young Israel.
Impact On Budget
Paterson’s ascension to the state’s executive would come at a time when lawmakers are struggling to finalize the budget, which is due March 31.
Ron Soloway, vice president for government and external affairs at UJA-Federation of New York, said Senate and Assembly leaders would begin meeting later this week to hammer out a budget.
“Hopefully the conference committees will get serious next week and the situation regarding whom they go to talk to in the governor’s office will be clarified,” he said.
Soloway said UJA-Federation has a longstanding relationship with Paterson.
“We’ve worked with him on family violence, health care and senior citizen issues,” he said. “He’s a progressive individual. He understands and knows UJA-Federation well. He supports our programs and we would look forward to working with him in the event the governor should be forced to resign.”
Observers this week will be debating how well equipped Paterson is to take the reins at a time when Albany is facing a fiscal crisis as well as political infighting.
“His personality will be a balm under the circumstances,” said Fried Siegel, a contributing editor to City Journal and professor at Cooper Union. “But it’s not at all clear he’s the guy who could clean up Albany. Is he the one who can get the state budget through in the situation we’re in, yes. But is he the kind of guy who can challenge special interests and deal with the underlying problems of a state government that increases spending at an extraordinary rate even in the midst of a downturn? I would say no.”
But Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said Paterson is “the right guy at the right moment because he has something Eliot Spitzer never had: good will. That will carry him through this crisis. People like him and know he has no other agenda but to get things done.”
Unlike some black leaders in the city who have had a rancorous relationship with the Jewish community, Paterson has consistently had a close and warm relationship.
“I consider him one of my closest friends,” said State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn). “He has come to my community many times and has helped groups in my community, including a program for kids at risk to which he gave money. He is one of the sweetest guys you ever could meet. He’ll get along with everybody.”
H. Carl McCall, the former state comptroller, described Paterson as a “very intelligent, hardworking young man who gets along very well with people. He respects other people. He has worked very hard to overcome his own disability; he never uses it as an excuse.”
Paterson was born in Brooklyn, but the New York Observer reported in 2006 that Paterson’s official biography for years stated falsely that he was a lifelong Harlem resident and said he has “a complicated relationship with the truth and a difficulty in saying no.”
After graduating from Hofstra, Paterson worked at the Queens District Attorney’s office. Because he is legally blind, he was unable to take the bar exam. He worked for David Dinkins’ successful campaign for Manhattan borough president in 1985 and later that year he won a seat in the State Senate in a special election with strong backing from the Harlem political figures, including his father, Basil, who had previously held the seat. In 1993, he ran unsuccessfully for public advocate, and in 2002 was elected minority leader by his colleagues in the Senate, pledging to elect enough Democrats to take control of the upper house. Spitzer picked him for his running mate in January 2006.
“He came from Harlem where he worked with people like David Dinkins, [Rep.] Charlie Rangel and myself,” McCall said. “I used to represent that district and his father [Basil Paterson] represented that district before. If you look at that district they say it’s Harlem, but it’s Harlem and most of the West Side. So from the very beginning of his political career he worked very closely with the Jewish community, people like [Rep.] Jerrold Nadler and Ruth Messinger on the West Side.
“So he started in a situation where it was important to bring people together from two different communities and he worked at that. That’s why he has so much support in that community.”
Messinger, now president of the American Jewish World Service and a former Manhattan Borough President, said she “never thought of him primarily as a Harlem politician.”
“He was one of the relatively young progressive elected official who cared a lot about not just getting elected but doing good work,” she recalled.
Connected To Black-Jewish Alliance
“I have only good things to say about him with regard to the Jewish community,” Messinger added. “I think that is partly because he understood as an elected official in Manhattan and city and state that in the 21st century you have to be able to work with people from different backgrounds and respond to different constituencies.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said Paterson has been “an ally of our work at the foundation in terms of strengthening relations between the African American and Jewish communities.”
Diane Steinman, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee, which hosted Paterson on his first trip to Israel last October, said she has come to know Paterson over the years. (See sidebar.)
“He is very connected to the black-Jewish alliance,” she said. “In his heart and the core of his being he resonates to issues of injustice. That is what moves him in his life and in his public service. He sees Jews and African Americans as victims and then allies in the fight against injustice based on religion and race.”
In one of his last official acts as lieutenant governor, Paterson last Sunday attended the Bukharian Jewish community’s legislative breakfast in Forest Hills and received its state leadership award.
In his acceptance speech, Paterson revealed to the 200 guests that he recently had his DNA tested and that it revealed he had Jewish ancestors from Eastern Europe.
“He said we’re all connected, we’re relatives, and they all ate it up,” recalled Ezra Friedlander, a public relations executive who planned the event.
Assistant Managing Editor Adam Dickter contributed to this report.