Paterson has been dogged for years by the idea that he’s not dependable, or disciplined. That his leadership style is “jazz government”—all improvisation, no structure. His job now is to prove them wrong. “My favorite peeve,” he says, is the term “ ‘accidental governor.’ ”
And yet, that’s what he is. Paterson grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. His grandmother was Marcus Garvey’s secretary. His father, Basil Paterson, loaded trucks for the Port Authority, went to law school, and ended up in practice with David Dinkins. Together, they joined Congressman Charlie Rangel and Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton to form the Gang of Four, which would dominate Harlem politics for decades.
As a baby, David Paterson suffered an infection in his ear canal that left him without vision. With the right eye, he can see very little. (His prescription is 20/400.) At the time, he says, public schools in the city would not guarantee legally blind children like him placement in a regular classroom, so the Patersons purchased a home in the suburbs so he could go to school. He never learned to read Braille. He never used a cane or a Seeing Eye dog. He reads with an extremely powerful monocle, one letter at a time.
He tried to get along, like everyone else, and took his beating. “Once, this kid totally dressed me down on the playground, and I tried to fight him.” The other kids held him back. After recess, he ran into the kid again. “I went in the classroom, and right in front of the teacher I hit him in the face with my metal lunch box.” The other boy started to bleed.
David was suspended, but the crime paid off. “No one in the school ever messed with me again,” he says. “I told the principal, ‘I’ll take the punishment, but when I get out I’ll do it again—and make sure everyone hears that.’ ” When you’re legally blind, he says it can be difficult to be taken seriously, but this did it. “I was political then,” he says. “The idea that a principal telling kids, ‘We locked him up, but you all better watch it because when he gets out, he’ll do it again.’ ”
He learned best by listening to recordings. His heroes were the old talk-show hosts, and he recorded himself as the host and impersonated all the guests. It turned him into a great mimic, and he discovered he could make people laugh. He’s dabbled in stand-up and held his own on The Colbert Report last month.
Growing up, “he never had that hunger, that fiery ambition,” says Al Sharpton. “We just knew him as Basil’s son.” Basil was state senator in a district that stretched from Harlem to the Jewish Upper West Side. “Basil was the most realistic idealistic guy around,” the Sharpton says. “He loved great ideas, but if they couldn’t function, he wasn’t interested. He was always the mediator-activist, trying to figure out how to compromise with the opposition. He’d always say, ‘You got to win. It’s not enough to fight. People are remembered in history for what they won, not for what they fought.’ ”
In 1970, when David was 16, Basil was chosen by party leaders to run for lieutenant governor, alongside the former U.S. Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg. In doing so, he became the first black candidate for the office in the state’s history.
Asked to define himself as a candidate, Basil joked to a reporter, “I’m sly, devious, oily, and slick. I dress like a pimp and developed a good memory by hustling numbers in Harlem.” He and Goldberg won the primary, but in the general election Basil was shelved. “You wouldn’t see his face in any campaign commercial, only his name,” David says today. “They had this view that upstate isn’t ready for black people. They thought, ‘Paterson is Catholic. People will just think he’s Irish.’ ” (The pair lost by 700,000 votes to Nelson Rockefeller.)
After high school, Paterson’s grades, he says, “weren’t higher than a B-minus.” He got into Columbia University, the economic centerpiece of his father’s old district. He felt like an outsider there, so he hung out with his younger brother, Danny, in Harlem. They smoked pot (“It didn’t have a mammoth effect with me”) and moved on to cocaine. He’s not sure if he liked it. “You think you’re going to have this great euphoric sexual feeling. So because you think you’re going to have it, you have it.”
Paterson went to law school at Hofstra, and lived in Hempstead. He got a job with the Queens district attorney. While some of his legislative biographies have referred to his role there as assistant district attorney, Paterson’s actual job title had less cachet: criminal-law associate. That’s because he never passed the bar. “I didn’t miss by that much,” he says. “I thought that if the exam had been administered in a different way, I would have passed it.” Despite reading with great difficulty, he helped argue cases.