At night, his friends would drive him into the city to go out.
Paterson had his own disco move. It was born out of spite, he says, at a party in White Plains, at the home of family friends. He remembers the music was loud when he arrived, and his hosts led him by the elbow to a chair. He wanted to get up and mingle. But the host worried that if he tripped and hurt himself, he could get sued. “Let’s get out of here,” Paterson’s friend whispered in his ear.
Paterson didn’t want to go. He had an idea. He told his friend, “Go tell the hostess I’d like to dance with her.”
Yeah, do it.
So the friend went off and returned with the hostess.
“This is a party, isn’t it? Everyone knows there’s dancing. Why wouldn’t I want to dance with you?”
On the dance floor, a space was cleared. Paterson felt the beat of the music and everyone staring at him. He wanted to punch someone. Instead, “I bent down, jumped up, and did a back flip,” he says. “When I did that, the place went crazy. So then I started dancing on my hands.”
Afterward, partygoers wanted to know what the name of that dance was. He made up a name.
“That’s the Mandinka hustle,” he said.
It worked. He started doing the Mandinka whenever he went out. “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” by Sister Sledge, was his favorite song. “The champion of dance, his moves would put you in a trance / And he never leaves the disco alone.” In the club, they lined up—hands on shoulders, hands on hips—and chugged their way through the night. “I would walk down the line on my hands,” Paterson says. “That would be my thing.”
“Sure, he’s a popular guy now. Wait till he’s closing down kindergartens and raising taxes.”
The Gang of Four had a different hustle: taking over the city. In 1985, Basil Paterson was planning to run for mayor. Then he developed a cardiac condition and dropped out. Dinkins was running for borough president, and David Paterson quit his job at the D.A.’s office to work on the Dinkins campaign. “He would introduce me, and when he got through, I had nothing to say,” Dinkins recalls. “I used to tell him, ‘We have a rule: Nobody is supposed to look better, or sound better, than the candidate.’ ”
On the staff, Paterson was also known as a creative problem-solver. When there was a staffer who was difficult to be around when he got too sober, “David came up with the idea of buying a fifth of liquor every morning,” says one former Dinkins campaigner. “By noon this guy was wasted, so we could do whatever we wanted on the campaign for the rest of the day. That’s David. He just comes up with things.”
As the Dinkins campaign marched on through the summer, a State Senate seat opened up. Leon Bogues, who had held Basil Paterson’s old post, passed away, and more than a dozen people wanted his job.
Paterson never thought to run; he was still trying to pass the bar. “I was brooding over it,” he says. Then he received a call from Percy Sutton. “He told me, ‘If you think about running for office, the first $1,000 is on me.’ ” Sutton’s call “reignited a sort of self-esteem, like, you know, ‘People have spoken to me about running for office!’ Yeah, that’s accurate, one person did.” But Paterson talked about it with friends, one of whom was working for Bill Lynch, the consultant. Lynch agreed to become Paterson’s campaign manager and tried to solve their biggest problem.
“My father didn’t think it was time,” Paterson says. Lynch had a plan: an ambush. He called a meeting of the Gang, and didn’t say what it was about. With Sutton, Dinkins, and Basil in the room, Lynch walked in with Paterson and they announced his bid. How could Basil say no?
When he won, Paterson, 31, became the youngest state senator in New York’s history. “We had no idea what we were doing,” jokes Geoffrey Garfield, Paterson’s first chief of staff, who was then only 28.
Republicans controlled everything in the State Senate—the voting calendar, committee posts, office space, staff salaries. The only way to survive was to make friends. Paterson was good at that. “Now I know I’m not supposed to say that I like David Paterson, but I do,” says Dale Volker, a Republican senator and Codes Committee chairman. “He’s great to work with. I even passed a few of his bills out of my committee.”
As a legislator, Paterson says he’s most proud of co-sponsoring a bill with Volker to extend the statute of limitations for predators who sexually abuse children. “This had always been a personal issue for me,” Paterson says. “I have sometimes wondered if I wasn’t aware of something when I was younger … There is a little ring on that issue.” He continues to work on it, signing a bill designed to curb sexual predators access to social networking sites, and, recently, changing the rules so that underage prostitutes were treated as victims instead of criminals, as long as they cooperate with prosecutors.