He wasn’t known for his hard work. According to friends and former staffers, he was preoccupied with his own district and his dating life.
His staff was often in charge of juggling his social schedule. At one time, Paterson’s dating rotation could include as many as four women, one former staffer says. Eventually, he ended up with Michelle Paige, whom he first met at a Temptations reunion concert in 1982. Ten years later—and after she was divorced—they married.
With a baby on the way, Paterson wanted to move back to the city, and in 1993, he ran for his first citywide office—public advocate—and split the Harlem Establishment. Dinkins was up for reelection against Rudy Giuliani. Paterson ran anyway. He came in second to Mark Green, with 19 percent of the vote. (“He was long on personality, short on organization,” Green says, echoing a consistent critique.)
Paterson was a good debater on the Senate floor, though. His skills were such that in 1995, and under pressure from party elders to promote a person of color, Marty Connor, the Democratic minority leader, promoted him to become his deputy. It was a decision that made Connor uneasy. Paterson was then so undependable that Connor dispatched an aide to Paterson’s office before sessions started to make sure he got to the chamber on time.
In 1997, Paterson ran for Manhattan borough president but dropped out of the race because C. Virginia Fields, who's also black, was the front-runner. Back in Albany, he seemed to lose direction. In the last six months of 2000, Paterson registered only $200 in contributions. (Paterson had previously planned to run for public advocate again and had raised more than $75,000 in a different campaign account, before abandoning that attempt at citywide office.) “The hagiography out there is that David is the scion of the Harlem Establishment,” says a party operative. “The truth was, David was the Fredo of the Harlem Establishment.”
But the whole Democratic caucus was a bit aimless. “We just weren’t getting the job done,” says Manhattan State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who, angry that the Democrats couldn’t gain seats on the Republicans, began plotting a coup to oust Connor. He convinced Paterson to help.
What did he have to lose? When rumors began circulating of the putsch, Connor demanded his deputy make his intentions public. On November 8, 2002, Paterson issued a statement: “I have not solicited support for this position from any other members of the conference,” he said, adding he was “supportive” of Connor. Five days later, he supplanted Connor.
Basil came for Paterson’s swearing in, and Paterson asked him what he thought of his speech. “You used the word ‘appraised,’ ” Basil said. “You meant ‘apprised.’ ”
As leader, Paterson’s management style seemed all improv. He was able to win back three seats from the Republicans in 2004 and put the Democrats within striking distance of taking the State Senate for the first time in decades. Yet he remained often unreliable. One former staffer recalls an instance where Paterson failed to show up at his own press conference. At night, he was often spotted at Elda’s on Lark, an Albany bar, joking around with female staffers and friends. He had separated from his wife. They both were unfaithful, but he seemed hurt by it and wanted revenge. “He’d be sleeping around and be like, ‘Make sure she knows about it,’ ” remembers a staffer.
There was drama in his office. “It was all of this Machiavellian bullshit,” says a former staffer. Because Paterson is legally blind, he depends on them more than most. It’s made it difficult for him to be confrontational. In some cases, he ordered subordinates to fire their own bosses. “I’m sensitive to people,” Paterson explains. “When I was younger, my perception about myself was that I needed everyone. I never knew when I was gonna wind up on a corner, and who was gonna be the next person to help me cross the street. So I never wanted to offend anyone because of that perceived need.”
As minority leader, he learned that he was too powerful to be left on a corner. Finally, after seventeen years in Albany, things were looking up. Once the Democrats took back the Senate, Paterson would became majority leader, one of Albany’s Three Men in a Room. He could control the legislative calendar and pass a host of progressive bills that were sidelined in the Pataki years, like extending rent control and reforming the Rockefeller drug laws. He could send millions in pork back to Harlem. His offices would be grand suites (with his own shower), and ball fields would get named for him. Then he started talking to Spitzer.
At first, the idea of Paterson’s running as Spitzer’s lieutenant governor was for political cover, a bluff. The Gang of Four were pressuring Spitzer to run with Leecia Eve, a Harvard-trained lawyer who’s been an aide to Hillary Clinton and is the daughter of former assemblyman Arthur Eve. But Spitzer wanted to choose his own candidate. He didn’t like the Gang telling him what to do.