The Pride of Harlem

Uptown gets bragging rights over the next New York governor.

David Paterson is making Harlem proud

America is being introduced to David Paterson, who will be sworn in as governor of New York on Monday in the wake of Eliot Spitzer's resignation, as the first African American to hold that office in New York and the first blind governor in the nation's history.

I know him as my childhood friend from Harlem who has a terrific sense of humor and passionate commitment to social justice. The pride that Harlem feels at his rise to the highest office in our state is boundless.

David did not just burst on the political scene last week. First of all, he comes from noble political stock. His father, Basil Paterson, is a former state senator, New York secretary of state, and New York City deputy mayor. David's mentors were his father's political allies: Mayor David Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and my dad, Judge Bruce Wright.

As young men in Harlem, he and I marched successfully to change the name of Lenox Avenue to Malcolm X Boulevard. "We know who Malcolm X is but we sure as hell don't know who Lenox is," we would say.

I'm lucky enough to serve in our overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly, but he labored in the Democratic minority in our State Senate since he took his seat there in 1985. Republicans have controlled the State Senate for the last forty years. David took on the job of Senate Minority Leader and immediately started both building bridges with his Republican adversaries and working to elect a Democratic majority so that a more progressive agenda can be implemented.

In a changing New York State, most observers believe that it is almost inevitable that Democrats will pick up the two seats we need to win the majority in the State Senate this November. But in 2006, despite being on the verge of stepping up to the powerful post of Senate Majority Leader, David Paterson agreed to a step down so he could run for Lieutenant Governor with Eliot Spitzer, becoming the first African American to hold that post.

Now some people wonder if David Paterson is up to the top job. Let me tell you a story. I often drive with him from our homes across the street from each other in Harlem to the state capital in Albany. One day at a rest stop, I was tired and asked David if he wanted to drive and he made a joke of getting behind the wheel. Given his visual impairment, I of course thought better of that, but I have absolutely no doubt that he will take the wheel in the governor's office on Monday and drive New York to a more unified and brighter future.

You will never hear David Paterson complain about the misfortune of losing his sight as an infant. If anything, the discrimination that he has faced because of his disability and as a person of color has strengthened his lifelong commitment to treat everyone he encounters with respect and dignity. Just look at some of the causes he has championed: hate crimes legislation, stem cell research, fighting domestic violence, opposition to the death penalty, equality for gay people, and a fair shake for minority- and women-owned businesses in getting government contracts.

He is also a rabid New York Jets, Knicks and Mets fan so you can be sure he will fight tenaciously for what's best for New York.

David Paterson is becoming governor under unfortunate circumstances, but we are blessed that there is really no one better for the job.