Also known as: David Alexander Paterson
Birth: May 20, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York, United States
Ethnicity: African American
David A. Paterson has championed Democratic values in New York State government for decades. In 1985 he became the youngest state senator in New York history at the age of 31, and he won subsequent elections to remain in office for more than 20 years. Since entering office Paterson pursued an aggressive agenda for reform, focusing on budget, crime, domestic violence, health care, and housing. Paterson's political savvy has propelled him to the highest political ranks in New York State. In 2002 Paterson he won election as Senate minority leader, becoming the highest-ranking African American in the history of New York State government. Then, just as Democrats seemed primed to become the majority in the Senate, Paterson ran for lieutenant governor in 2006, alongside gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, a position he won that November. When Spitzer resigned, Paterson succeeded him to become the first African American New York governor. No matter his position, Paterson has remained focused on reshaping New York government to better serve its citizens.
David Alexander Paterson was born on May 20, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York, the first of two sons of Basil and Portia Paterson. From birth, Paterson was legally blind, unable to see at all out of his left eye and only partially out of his right. Paterson did not allow his disability to limit his ambitions and neither did his parents. The first hurdle he cleared was public education. Restricted from attending classes with sighted students in his hometown, Paterson and his family moved to Hempstead, New York, so that he could learn in a mainstream classroom. At school Paterson developed a keen desire to succeed. Paterson was "driven by the taunts of schoolmates to be as independent as possible," according to Jonathan P. Hicks of The New York Times. He did not learn Braille or use a cane to navigate his surroundings. Paterson excelled in his coursework, graduating from high school in three years.
Paterson chose to attend Columbia University. There, Paterson made the dean's list in his first years, but later became sidetracked from his studies as he struggled to cope with the frustrations of discrimination. On the advice of a professor, Paterson took time away from school. "He told me bluntly that I didn't stand up for myself enough...," Paterson explained to Sue Kovach of Life Extension Magazine. "He told me to go out and get a job and fight for that job, then come back and finish college. So I did that, getting a job at a credit union. It was a painful time for me."
Paterson returned to college prepared to succeed. He finished his bachelor's degree in history from Columbia in 1977. After working various jobs for a few years, Paterson went on to earn a law degree from Hofstra Law School in 1983. He then worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Queens District Attorney's office.
Before long, Paterson turned his attention to politics. Public life was in Paterson's blood. His father Basil Paterson, a labor law attorney, was a prominent Democratic political figure in New York. He had served as state senator from 1965 to 1970, ran as the first black candidate for New York lieutenant governor on a major party ticket in 1970, and served as New York City Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations and Personnel in 1978 and as secretary of state from 1979 to 1982.
Paterson's own political career started in 1985 when New York State Senator Leon Bogues died and Paterson won the open seat in a special election. He then won subsequent elections to maintain his representation of the 30th District, which included East Harlem, Harlem, and the Upper West Side, until he left his seat in 2006. Over the years, Paterson championed such issues as crime prevention, tenants' rights, and drug laws.
In the 1990s, Paterson gained national attention for his efforts to preserve an African-American burial ground. The site was discovered when excavation for the construction of a new federal building in New York City uncovered the remains of colonial-era Africans in 1991. Paterson quickly led the charge to preserve history. He worked to secure federal funding and to award the archeological work to Howard University. Paterson explained in 1997 that "through the discovery of the African-American Burial Grounds, our history has at last come to the surface for all of us to know and respect...," according to the New York Amsterdam News. "The burial ground to me as a Black man is our Ellis Island. It meant that I worked on an issue that changed history. I wrote the first bias crime bill and the first sexual abuse bill, but this is the most unique subject I ever worked on. If it were not for the burial ground, we wouldn't have known the geographical location in which our ancestry were indigenous. It's the only burial ground ever found where the people came directly from Africa."
Paterson's leadership in the state Senate was rewarded in November 2002 when he was unanimously elected New York Senate minority leader. Winning the election made him the first nonwhite legislative leader in New York state history. State Senator Malcolm A. Smith, who had nominated Paterson for the position, remarked to the New York Amsterdam News in 2002 that Paterson was "the kind of person that is willing to work with everyone in order to accomplish our needs and goals." As minority leader over the next four years, Paterson championed legislation to crack down on hate crimes, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse. He also worked to expand voting rights, to increase education funding and affordable housing, and to improve health care. During his tenure as minority leader, "David Paterson has made reform a rallying cry for all New Yorkers who want a government that is open, transparent and effective in solving the critical challenges we face," Senator Malcolm A. Smith told the New York Beacon upon Paterson's departure from the position in 2006.
Just as the Democrats seemed poised to win the majority in the New York state government, Paterson accepted the invitation of Eliot Spitzer to run for lieutenant governor. His decision came as a surprise to many. Though the lieutenant governor position is the second highest-ranking job in the state, it came with little real power. However, Paterson's supporters voiced confidence in his ability to create leverage in the position and predicted that he might follow in the footsteps of Mario M. Cuomo, who went from a term as lieutenant governor to become a three-term governor. "If you're smart you can wield informal power," Ester R. Fuchs, a political science professor at Columbia University, told Clyde Haberman of The New York Times. Paterson himself acknowledged that though former lieutenant governors had struggled to gain power, he would find a way. "It's a risk, but I've been taking risks more than the average person. Every time I cross the street I'm taking a risk," Paterson told Haberman. "I thought I should take advantage of that ability." On November 7, 2006, Paterson won the chance to take that risk when he was elected lieutenant governor of New York.
Though political consultant Liz J. Abzug told The New York Times that Paterson in the lieutenant governor position would be "'symbolically important as the next step of developing leadership in this state for black politicians," Paterson himself saw it in more practical terms. "You never get to any level of leadership where your race is not a factor," he explained to the New York Amsterdam News. "You don't want to be the first; you want to be the first of many."After a prostitution scandal forced Eliot Spitzer to resign from office on March 12, 2008, Paterson was appointed acting governor immediately and governor a week later. He is the first African American governor of New York and the second legally blind governor in U.S. history. "Of course, I never expected to have the honor of serving as the governor of New York State. But our constitution demands it," he said in his inauguration speech. He added, "This transition today is an historic message to the world that we live among the same values that we profess, and that we are a government of laws and not individuals. Today we can be proud of our democracy."
Born David Alexander Paterson on May 20, 1954, in Brooklyn, NY; married Michelle Renee Paige; children: Ashley, Alexander Education: Columbia University, BA, 1977; Hofstra Law School, JD, 1983. Religion: Roman Catholic. Memberships: American Foundation for the Blind, trustee; Achilles Track Club. Addresses: Office--State Capitol, Albany, NY 12224-0341.
Association for a Better New York and One Hundred Black Men, Inc., Brotherhood Award, 2006.
Queen's District Attorney's Office, 1983-85; State of New York, State Senator, 30th District, 1985-2006; Deputy Minority Leader, 1995-2002, Minority Leader, 2003-2006; State of New York, Lieutenant Governor, 2006-2008, Governor, 2008-.
"David A. Paterson." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 59. Thomson Gale, 2007.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009.