Paterson Ethos: ‘Remember Where You Came From’

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The governor and his father leave their mark on political history

By Rochana Rapkins

Former State Senator and New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson began life on the streets of Harlem as the son of Caribbean immigrants. He earned his pocket money working as a laborer at the Port Authority.

“Being black and growing up in New York City at that time,” he recalled, “the blacks worked for the shipping department and I remember we were paid not to go to the Christmas party.”

Times have changed. Dramatically. Today Basil Paterson is seen as a hugely important political figure in the life of his hometown—and he’s the father of the governor, David Paterson. The governor himself has deep roots on the Upper West Side, having represented its upper reaches in the State Senate before being tapped to become lieutenant governor.

Former Secretary of State Basil Paterson and his son, Governor David Paterson, have both represented Upper West Siders in the state Senate.

Indeed, the family’s history is New York’s history. Basil Paterson, at 17, enlisted in the army. He went on to get his bachelor’s and law degrees from St. John’s. He started a storefront law practice and eventually helped form Harlem’s Gang of Four, a powerful political coalition that included David Dinkins, Charles Rangel and Percy Sutton. He became the first black person to serve in the State Senate, representing the Upper West Side and Harlem. He did this while raising two sons with his wife Portia, a schoolteacher.

“There was no pattern to follow,” recalled Paterson, now 84, from the office where he has practiced labor law for the last 25 years.

The GI Bill paid his college tuition. Stickball matches covered other expenses—according to Paterson, it was common to bet on the games, and his team seldom lost. If Paterson knew how to work, he also knew how to hustle.

“I played through college, and I played through law school,” he said. “It was something people bet on, and we made money on it.” Laughing as he described how the ball used to hit buildings and ricochet off windows, he added, “There is so much chance involved.”

The man who thrived on games of chance was soon swept up into local politics. As chairman of the Morningside Neighborhood Renewal Council, he got his first lessons about the political process. In 1965, he went on to win the New York State Senate seat in the district representing Harlem and the Upper West Side, where he says he was, by that time, a well-known figure.

“I was an upstart. I took on the establishment,” he said with relish. “And I won.”

After a failed run for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket, in 1978 Mayor Ed Koch appointed Paterson as a deputy mayor. A few years later, he became the first African American to hold the post of New York Secretary of State. Yet he said that despite his rise to power, he did not forget his roots.

“When you are in office, you represent a community and you have to remember where you came from,” he said.

The place where Paterson came from was a place where neighbors knew each other and family bonds were tight.

“The block where I lived was a neighborhood,” he said. “Not just your parents, but your neighbors disciplined you when you did something you shouldn’t.”

His home base of Harlem was also the center of black power in America. He came of age in the era of the 1943 Harlem race riots, and on the eve of the black power movement and the civil rights movement.

Now Paterson works in private practice, representing the interests of unions such as the 1199/SEIU Hospital Workers Union and the United Federation of Teachers. Even at 84, Paterson is a thin, dapper man with a neatly groomed mustache who continues his advocacy efforts.

“The economic recession is hitting people hard,” he said. “The government doesn’t have money. You can’t get blood out of a stone.”

Paterson speaks with quiet pride about his children. That is true whether the talk is of the governor or Daniel, the other son in the family, who works for the Office of Court Administration.

“We raised our children differently from most,” he said. “David is, of course, legally blind. With David being the person he is, we did our best to treat him like a regular person. We didn’t send him to a special school for the blind.”

The family had a small home in Hempstead, Long Island, as well as a residence in New York City. Because the Hempstead public schools would accept his son into mainstream classes, that was where Paterson and his wife chose to raise their sons.

“I even taught him basketball,” Paterson said with a chuckle. “He never missed a lay-up and he was a great dribbler. People said, ‘Don’t do it because you’ll make him feel discouraged,’ but he did well.”

Well enough to wind up with the state’s top government job. Paterson was picked for lieutenant governor by then-candidate Eliot Spitzer during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006. In March 2007, after Spitzer’s high-profile resignation, Paterson inherited a tough job, especially during bad economic times. He’s had a sometimes turbulent tenure, but some capitol observers say he seems to have found his voice in recent budget talks, in part by standing firm against additional borrowing.

David Paterson got an early start on the campaign trail, his father recalled, when he began to campaign on sound trucks, or vehicles equipped with loudspeakers, at the age of 12. Paterson remembers his son as an excellent public speaker, even at an early age. “He always seemed to know more than anyone else,” he said.

Asked whether he imagined that one of his sons would follow in his footsteps, he sounded incredulous.

“Follow in my footsteps?” he asked. “He went far beyond my footsteps.”

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