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Ex-Gov. Paterson memoir recounts a political life of triumph and loss

Following the release of his memoir, “Black, Blind & In Charge," Gov. David A. Paterson talked to Newsday about the moment when he found out he'd be succeeding Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008 and about growing up on Long Island.  Credit: Newsday staff; Photo credit: Craig Ruttle, Ed Betz

ALBANY — Former Gov. David A. Paterson, who took heat from political allies when he sounded an early warning of the Great Recession, jousted with "Saturday Night Live," and presided over perhaps the most tumultuous period in Albany’s history, is getting a final word in his memoir, "Black, Blind, & In Charge."

The book from New York’s first Black governor, who lost his sight as a child, was released Sept. 28. It mixes brushes with greatness, including Muhammad Ali and other giants of the civil rights movement, his daily struggle with blindness, and a sense of humor that is rare in politics today.

Paterson writes that being Black and blind could have held him back — he remembers some relatives just hoped he’d "find a job, something to do" — but he turned challenge into motivation to try to connect with people before they listened to their lesser angels.

"I think these kind of factors in my life gave me this kind of universal approach to people, that they are all basically the same," said Paterson, 66, who was governor from 2008 to 2010.

He rose to governor from lieutenant governor on March 17, 2008, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal.

Paterson wrote that he got the news from Secretary to the Governor, Richard Baum, who was whispering during a phone call from the bathroom of Spitzer’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

"The governor is finished," Baum said. "He’s going to resign at 2:15."

"What time is it now?" Paterson asked.

"1:15," Baum said.

So began two years in which Paterson had to deal with a power struggle in Albany that would result in a coup within the Senate, his voluntary admission of an extramarital affair, and some subtle but disturbing economic trends on the horizon. And that was his second day on the job.

Paterson said he dug deep to try to meet the moment.

Much of that moxie comes from his years growing up on Long Island. He was a blind, Black kid from Brooklyn in a suburb, where he learned to deal with people of different races and backgrounds. That ability would later win allies across the aisle that is rarely seen today. One was Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a powerful old-school Republican from upstate, even as Paterson chipped away at the GOP Senate majority.

Paterson grew up on Carolina Avenue in Hempstead. His family moved there in 1958 determined to send him to public school, not a school for the blind.

"My mother said who you go to school with is who you socialize with, and eventually who you will do business with," Paterson said in an interview.

He never learned Braille, but instead compensated by memorizing. Paterson graduated from Columbia University and Hofstra University Law School. He worked in New York City government, including in an office with a young Spike Lee. But the work held no spark.

The tug of politics came from his father, Basil Paterson, a Harlem civil-rights political leader and former state senator who died in 2014. David Paterson said civil rights leader and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton suggested that he run for Senate in 1985. Sutton was part of the political power brokers in Harlem along with Basil Paterson, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and former Rep. Charles Rangel.

"He said, ‘You won’t win, but you will look really good for the future.’ The only thing he got wrong was, I did win."

Paterson rose to Senate minority leader in 2003. Then, as governor he pushed progressive measures early, including ordering agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and framing the issue as a civil right. He helped force that issue to the fore, and into law in 2011.

But there also were mistakes. His chief of staff, on whom he depended greatly, would resign in 2008 amid a tax scandal. Paterson would be hit with a $62,125 fine for soliciting and accepting free tickets to the 2009 World Series in Yankee Stadium.

His early warning of the Great Recession and his hundreds of vetoes of spending to brace for it cost him support. By the time he was ready to run for a full term, he lacked the money and supporters to do it. He was mimicked on "SNL" as a bumbler and was frequent fodder for the tabloids, which often portrayed him with a Pinocchio nose for his reported misstatements and mistruths.

"I had been through some real difficult periods where I felt isolated and became insecure," Paterson said in an interview. "But I would say that when opportunity came my way, I jumped all over it."

The book is a mix of personal growth, political conflict, loss and triumph.

He writes of the time early in his political career when he met his hero, Ali, at a march against apartheid in South Africa. The march from Harlem to Central Park was on a hot June day in 1986 and Ali started to whither, leaning increasingly on the slightly built Paterson.

At one point, Paterson wrote, organizers stopped the march to see if Ali felt well enough to continue. "He didn’t actually say that he did," Paterson writes. "He said only, ‘I have to march.’ They asked me if I felt well and I wasn’t going to give up this place in the parade for anything. I would be carried out of there before I would stop, so I just repeated what he said: ‘I have to march.’"

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