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Paterson's legacy praised as Capitol portrait unveiled

David A. Paterson on Jan. 8, 2014.

David A. Paterson on Jan. 8, 2014. Credit: Getty Images

ALBANY -- Former Gov. David A. Paterson, New York's first African-American and legally blind governor who presided over one of the state's most tumultuous political and fiscal years, now has an official portrait giving him a permanent place in the Capitol.

"When I became governor in a flash, it was hard to admit it at the time, but I never felt my disability more than I did then," Paterson said in an interview with Newsday before the portrait of New York's 55th governor was unveiled yesterday in the Capitol.

Having never learned Braille, Paterson said he found that memorizing thousands of words of speeches and reports, which served him for 20 years in Senate debates, wasn't enough for a governor's constant meetings and workload. Paterson had a cane painted into the background of his portrait to represent his disability.

"Governor Paterson offers us a portrait of possibility," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday at the ceremony, praising Paterson's trailblazing in difficult times.

Paterson enjoyed only a brief boost in the polls and early political support after the lieutenant governor succeeded Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in March 2008 amid a prostitution scandal. Four months into the job, Paterson made an unprecedented call for TV air time to warn of a fiscal crisis: "The time to act is now."

But he met resistance in announcing what would become the Great Recession. The State Legislature and powerful public employee unions opposed the billions of dollars in cuts Paterson called for as tax revenues were in a free fall. He further drove down his poll numbers and spent political capital on scandals among staff and his own $62,000 fine for obtaining World Series tickets from the Yankees, a registered lobbyist.

But he implemented bold policy initiatives, such as framing gay marriage as a civil right in 2009, which factored into its legalization in 2011, and repealing the Rockefeller drug laws' long mandated sentences. Paterson defied Albany's experts when he filled the lieutenant governor vacancy to preside over the Senate and end a coup in 2009, and he forged far more budget power for the governor.

Paterson, however, quickly was dubbed "the accidental governor" by politicians, mishandled a torturous selection process for a U.S. senator to replace Hillary Clinton, and was ridiculed as clueless on "Saturday Night Live."

"It was cruel. But it was a frenzied time," Paterson said.

The criticism ramped up when Paterson said he would seek election in 2010, until he relented and dropped out, making way for then-Attorney General Cuomo.

Paterson made his mark, said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz and an expert on state government and politics. "He asserted the power of governor and made some very difficult choices," Benjamin said. "He stabilized the situation and handed off the baton."

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