The New Face of New York

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James Estrin / The New York Times / Redux

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, right, and Lieutenant Governor David Patterson, left, in Jan. 2007

Few of Eliot Spitzer's peers will miss his style now that he has been felled by scandal. Disdain for the governor's bellicosity was the one thing that united both parties in New York's fractious state government. His successor is Lt. Governor David Paterson — Spitzer's diametric opposite. With his mellow voice, humor and self-deprecation, Paterson has become a popular speaker in New York's political circles. "He has a winning personality," says State Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat whose 30th District seat Paterson used to occupy. "He's very funny, very witty, and he makes an effort to not just get the job done but to make people comfortable." According to the New York Times, Paterson once jokingly told a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of the demands of his job. "I'll tell you what the lieutenant governor's job is. You wake up every morning at 6:30 and you call the governor's house. If he answers, you can go back to sleep." Paterson will no longer be getting as much sleep.

Many believe Paterson's collegial approach to governance could soothe a legislature rubbed raw by Spitzer's abrasiveness. His affability will be an asset in combative Albany. What's unclear is whether it will be enough to effectively lead a state whose government may be one the nation's most dysfunctional.

In some ways, Paterson seems a born politician; in others, he's anything but. On one hand, he comes from political stock — the New York State Senate seat he assumed in 1985 was formerly held by his father, Harlem political leader Basil Paterson. On the other, he is legally blind (a disability that did not prevent him from completing the New York City Marathon in 1999). When the Columbia University and Hofstra Law School graduate became the State Senate's minority leader in 2002, it marked the first time an African American assumed that position. As governor, Paterson will add to his groundbreaking record by becoming the state's first black chief executive, and just the fourth in the nation's history — as well as the first blind person to attain the office.

Paterson — who will serve out the three years remaining on Spitzer's term — is respected on both sides of the aisle. "We're fortunate that he's the one," says Perkins. He notes that Paterson maintains a strong relationship with Spitzer nemesis Joseph Bruno, the Republican State Senate majority leader, who now assumes the lieutenant governorship.

Paterson's personal charms are not in question, but he faces massive political challenges. He inherits a budget gap of more than $4 billion, a sagging economy and an atmosphere beset by partisan gridlock. His temperament suited the state legislature, where he supported stem-cell research and alternative energy and championed female- and minority-owned businesses. Will it play as well in the chief executive's seat? "David Paterson is going to be overwhelmed. He's never had any executive experience whatsoever," says Wayne Barrett, who reports on state politics for the Village Voice. "He's an incredibly congenial guy, and a very bright guy, but I think this is going to be just an enormous challenge for him." Paterson is a "get-along, go-along guy," adds Barrett, who says his Republican opponents — despite their affection for Paterson — are "professional predators. And they're just going to roll over him."

"Is he going to provide bold leadership for the state? Probably not," says Justin Phillips, an expert on state government at Columbia University in New York City. But Phillips says a understated approach may suit Albany, where Spitzer's ferocity rankled. "Given his experience in the legislature, he'll take a more incremental approach to policy change. He'll get along better," Phillips says. "He'll probably be more effective than Spitzer. But New York government is characterized by gridlock. I don't know who could overcome that."

Amid the uncertainties, it seems clear Paterson's geniality represents a welcome change in Albany. "He's not a bully," says Perkins. "But he's not a pushover, either." If he is to succeed, he must be neither. Just weeks into his term, Spitzer famously dubbed himself a "steamroller" (an appellation he preceded with an expletive). The critical challenge for his successor is not to get steamrolled.