In 1999, when New York City activists organized civil disobedience to protest the police shooting of African-immigrant Amadou Diallo, one of New York state’s most prominent legislators arrived at police headquarters in Manhattan to be arrested as part of the a remarkable civil rights protest.
The veteran state senator who was rising to a leadership role in Democratic circles took a place symbolically blocking an entrance to One Police Place and held his wrists out. Police officers attached plastic handcuffs and led the distinguished gentleman away to be charged with disorderly conduct.
The legislator’s name was David Paterson.
On Monday, he will become the 55th governor of New York state.
Little known outside New York until now, Paterson becomes an instant political celebrity as he prepares to replace scandal-plagued Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose career was ruined by his association with a money-for-sex scandal.
Paterson is a radically different political player than Spitzer, a wealthy lawyer who grabbed headlines for battling Wall Street insiders but who always acted a little more like the bankers and brokers he challenged than the victims of corporate excess.
There was nothing grassroots, neighborhood-level or community-based about Eliot Spitzer’s activism. As New York’s Attorney General, he would as an outgrowth of the controversy surrounding Diallo’s death, announce plans to conduct inquiries into police practices.
But Spitzer did not get his hands dirty in that fight or many others, and he did not hold them out to be handcuffed.
That’s why, when Spitzer prepared to seek the governorship, he asked Paterson to run with him. Spitzer recognized that he needed the state senator’s credibility with community activists and progressives, even if the gubernatorial candidate never quite embraced his running-mate as a full partner.
As is often the case with lieutenant governors, the No. 2 man in New York was not always treated fairly by the No. 1 man. They clashed a bit during the 2006 campaign, and no one was surprised when Spitzer grabbed all the headlines once the team took office.
But Paterson’s decision to accept the second position on Spitzer’s ticket in the first weeks of 2006, which many questioned at the time, has two years after the fact made him the man of the moment.
Paterson has been handed a remarkable opportunity to be not just a state officials but a national leader. And his long experience makes its likely that he will handle the spotlight and the job with aplomb.