In 1985, David Paterson won his campaign for State Senate and was elected to represent Harlem at the age of 31, becoming the youngest state senator in New York's history. In 2008, New York governor Eliot Spitzer became embroiled in a national prostitution scandal and resigned, and Paterson filled the former governor's position, making him New York's first African-American governor.
Born David Alexander Patterson on May 20, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York, to labor law attorney Basil Paterson and homemaker, Portia Paterson. Paterson's family is steeped in political history—Basil was the first African-American Secretary of State in New York and the first African-American Vice-Chair of the National Democratic Party. His paternal grandmother also worked for a brief time in the political arena: She was a secretary to civil rights activist, Marcus Garvey.
Shortly after birth, David contracted a serious ear infection that spread to his optic nerve. The resulting damage left the newborn with no sight in his left eye and limited vision in his right. His loss of sight became an impediment to his early education in the New York City public school system, which insisted Paterson needed to be placed in special classes. "People are fond of saying of people with disabilities that they are just like everybody else," Paterson told the Associated Press in 2002. "But that's just something to say to make them feel better. When you have a disability you are not like everyone else. You are uniquely defined by a lack of vision."
To give Paterson a mainstream schooling experience, his family bought a home in the Long Island suburb of Hempstead. He was the first disabled student in the Hempstead public schools, but he was also a conscientious one. He graduated from Hempstead High School in 1971, finishing a year ahead of his peers.
The next year, Paterson entered Columbia University as a top student, and made the dean's list his first semester. Yet just as quickly as Paterson hit the road to success, his studies started to suffer. In just one semester, he went from the dean's list to flunking out. He temporarily left his studies on advice from a professor, who told him he needed to take some time to learn how to stand up for himself.
"I had no defenses when things went wrong," Paterson recalls. "[My professor] told me to go out and get a job and fight for that job, then come back and finish college. So I did that, getting a job at a credit union. It was a painful time for me. I'd graduated high school younger than everyone and was legally blind, yet I figured I'd be out of college at age 20. But it all came crashing down."
He returned to Columbia to finish his undergraduate degree, graduating with a bachelor's in History in 1977. He then went on to law school at Hofstra University, completing his Juris Doctor in 1982. Paterson then went straight from law school to the Queens district attorney's office, working as an assistant district attorney.
In 1985, he worked for David Dinkins' successful campaign for Manhattan borough president. Later that year, Paterson won his own campaign for State Senate after the senatorial incumbent, Leon Bogues, died. He was elected to represent Harlem at the age of 31, becoming the youngest state senator in New York's history.
Paterson made headlines in the mid '90s for his work to preserve an African-American burial ground discovered on the excavation site for a new federal building in New York City. He not only secured federal funding for the preservation project, but he also formed a team to monitor the work and protect the remains found on the site. The senator saved more than 90 skeletal remains in the 16th-century cemetery.
Leading New York
In 2003, he became the minority leader of the New York State Senate, and the first African-American legislative leader in New York's history. He made history again the next year, when he became the first visually impaired person to address the Democratic National Convention. In 2007, he became New York's first African-American lieutenant governor.
A year later, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer became embroiled in a national prostitution scandal. After Spitzer's resignation in March of 2008, Paterson filled the former governor's position. The appointment made Paterson New York's first African-American governor.
Paterson currently serves as a member of the Democratic National Committee and as a board member of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. In addition to his political work, the governor is an outspoken advocate for the American Foundation for the Blind, and an avid runner. Paterson completed the New York City Marathon on November 7, 1999, and currently serves as a Member of the Board of the Achilles Track Club.
Paterson and his wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, live in New York City. They have two children.
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