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Originally published March 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 13, 2008 at 12:50 AM

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NY Lt. Gov. Paterson is used to defying expectations

Colleagues consider him a more deft politician than Eliot Spitzer, but some worry he may be too gentle.

NEW YORK — Replacing Eliot Spitzer, who rose to the governorship of New York after browbeating Wall Street titans, is David Paterson, a man so affable that the colleague he supplanted speaks of him in glowing terms.

"David is extremely intelligent, charming and witty, and enjoys the goodwill of people in both parties," said state Sen. Martin Connor, the Democrat Paterson knocked off as Senate minority leader in 2002. "He ran against me, and he beat me. But we remain friends."

With Spitzer announcing his resignation amid a sex scandal, Paterson, 53, on Monday will become the state's first African-American governor.

From the time he refused as a child to learn Braille, carry a white stick or use a guide dog, Paterson, 53, who is legally blind, has been defying expectations. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo recalled playing basketball against him in a charity game a decade ago.

"David was on the other side," Cuomo said. "I said: 'What are you doing here? You're supposed to be blind.' He said, 'I'm guarding you.' Just what I wanted: a blind guy to guard me. The second time down the court, he stole the ball."

Fellow Democrats and Republicans consider him more liberal than Spitzer and a more deft politician, capable of healing the rancor that has driven Albany into gridlock.

"He's got a wonderful sense of humor, a very gentle man," said Betsy Gotbaum, the New York City public advocate. "In that sense, he's the opposite of Eliot."

But some people who have applauded Spitzer's combative style and ambitious reform agenda wonder whether Paterson is too accommodating, perhaps too gentle, to change Albany.

Cuomo said he thought Paterson "will make a more than good governor." But, he added: "I think in his heart of hearts he'd rather be a legislator. It's easier to intellectualize, to deal with problems as a senator, because you don't have to solve them."

Though his ascension is sudden, Paterson, who is married with two children, has had plenty of preparation. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised in the thick of the Harlem political world. His father, Basil Paterson, served as state senator, deputy mayor and secretary of state and is allied with such Harlem heavyweights as Democratic U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel.

As an infant, Paterson developed an infection that left him blind in his left eye and with severally limited sight in the other.

Because the public schools in New York City could not guarantee him an education without placing him in special-education classes, his parents bought a house in Hempstead, on Long Island. He then went Columbia University, graduating in 1977 with a history degree, and Hofstra Law School.

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His impaired vision — he has a limited ability to see shapes — has helped make him a good listener. Aides brief him by leaving lengthy voice-mails. He memorizes his speeches.

"When I say I saw something, it's more like I sensed it," he said recently. "I think people's perception of me sometimes is that I see more than I actually do."

Paterson, who has completed the New York City Marathon, has said his "truest disability has been my ability to overcome my physical disability."

"As soon as people see that I can be independent, then they hold me to the standard that everyone else is," he said. As a result, "I don't act the way I did when I was 17, like I can do everything myself, because I realized the minute I do that, no one helps me. So I learned to be a little more pragmatic about life."

After law school, he went to work for the Queens district attorney and David Dinkins' campaign for Manhattan borough president; Dinkins later became the city's first black mayor. In 1985, at 31, Paterson went to the state Senate, representing his father's former district.

In 1993, he sought the Democratic nomination for New York City public advocate, rejecting his Harlem elders' advice that another black candidate on the citywide ballot might jeopardize Dinkins' re-election as mayor. Paterson lost the nomination to Mark Green but retained his Senate seat. In 2002, he became Senate minority leader by staging a coup — a rare event in Albany — against Connor.

Some analysts wonder whether Paterson will be tough enough to wrestle New York's two major political machines into line. New York political analyst Douglas Muzzio said he hasn't been in a real position of authority. In New York, that's traditionally been the governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker.

"As minority leader, he wasn't one of the three men in the room who dictate Albany's politics; in fact, minority leader is a fairly powerless position," said Muzzio, who teaches political science at Baruch College.

But Paterson is no stranger to skeptics. "I have had this desire my whole life to prove people wrong, to show them I could do things they didn't think I could do," he said when he became minority leader. "This is just another."

He said that when he first became minority leader, he took a lesson from Mario Puzo's book "The Godfather."

"You should have your friends underestimating your strengths and have your adversaries overestimating your weaknesses," he said.

Soon after Spitzer said he would resign, Paterson said he was "saddened" by what he'd learned in the past few days. He also asked for New Yorkers to pray for the Spitzer family.

He then made it clear it was time to move on: "It is now time for Albany to get back to work."

Material from The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Washington Post is included.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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