Paterson, Basil A.

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Basil A. Paterson


Lawyer, politician

Basil A. Paterson is a labor attorney and politician whose name was sometimes mentioned in the mid-1980s as a possible contender to become the first African-American mayor of New York City. He never ran for that office, but he did serve as deputy mayor and in Albany as New York's secretary of state. In 2008 he returned to the spotlight when his son David became the state's first African-American governor and only the third black politician to govern a state since Reconstruction. "Only a charlatan would think we haven't made great strides in race relations," the elder Paterson told Sam Roberts of the New York Times in 2006 when his son was elected lieutenant governor, "but only a fool would think we've come far enough."

Paterson was born in 1926 in New York City into a West Indian immigrant family. His father's roots were in the Lesser Antilles islands of Curaçao and Grenadines, and his mother hailed from Jamaica and had once worked for an organization founded by one of Jamaica's most famous citizens: the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. In New York City Paterson grew up in a household that included three sisters and endured a public school education at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School in Harlem, which he later described as one of the city's worst schools at the time. He graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school whose student enrollment of ten thousand made it the largest high school in the United States.

Paterson finished Clinton High at age sixteen, so he worked for a time at a Port Authority warehouse unloading trucks. This led to his first political experience as a campaign worker for Ben Davis, an African-American Communist Party member who won a seat on New York's city council in 1943. At St. John's College Paterson majored in biology but then entered law school after earning his undergraduate degree in 1948. He finished three years later and was admitted to the New York state bar in 1952. His marriage to Portia Hairston produced two sons, Daniel and David, but soon after David's birth in the 1954 the infant suffered an ear infection that spread to his optic nerve, leaving him blind in one eye and with only limited sight in the other.

Elected to State Senate

In 1956 Paterson formed a law partnership with three other young African-American attorneys, and over the next decade he emerged as part of a new generation of political activists from Harlem who were entering establishment politics. They included Charles B. Rangel, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971, and Percy E. Sutton, who was Malcolm X's lawyer and the Manhattan borough president from 1966 to 1977. All three men were profiled by Paul Good in a 1967 New York Times Magazine article, but it would be Paterson's law partner, David Dinkins, who would win election twenty-two years later to become New York City's first African-American mayor.

Paterson was elected to the New York state senate in 1965 as an independent candidate from Harlem, and during his five years there he became known for his opposition to a proposed law that barred government employees from striking. He gave up the seat in 1970 when he was invited to serve as the running mate for Arthur Goldberg, the New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Goldberg was a former U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Paterson's bid to become lieutenant governor made it only the second time in U.S. history that an African American was nominated for a state-wide office on one of the major party tickets. Some believed it was too early and that having Paterson as a running mate had cost Goldberg votes that went instead to the Republican victor, the banking scion Nelson Rockefeller.

Paterson's support for the right of public employees to strike led to a career as a specialist in labor law. For five years he headed the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, and in 1978 Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City, named Paterson to serve as his deputy for labor relations and personnel. This was an important post at the time, for the city was still struggling to emerge from a serious financial crisis and had come close to declaring bankruptcy just three years earlier. Wage contracts with police, fire, and dozens of other municipal employees represented one of the city's largest budget expenditures, and Paterson was charged with the unenviable task of meeting with powerful municipal-union leaders and asking for wage concessions. In 1979 the New York governor Hugh Carey appointed him to serve as the secretary of state, a post he held for the next three years until Carey's term ended.

Declined to Run for Mayor

In 1984 Paterson's name began to surface as a possible contender for the next year's mayoral race, but he abruptly ended an unofficial campaign in September of 1984, citing family reasons. Two years later, his son David was elected to the same seat in the New York state senate that his father had once held. Years later, David recalled to Delen Goldberg of the Post-Standard that he was eleven years old when he helped his father campaign for the senate in 1968, and he remembered how "excited" he was. David said, "Everything he did, I wanted to do." The younger Paterson served several years in Albany, and in 2003 he became the state senate's minority leader. In 2006 he followed another path of his father's career when he became the lieutenant governor running mate of Eliot Spitzer—who, like Arthur Goldberg, was a New York City-based Jewish Democrat. Spitzer won, but he resigned in March of 2008 amid revelations that he had paid several thousand dollars to a prostitution ring. David Paterson automatically became governor and achieved the historic dual firsts as New York's first African-American governor and the first who was also legally blind.

At a Glance …

Born Basil Alexander Paterson on April 27, 1926, in New York City, NY; son of Leonard Paterson and Evangeline (Rondon) Paterson; married Portia Hairston, 1953; children: Daniel and David. Military service: U.S. Army during World War II. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Education: St. John's College, BS, 1948; St. John's University, JD, 1951.

Career: Paterson, Michael, Dinkins & Jones, New York City, partner, 1956-77; elected to the New York State Senate, 1965-70; Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, president, 1972-77; New York City deputy mayor for labor relations and personnel, 1978; New York secretary of state, 1979-82; Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, PC, Mineola, NY, 1983—.

Addresses: Office—Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, PC, PO Box 9194, Garden City, NY 11530-9194.

Some media pundits raised questions about the new governor's father and possible conflicts of interest. Basil Paterson had been with the Long Island-based law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein since 1983, and was co-chair of its labor department. The firm represented some powerful unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, the city's transit employees, and thousands of restaurant and hotel employees who belonged to the New York City local of the Service Employees International Union. Paterson assured Michael Cooper and Mike McIntire of the New York Times that he had never discussed labor union issues with his son when he was lieutenant governor and said that "if anybody thinks that I will make a call to my son on behalf of someone, I can't do that."

Paterson was eighty-one years old when his son became governor and was apparently hearty health. His son noted that despite his father's impressive record of accomplishments, he was far from an absent parent when he and his brother were growing up. "He had a real love for his family and probably spent more time with us doing different things than the other dads who came home at 5 o'clock," David Paterson told Claude Solnik of the Long Island Business News in 2004. "And often we didn't see him around until 8 o'clock at night. I didn't appreciate it until I became a dad."



Long Island Business News, October 29, 2004.

Newsday (Melville, NY), March 14, 2008.

New York Times, February 19, 1978, p. E5; November 23, 1978, p. B1; December 27, 2006, p. B5.; March 16, 2008, p. A1.

New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1967, p. SM34.

Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), February 19, 2008, p. A1.

—Carol Brennan