BY Kerry Eleveld
November 09 2009 11:00 AM ET
New York governor David Paterson is no stranger to political volatility. Three years ago he swept into office as lieutenant governor alongside Eliot Spitzer in a landslide victory, then took the helm in March 2008 after his running mate’s ruinous dalliances with escorts forced his resignation. But nearly two years into his tenure, Paterson’s approval ratings hover around 20% and he has been dogged by questions about his electoral prospects next year.
Yet far from being a despised politician corrupted by the spoils of power, Paterson, the state’s first African-American (and legally blind) governor, remains eminently likable and unusually personable and spontaneous—especially for a politician.
No sitting governor comes close to matching Paterson’s gay rights record. As a state senator from Harlem he helped stall the passage of a hate-crimes bill, from 1987 to 2000, until it included protections for gays and lesbians. On his first day as minority leader of the state senate Democrats in 2002, New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act was passed into law. And in a somewhat unprecedented move for a lieutenant governor, he worked the state assembly floor for votes in what became a decisive victory for New York’s first gay marriage bill in 2007—one that was certainly no slam dunk from the outset.
While the state assembly again passed the marriage equality bill decisively this spring, a senate vote remains elusive—largely the result of a partisan power struggle that hijacked the chamber’s agenda for much of the year. Paterson pledged to place the bill on the agenda of an October special session, but he couldn’t force a vote, and it wasn’t clear that his political muscle matched his moxie. Some questioned whether senate Democrats had the will to send it to the floor, given the state’s top order of business—a multibillion-dollar deficit.
In spite of his political stressors, the governor remained optimistic about marriage, and defiant about his prospects in 2010.
Why is LGBT equality so personal for you?
When I was a young person watching the civil rights demonstrations in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi, I was always struck by the people who didn’t have to be there—the members of the clergy, the union leaders, and private citizens, who were white or Hispanic. And particularly, the whites were not targets of discrimination, but they were people who saw how it wasn’t just an issue of what was happening to black people in the South, it was what was happening to our country.
And so I wanted to be someone who not only was an advocate for change within their own community but could leave that sort of bonded field and see the world in its entirety. So therefore I got involved in women’s rights issues and I got involved in issues involving other discriminated minorities like Asians and Hispanics. But by the time I got into those situations, the inertia of change had already started to present itself.
But when I went down to Greenwich Village in 1975 when I was 21 years old with a friend of mine who was gay, and we poured cans of Florida orange juice down the sewer to send a message to Anita Bryant—this was not a popular thing to do. And particularly in the African-American community, being an advocate for gay and lesbian rights was not a popular thing to do.
Was there someone in particular who influenced you on LGBT rights?
Well, I had—as I discussed last year—two uncles. We all have fake uncles—they’re good friends of your parents and you call them uncles but they’re not really in your family. And they were Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald and they lived in the building that I live in now. When we were younger this was never really explained to us, but they were members of the family as much as anyone else was. And as I got older and I realized that they were gay, I also realized that they had these ways that they sort of obfuscated people from really knowing this, and I thought it was kind of sad that they couldn’t live their lives the way they wanted to.
And then I met someone who was a little younger than them, who was openly gay in Harlem in the mid ’70s, and that was really quite an effort in heroism. He actually was one who thought that people should be who they are.