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.
Transgender individuals still don’t have employment protections in new york. is there anything you can do in your capacity as governor to help extend those protections?
The [state] attorney general’s opinion is that the laws involving sexual discrimination apply to transgender people. What I’m looking into are ways that perhaps the executive branch can support that in some way, and if we find that there’s a valid way in which we can make an addendum to the attorney general opinion, we certainly will.
I faced a personal fork in the road during the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, when a number of transgender people felt that they had been left out of the legislation by the other gay, lesbian, and bisexual advocacy groups. And in the end, I thought that that bill should have included transgender people. So before my time is over, I would suggest strongly that if there’s still any discrepancy, it will get cleared up in this administration.
And is that something that you can do with a stroke of the pen?
That’s something that I’m determining, but if it’s a stroke of a pen and the pen’s in my hand, then I guess you know it will get done.
What advice would you give your son, Alex, or your daughter, Ashley, if either one of them were to come out to you?
How they conduct their personal lives is none of my business even though they’re my children, and how they choose to express themselves in life I think is purely individual and I 100% support them. What I think would be even more important than if either of them were to have been interested in same-sex relationships is that they respect everybody else’s relationships.
Let’s turn to same-sex marriage—
I thought you were going to ask what would happen if [my wife] Michelle came out.
Well, what would happen?
I was kidding with Michelle once—we were having a little dispute—and I said, “You know, if we had same-sex marriage back around the time we got married, I would have had more choices.” And she said, “So would I.” So I never really pursued the conversation beyond that.
What will it mean to you if delivering marriage equality is your biggest legacy as governor?
I think it would be fine. I think it is probably the most significant human rights legislation that we’re addressing at this particular time in history. I would hope that people would also note that I have eradicated the Rockefeller drug laws and balanced two budgets in the middle of a recession—cutting $30 billion in 18 months, which is more than any five governors in the state’s largest annual deficits cut in any five years.
Your aides assure me that you plan on running for governor. Are you?
I am running—I’m running right now. And it must be news because every day I look up and hear the latest rumor about how I’m not running, perhaps from sources who think someone else should run for governor.
And I’m not afraid of taking anyone on in an election. I hope they come forward soon, but they won’t. And the reason that they won’t is because what will happen to them is something that is happening right across the river right now. There is a man who was [at] 19 points in the polls, just like I was, who was left for dead and he ran for governor anyway. And he’s now 1 point ahead in the polls and his name is [New Jersey governor] Jon Corzine.
How did it feel to have President Barack Obama express a lack of confidence in your candidacy?
I actually am sympathetic to the president—he has been put in a position where though he has passed all 13 of his major programs, he’s gotten very little Republican support, though he went out of his way to be inclusive and to visit their conferences and to explain to them how important it is at this time for us to pull together as a country and not hang apart as two separate political parties.
So the administration’s interest in Democratic prospects all over the country and their concern for Democrats like myself, who have had a tough time as a result of making a lot of very difficult decisions, I think, is actually merited. So I don’t take it personally—I see the value of it.
Is there any thought that you would like to share with the LGBT community?
I think as I’ve observed in the LGBT community, as I’ve observed in the African-American community, in the disabled community—both of which I’m a part of—there’s also a reaction, a reaction of perhaps not always feeling accepted even when one should be accepted. And I am hoping when marriage equality passes, that this will be the ultimate symbolic gesture that this society, at least here in New York State, accepts the men and the women who live in this society.
But what will come after that will also have to be a culture change and an acceptance of victory. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Claim your victories.” And I’m hoping that people not only benefit from the legislation with their rights now that are brand-new that should be exercised as soon as possible but also with an enhanced spirit of recognizing that we too belong.