With a reputation polished during a long public career, the 76-year-old Paterson is considered one of the most influential African-Americans in the state, with a resume to be reckoned with: New York secretary of state; state senator from Harlem; the first black candidate for New York lieutenant governor on a major party ticket; and deputy mayor for labor negotiations in the early years of the Edward Koch administration.
‘He is extremely able,’ Koch said of the man once spoken of as his possible successor. ‘He knows everybody and knows everything about labor contracts that there is to know . . . the union is very lucky to have him representing them.’
More recently, as a senior partner at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, Paterson specialized in the areas of health care and labor law.
‘If I’m in a labor negotiation fight, that is the guy I would want sitting at my right or left side . . . you can’t have better,’ said political consultant Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor under former Mayor David Dinkins, and a close Paterson associate.
Paterson’s strong suit is his preparation, allies say.
‘I never met a person, who when they give you an opinion it’s buttressed with more fact, history, and current analysis than he does,’ said his son, State Sen. David Paterson (D-Harlem). ‘His opinion may be totally different from what the consensus is, but he respects the consensus and can identify it.’
If there is a criticism, friends say, it’s that Paterson has a way of being too polite and accommodating in a pinch. Whether that has been a factor in the current negotiations is something no one cared to discuss. But his temperament is clearly a contrast to the adamant style of Roger Toussaint, the transit workers union president.
Soft-spoken and urbane, Paterson is quick to tell a joke, offer encouragement or political advice.
A 1951 graduate of St. John’s Law School, he rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s as one of the Harlem Four, which also included Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.
The group collectively helped shape city policy for the poor over the next three decades in the city, state and Washington. Although the four were moderate, they laid the foundation for more vocal black politicians.
‘He is a straight shooter,’ said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who credits Paterson as an influence on his politics. ‘He is firm and says what he means and means what he says. If you were to rate him for this type of situation, I would give him a ten-and-half. He is honest and you can trust his word.’
Still, even Paterson’s biggest admirers said that, with the city and state facing large budget deficits, he would find it hard to smoothly resolve the negotiations between the transit workers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But if anybody can, said former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, it would be Paterson.
‘He is about the smartest, shrewdest counselor you want to have with his wealth of experience in these matters,’ said Ferrer, who runs the nonprofit Drum Major Institute in Manhattan.
‘Like anything of this nature, things will get funky before they get better, but he is used to that.’