In February, a few weeks before he was dramatically seated as governor of New York State, David A. Paterson — then Lt. Governor — announced a program to expand the state’s minority and women-owned businesses (MWBEs). Among the program’s promises was a plan to help these businesses obtain surety bonds, which are required if minority and women-owned businesses are to compete for construction contracts offered by the state government and private firms. Paterson expressed concern that the MWBE community was getting the short end of the stick and were being placed in an unfair bargaining position.
“The equal treatment of all groups is a priority at every level of this administration,” Paterson said in a press statement. “Min-ority and women entrepreneurs have not been given a fair shake at the opportunity to do business with the state. This additional access to borrowed capital will help New York get back on track by supporting businesses that are vital to New York’s communities and overall economic growth.”
Having been suddenly ensconced in the governor’s chair and faced with a welter of administrative details, bills and promised reform measures by his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, MWBE advocates wonder if Paterson’s resolve to do right by them has been lost amid a fresh wave of urgencies. “Not at all,” Paterson told The Network Journal in a recent telephone interview. “It is something that is still very strong on my agenda because New York is suffering from a glut in the small-business industry. And it is these small businesses that help feed the larger ones.”
In the next 10 or 15 years, he said, the state will be witnessing a booming construction market in the entire metropolitan area, as well as upstate. “When this occurs suppliers are going to be needed,” he continued. “These suppliers, many of whom have gone through the certification process — which is too long in this state — were successful and yet at the same time were not given the opportunities. Not only will the small businesses benefit the communities that have been underrepresented, they’re going to help New York State’s economic development.”
By not using the resources available from small businesses, the governor contends, the state is limiting the power of these vital tools and stultifying their growth. “If this is the free enterprise system, then there ought to be free enterprise,” Paterson asserted. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Paterson also proposed that employment opportunities would be gained through the focus on scientific research; and he still stresses the importance of this initiative as a growth industry. “Those are new high-tech, cutting-edge job opportunities that can compete with the manufacturing jobs we lost,” he said.
The spirit and letter of Paterson’s resolve to make sure MWBEs prosper is currently in the hands of Michael Jones-Bey, the governor’s former chief of staff. As executive director of the Division of Minority and Women-Owned Business Dev-elopment, Jones-Bey exudes similar passion expressed by his former boss. “David has made it clear to me that he is serious about ensuring that for the first time MWBEs in New York get their fair share of business. More importantly, he has proven to me that you can achieve success without selling out,” he says. “While he has obviously moved to serve the interest of all New Yorkers,” Jones-Bey says of the governor, “he has not forgotten his base. Too often we see our best and brightest reach the pinnacle of success only to get amnesia and laryngitis. The governor is pushing hard to make sure that his agenda is inclusive of the interests of Harlem and the Harlems around the state.”
Several indicators suggest that Paterson’s approval rating is very good and that his recent decisions to sustain Off Track Betting and his support of same-sex marriages have been well received by the electorate. “In the beginning, we got off to a sputtering start, but I never heard Gov. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, who became governor when John Roland was convicted of a crime, or Gov. [Richard] Cody, who became governor of New Jersey when Gov. [Jim] McGreevy resigned — I never heard them referred to as accidental governors,” Paterson said. “No one ever called Harry Truman an accidental president. It was no accident here. It’s built into our constitution and that’s what is supposed to happen.”
Jones-Bey, like the favorable polls, thinks that Paterson has been and will continue to push hard on behalf of all New Yorkers, but that he cannot achieve success alone. “I do believe that Gov. Paterson is perhaps one of the most gifted leaders of his generation,” he declares. “However, he will need those of like mind to support him. Our community needs to learn how change is facilitated in state government. Yes, they should consider this governor sympathetic toward our concerns, but there still remain powerful organized forces in Albany who have not lost their appetite for power, or their comfort with the status quo. If we all simply just do our share we can help this governor achieve accomplishments that are beyond the mere symbolism of being the first African-American governor.”
As the first Black governor of the state, Paterson has miraculously hurdled all kinds of obstacles, including being legally blind. On two recent occasions he underwent eye surgery. “It seems I’m having surgery every other week,” Paterson laughed. But surgery hasn’t hampered his routine, one that he cultivated in more than 20 years as a state senator and even before that as the son and surrogate son of the legendary “Gang of Four” of Harlem — his father, attorney Basil Paterson, one-time New York State senator, secretary of state and deputy New York City mayor; the esteemed Percy Sutton, founder of Inner City Broadcasting and former Manhattan borough president; former New York City Mayor David Dinkins; and Congressman Charles Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in Washington. “David has the pedigree, college degrees and political savvy to make him eminently qualified to govern our state,” says Assemblyman Keith Wright, who has known Paterson since they were teenagers. Both are basketball nuts, but Paterson, 53, said he has had to curtail his playing and his jogging.
When he isn’t moored to his desk, mulling a gaggle of bills — of the sixteen he has authored only a handful have been passed — Paterson is keeping the home front together where his wife, Michelle, and their two children vie with legislators for his time and attention. He was beaming about his son, Alex, who had just graduated from the eighth grade. “There are some of us for whom whatever we do seems to be a greater challenge. But I would hope that the public doesn’t have time to engage in such trivial matters,” Paterson said, referring to those who question his leadership based on anything other than the issues facing the state. “What we really need to think about is taxes, energy cost and the high price of food and finding there is a governor who is taking action, and I hope I can continue to do so.”
By Herb Boyd