The governor of The Network Journal’s home state, David Paterson, has attained two historic firsts: He is New York’s first African-American governor and the first in the nation who is legally blind.
The quick-witted leader can also lay claim to a third “first.” There hasn’t been a funnier person in his position.
Much of Paterson’s wit is self-deprecating. Perhaps throughout his life and certainly during his long tenure as a state senator, he learned to laugh at himself before others had the chance. Even during the most serious moments, he seems to have a comment to suspend the gravity.
Recently, Paterson delivered the opening remarks at Columbia University prior to the appearances of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. On the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the candidates were asked to address the issue of service to the nation. The governor told a story related to service.
Once, on East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, he asked a woman if there was a drugstore across the street. She told him “yes” and took him over there. When Paterson didn’t go inside, the woman asked why. He replied that his friend said his office was across the street from the drugstore. “The woman was aghast,” Paterson recounted. “But I told her I appreciated her and applauded her service.”
That drew laughter from the crowd.
The state’s financial situation, however, is not a laughing matter, and Paterson will need more than a fine sense of humor to get over some of the fiscal bumps and attacks that have proliferated since he assumed the governorship in March.
The first significant sign of attack came from an unsuspected source: the Working Families Party, a presumed ally of the governor. The party’s attack appeared in a recent ad opposing Paterson’s proposal for a 4 percent cap on school-related property-tax increases. “Tell David Paterson,” a narrator booms in a 30-second spot, “hurting schools is the wrong answer.”
Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director and co-founder, says the knock on the governor is not personal, merely a “disagreement on principle between us. …It’s not the first. If the governor continues to drift away from working families, he’s going to keep hearing about it from progressives like us.”
More recently, a full-page ad in The New York Times from the Seneca Nation of Indians warned the governor to honor his words: “In his inaugural address, Paterson said, ‘I have talked to New Yorkers for decades about the crumbling upstate economy…’” the Times ad goes, “and the Native Americans insist that he honor an age-old treaty - as previous governors have done - and say ‘No’ to illegal taxation.”
Paterson hasn’t found any of the criticism funny, nor has he been laughing about the racist implications hurled at Obama by the McCain team. He has charged the Republican with playing the race card when deriding Obama’s years as a community organizer in Chicago.
Even so, there may be time for the witty governor to chime in on these issues, as he did in Denver during the Democratic National Convention. Upon being introduced and enjoying a sustained round of applause, mainly from the New York delegation, Paterson said: “Thank you. My time is up.”
The governor’s time in Denver was limited, but, as the head man in Albany, he has much more clock and calendar to be both serious and funny.
Paterson announced that he’s created a cabinet position for national and community service. Susan Stern will be the chair of the State Commission on National and Community Service. Stern is the immediate past chairman of the board of UJA-Federation of New York and will “produce a report for the administration within 90 days to make New York state a national leader for service and volunteerism.”