If Spitzer resigns after being snared in a prostitution scandal, the biggest changes in a Paterson administration would probably revolve around style.
"He's a guy who had two handicaps: his blindness and his race. And he never made excuses for it," said civil rights leader Al Sharpton, a longtime friend. "He's the guy who has said, 'I have been in a minority group and a minority within a minority group. And I can make it, so don't give me no excuses.'"
Paterson, 53, is the son of former state Sen. Basil Paterson, a member of the storied "Harlem Clubhouse" that includes fellow Democrats U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. The elder Paterson was the first in the family to run for lieutenant governor in 1970. He lost, but later became New York's first black secretary of state.
David Paterson lost sight in his left eye and much of the sight in his right eye after an infection as an infant. Refusal to bow to his handicap came early. When New York City schools refused to let him attend mainstream classes, his parents established residency on Long Island, where they found a school that would let him go to regular classes.
"He was in the plays and on the stage, and required no assistance in maneuvering around stage and on the playground," said Dr. Casmiro Liotta, Paterson's former principal at the Fulton School.
Assemblyman Keith Wright, an old Harlem friend, remembers Paterson playing basketball and generally acting just like the other kids in the neighborhood. In 1999, Paterson completed the New York City Marathon.
After earning degrees from Columbia University and Hofstra Law School, he worked for the Queens district attorney's office and was elected to the state Senate in 1985 at the age of 31. He built a reputation for working hard in a place where not everyone does.
Though he can read for brief periods, Paterson usually has aides read to him. He also has developed the ability to remember entire speeches and policy arcana. State Sen. Neil Breslin recalled that he told Paterson his cell phone number once and he memorized it.
"He has one of the finest memories of anyone I've known," Breslin said.
In sharp contrast to Spitzer, who can sound like a legal brief, Paterson is known for dry wit and speaking off the cuff. Sharpton recalled Paterson's arrest with his father at a New York City protest over the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant. Paterson quipped: "I'm going to tell the judge that I didn't see where I was going."
That easy demeanor belies Paterson's record as a savvy political operator. He seized control of the Senate Democratic caucus from another senator in 2002. He then worked to build the caucus, chipping away at the Republican majority to the point where it's now down to one seat. And he bucked his own father by accepting Spitzer's offer to become his running mate. Basil Paterson and others in the Harlem Clubhouse had already thrown their support to someone else.
Paterson reportedly took a couple of weeks to decide whether to give up his legislative career for New York's notoriously anonymous No. 2 spot. And sure enough, as Spitzer ostentatiously picked fights with lawmakers and became embroiled in a scandal over aides' efforts to embarrass a Republican rival, Paterson stuck to an agenda that was substantial, but hardly flashy: Medicaid, stem cell research, renewable energy.
If Spitzer steps down or is removed, Paterson would become only the third black governor in the nation since Reconstruction. He would also be the first blind governor — at least as far as the National Federation of the Blind is aware.
Paterson would not be the first New York governor with a disability. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who governed from 1928 to 1932, was paralyzed by polio in 1921.
If Spitzer resigns, Paterson would have to lean heavily on his ability to smooth ruffled feathers. Even before Spitzer was snagged in a prostitution scandal, the Capitol has been an acrimonious place.
Paterson already has a warm relationship with Republican Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno from his days in the Senate. Assembly Republican Leader James Tedisco said he's already received a call from Paterson talking about the future.
"He will be able to turn the temperature down a little bit," Wright said.