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David Paterson is the fourth African American and only the second legally blind governor in U.S. history. The son of former New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson, he spent 20 years in New York’s state senate before being chosen as Eliot Spitzer’s running mate for the 2006 New York gubernatorial election. He became governor on March 17, 2008 after Spitzer resigned.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Paterson about matters of interest to New York’s Jewish community.
The Jewish Press: Many Orthodox Jews, and Catholics for that matter, pay taxes for a public school system they don’t use. Is there any hope of a school voucher program being introduced and pushed through the legislature under your administration?
Paterson: This is an issue I have not fully embraced, but I certainly embrace more than when I first started. I actually went to the Alliance For School Choice conference in August of 2005, and I was sitting in one of the meetings, and I thought, “You know, I think I’m the only person in this room who voted for Kerry!”
But charter schools are probably the closest that we’re going to get to [school vouchers] right now, and I’ve been a pretty big charter school advocate to this point.
But of course as a government official I have to embrace the public school system.
So charter schools, but not necessarily school vouchers.
Not necessarily school vouchers because what happens is if you take enough money out of the public system, you’ve destroyed it.
But many people argue that if the government provided vouchers to all parents, schools would have to compete with one another, and all schools – both public and private – would improve educationally and thrive.
It’s an argument I’m still wrestling with because even with the charter schools around Albany, they opened up so many charter schools that they almost shut down the public school system.
Remember, what you’re doing now is what they eliminated in the desegregation era. Desegregation wasn’t just racial equality; part of desegregation was that the South couldn’t support two school systems. And my question is: Can we do it? Now, I know we can’t do it right now, but when we get past the recession, that’s a conversation we certainly should have.
The Bible clearly opposes homosexual behavior, calling it an “abomination.” Yet you are currently trying to push a bill through New York’s legislature, which would legalize gay marriage. Why?
First of all, I think we can agree that there is a dispute on what the Bible says about a lot of things.
But to some extent we’ve all, regardless of how we feel personally – and I was christened Catholic, by the way – become tolerant of the fact that we have a lot of gay and lesbian citizens who live in our society. So now we get to the legal question – it’s not a biblical question but a legal one: If these people live together, what rights do they have?
The bigger issue, to be perfectly honest, is what [opposition to gay marriage] does to our culture. In other words, suppose you work at an office where someone is gay and this person is getting married. They’re having a reception in the office for the person and you don’t go to the reception because the Bible says that it’s an abomination. What kind of ramifications does this have? When it’s time for this person to be promoted, maybe he doesn’t get promoted because everybody stopped liking him because their religion teaches them that that’s wrong.
Relations between the African American and Jewish communities have improved since 1985 when you first entered politics. How do you account for the tension and animosity of those days?
I think a lot of that was tension between two oppressed groups that didn’t always understand each others’ oppression. I used to write articles about this and circulate them to try to bring about an understanding.
Today, things have improved. I think the African American community has realized the danger of hate speech. For instance, a few years ago, Teen People was planning to run a feature on two teenage twins who were glorifying the Nazi period, and a whole group of African American elected officials came out to condemn this. I don’t think you would’ve seen that back in the ’80s….
There has been a great sense of learning in my career. I used to get into fights with Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Councilman Noach Dear, but I found common ground with a lot of people when I started to understand why they feel the way they feel – which is what I think is missing in public service.
That’s actually what drove me into public service. I mean, I was an African American kid with a disability who felt discriminated against by the disabled people because I was black, and then ostracized by the African Americans because I had a disability. And I thought, “This is really kind of silly.” So that’s sort of been my mission.
You will be facing a tough election year in 2010. What message do you have for the Jewish community?
Well, many people in the Jewish community are very concerned about the State of Israel. And we have this new national policy where we’re trying to engage many of these countries that have declared they would like to, if they could, eliminate Israel.
But I think the fact that there isn’t stronger international condemnation of [statements of leaders calling for Israel's destruction] almost leads them to think that it might be a good time to start organizing to that end.
There have to be voices, of which I consider myself one, that are saying, “Listen, if you really want to negotiate, we’ll negotiate, but not as long as you’re engaging in that kind of rhetoric, which, in a sense, almost fosters international terrorism.” We allow the dictators of these regimes to have a forum at the UN every year. I’ve tried to be part of the protests against that.
For Jewish people who live right here in the city and state of New York, I think they have the same problems as Catholics and Protestants, which is this economy that we’ve got to replenish. We have got to avoid going to the places where California and Michigan and now Illinois are going. And we’ve got to tighten our belts, push through this period, and start investing in the kind of business development and economic job creation that will bring us back to prosperity.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).
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