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Spitzer's Fall Helps Write New Chapter in History

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a crude display of racism at a South African university has the campus in an uproar. We'll talk with students about the homemade video that's caused an international outcry. But first, New York is making plans for Lieutenant Governor David Paterson to ascend to the top job. On Monday, he will replace Governor Eliot Spitzer who resigned in disgrace yesterday, two days after he was linked to a prostitution ring as a client. Paterson will be New York's first black governor and only the third African-American governor since reconstruction, and the first who's legally blind. We would like to know more about him so we called former New York Mayor David Dinkins. Welcome Mr. Mayor, thank you so much.

Mr. DAVID DINKINS (Former New York Mayor): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now Mr. Mayor, you've actually know Lieutenant Governor Paterson since he was a child. What can you tell us about him?

Mr. DINKINS: Well you're right I've known him his entire life. His father and I were once law partners, Basil Paterson. He ran for Lieutenant Governor some years ago and won 61 out of 62 counties of New York State. And then Basil joined with Arthur Goldberg who was the former United States secretary of labor, former United States Supreme Court justice, and former United States - United Nations ambassador, and the lousiest damn candidate you ever saw. So Basil did not win. He would have been the first black lieutenant governor - in the normal course, the first black governor. So we've come full circle.

MARTIN: Well, as you mentioned he kind of studied at your knee along with his father. You, his father, Congressman Charlie Rangel and of course Percy Sutton, another legendary Harlem politician were once known as the gang of four. What do you think you all taught him about how to operate in the world and as a political leader?

Mr. DINKINS: What I hope we did was to observe us and to avoid our mistakes. We certainly made some over time, but there's no better mentor than Percy Sutton.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people have noted as I have noted is David Paterson would not only be the first African-American governor, he's also legally blind and it's interesting to note that he doesn't use a cane, he doesn't use a guide-dog or any sort of physical aids of any sort. He's gone to top schools, went to Columbia, went to Hofstra Law School, and apparently he has a phenomenal memory. How's he able to do all that?

Mr. DINKINS: Well, you're right. I suppose when one sense is diminished the others are emphasized, expanded, but you're right, he has a mind like a steel trap. He forgets nothing. He can memorize an entire speech. He's full of minute details on all kinds of subjects. He's got a great wry sense of humor. Not everybody gets it the first time, but he is terrific and he's a very nice guy and I think anyone who makes the mistake of thinking that his cordiality or softness is making a serious error because he's one tough kid.

MARTIN: One of the things that surprise people about him is that the Republicans have a one vote majority in the state senate, and he gave up the possibility of becoming majority leader in 2006. He was minority leader by taking the lieutenant governor post. Now some people thought he was crazy to do that because the post has been considered largely ceremonial. He joked about that. He said that, you know your main job is to call the governor every morning and if he answers the phone you can go back to bed. Why did he do that? Why did he give up the potential of running the state senate to become lieutenant governor?

Mr. DINKINS: Well first off, when he accepted the post of lieutenant governor the margin was not then one vote, it was slightly largely. Although you're right it has been believed for some time that in short order the Democrats would get control of the Senate. But he made that judgment I suppose largely because the governor asked him too. Keep in mind also that were Hillary Clinton to succeed, there's a pretty fair likelihood that Eliot Spitzer would have appointed him United States senator, so he had a lot of ways to go, and no one expected this outcome of course. And I want to take this opportunity to say how sad I am for Eliot Spitzer's family, particularly his teenage daughters, his wife, of course, but his parents who are my generation and wonderful nice people, and I know this must be a terrible blow for them.

MARTIN: Finally though, Mr. Mayor, before we let you go I'm curious about your reaction to - you mentioned Hillary Clinton. Just yesterday Geraldine Ferraro, another New York political leader who you must know well - a former New York congresswoman...

Mr. DINKINS: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Who ran for vice president said that Barack Obama wouldn't be in the position that he's in - unless he were African-American, and if he were a woman of any color he wouldn't be in this position. And just - she of course is complaining that her comments were sort of misconstrued. I just want to know, how do you interpret that whole exchange?

Mr. DINKINS: Well, I know Geraldine Ferraro, and I'm confident that she's not a racist, and I don't think she intended to make a racist comment, whether one agrees or not that Obama has done so well because he's black or not. Some would say he's done very well in spite of being black. There's no doubt that there's racism in our land. It's a product of a legacy of slavery. That does not mean however that some of us cannot succeed our ethnic backgrounds notwithstanding.

MARTIN: Well finally, Mr. Mayor, do you think that Mr. Paterson faces any special challenges because he will be the first African-American governor of New York?

Mr. DINKINS: No, no, I think he faces a challenge because being governor of New York is one hell of a job, and he's got about three weeks to settle a budget. So David's problems will have nothing to do with his ethnicity.

MARTIN: David Dinkins served as mayor of New York from 1990 to 1993. He joined us from the Paley Center for the Arts. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DINKINS: Thank you, take care.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

For more now we're going to turn now to New York State senate minority leader Malcolm Smith. He leads the state senate Democrats. He joins us by phone from his office in Albany, New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

State Senator MALCOLM SMITH (Democrat, New York State Senate Minority Leader): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Senator, I imagine much of the state is still in shock over recent events and I wouldn't be surprised if you are also. But you know David Paterson. Do you have any idea how he is reacting to all of this?

Sen. SMITH: Well, David has always been very level headed. Yes, there is a state of shock, no question about it. David and I were actually together in the capital when the call came in on Monday basically telling us what had transpired about the allegations of the governor, and we were in shock. We actually at one point thought it was a joke and we learned about ten seconds later that it was very real.

MARTIN: And how did he react?

Sen. SMITH: Well, his aide came in, asked him to step out the room for a minute, he came back in with his chief of staff Charles O'Byrne and they said we have something very disturbing to tell you. And I didn't know they were referring to myself or David, and they said what had - the allegations that had been made against the governor, and we all just very stoic at that time, just in disbelief.

MARTIN: Since then, how do you think he's reacting to this new responsibility that's been thrust upon him? I mean obviously if you're a lieutenant governor at some point you have to contemplate the idea that you might have to step into that roll whether through illness or some other set of events. What do you think is going through his mind right now?

Sen. SMITH: Right, that's correct. I talked to him last night as well, and he was preparing for his address this afternoon to the public and he was in a good frame of mind, he was ready for the challenge, he's always overcome challenges throughout his life, and looking forwarding to moving the state forward. The business of the state has to go on, we want people to know around the state that we're prepared to deal with issues regarding property taxes and health care and education, the housing crisis, and he was looking forward to addressing the public today and assuring them that he's going to move the state forward, and we have every confidence that he will do a great job.

MARTIN: How do you think things will be different because David Paterson is in the governor's chair and not Eliot Spitzer?

Sen. SMITH: Well, David, obviously, was part of the legislature. He has more of a congenial way of doing business, not confrontational. He likes to negotiate and obviously, he has a great sense of humor which is very disarming to others, but he knows the legislature, he knows the process, he knows the leadership in the legislature and is focused on a accomplishing the kind of business that will impact the 19 million people in terms of their quality of life, and that's very important to us.

MARTIN: And this is a year, of course, in which we're talking a lot about firsts, talking about the presidential race of course, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and so forth, David Paterson is an unexpected first. Do you think that that will matter in any way, that he's the first African-American governor? You think it will affect the politics of the state in any way or...

Sen. SMITH: I don't think so. I mean, David is going to be a great governor, and I don't think the ethnicity matters at all. He is always managed to govern affairs from State Senate to deputy minority leader to minority leader, lieutenant governor, and he's always been seen as competent and have the ability to work with people and get the job done. I don't think that will matter much.

MARTIN: And finally, just in the minute we have left I wanted to ask you what I asked Former Mayor Dinkins about Geraldine Ferraro's comments. You worked for Geraldine Ferraro on her advance team, as I recall, when she ran for vice president. How do you interpret her comments? What do you think that all means?

Sen. SMITH: Right, I know her, worked for her as you said, but I don't believe that she was focused on any racial, or trying to inject race into this race. Perhaps the comments were misconstrued, but it was unfortunate that it's gotten the attention that it's gotten, but I don't consider her to be a racist...

MARTIN: But aren't those different things, injecting race into the conversation isn't the same as being a racist, is it? I mean, can you do one without doing the other?

Sen. SMITH: I'm sure you can. I think she described Barack in terms of who he is. Why it seems to get the attention that it's getting, I can't explain, but I don't think that she meant it in any way to disarm him or to make him any less of the person that he is.

MARTIN: Do you agree with her?

Rep. SMITH: No I...

MARTIN: You think her take is right?

Sen. SMITH: No, I don't agree with her. I think Barack Obama is a young man, just like David Paterson is, just like I am and it's his skill, his intellect, and his ability that has got him where he is.

MARTIN: Well, we sure do appreciate it. New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, leader of the Senate Democrats in New York joined us by phone from his office in Albany. Senator, thank you so much and hope we'll speak again.

Sen. SMITH: Thank you for having me.

I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.