Basil Paterson dies and the Harlem Generation Loses a Founder

by Dan Janison

Basil A. Paterson, who died at 87 on Wednesday, belonged to a generation of clubhouse Harlem politicos who rose to prominence a half-century ago and now recedes from the stage.

Long after he'd been a state senator, lieutenant governor candidate, labor attorney, New York City deputy mayor, and the first African-American appointed as New York's secretary of state, happenstance would make him the father of a New York governor.

In 1985, a journalist dubbed the elder Paterson — together with Rep. Charles Rangel, pol-turned-businessman Percy Sutton and future Mayor David Dinkins — the “Harlem Gang of Four” as they coalesced behind a close colleague, Assemb. Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr., for mayor.

The name stuck.

Dinkins, a friend and one-time law partner of the elder Paterson, said somberly Thursday that he got word of the death late Wednesday. “Basil's family knows that Charlie Rangel and I and [former NAACP leader] Hazel Dukes are sort of like family and stand ready to be helpful,” Dinkins explained.

Farrell told Newsday: “There are many people who would like to get things done but don't. He got things done. And another good thing about him was that he didn't suffer fools well. He'd let you know in a nice way, not a sharp way, 'This is stupid, it's not gonna work.' “

If anyone had reason to know politics can be quirky, it was Basil Paterson.

When gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer was picking a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006, the whole Gang of Four gave full-throated support to Leecia Eve of Buffalo for the post.

To their apparent surprise, Spitzer chose Basil's son David Paterson, then a state senator, who ascended to the top job when the scandal-vexed Spitzer quit in 2008.

During Paterson's tenure, William Cunningham III, a colleague of Basil Paterson, was dispatched from the firm Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, to help out as a top aide to the governor.

The firm, based in Garden City, served as the elder Paterson's base for many years. Until his death, he co-chaired its labor and government-relations practice and represented big unions, including 1199/SEIU and the United Federation of Teachers.

“What was different about Basil was he took each person on his or her own merits. He probably had enemies, but I can't tell you one and I'd been around Basil since 1970,” said the firm's chairman, Harold Ickes.

Likewise, ex-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger recalled Paterson's “unbelievable ability to mediate between people with different points of view.”

Before his death, Paterson's roles and recollections were making their way into historical books.

He's quoted in a new book “Shirley Chisholm, Catalyst for Change” by Barbara Winslow, about the late congresswoman who came up in Brooklyn politics in the 1950s and later worked alongside Paterson in the State Legislature.

“If you think being a woman is bad now . . . [it was] horrible then. Women were not included in meetings,” Paterson is recorded there as saying. “Shirley proved . . . you could get out there and run for higher office. And you could be your own person.”

In his 2007 autobiography, Rangel — now in a hard primary scrap for a 23rd term in Congress — credited Paterson for encouraging him to join the New Era Democratic Club, which helped launch his career.


Original posting can be found on the Newsday website.

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