David Paterson's Last Good Act

Mocked in office, the governor goes out on a roll

David Paterson's rough ride in the governor's office ends New Year's Eve, and on his way out the door he is reminding us of the man he was when he first walked in.

Two days before Christmas, the governor braved racial fury by commuting the sentence of a black man named John White serving up to four years for the accidental slaying of a white teenager. Victim Daniel Cicciaro Jr. was legally drunk when he rolled up late at night on White's front lawn in a Long Island suburb accompanied by a crew of friends, shouting racial epithets and threatening White's son. White, a 56-year-old construction supervisor, insisted that his gun accidentally discharged when Cicciaro tried to grab it. The judge apparently believed him: He gave White more time for owning an illegal weapon than for his manslaughter conviction. Paterson did as well.

"Our society strives to be just, but the pursuit of justice is a difficult and arduous endeavor," the governor said in a December 23 statement. The trial's "most common feature," said Paterson, "was heartbreak. My decision today may be an affront to some and a joy to others, but my objective is only to seek to ameliorate the profound suffering that occurred as a result of this tragic event."

This kind of justice is so rarely delivered that some newspapers that should have known better mistakenly called it a pardon, which it was not. A pardon means all is forgiven. Paterson's commutation left the jury's judgment in place but delivered White back to his family in time for Christmas.

The Suffolk County District Attorney fumed that Paterson hadn't spoken to the victim's parents before releasing White. So the governor got on the phone, speaking with Cicciaro's mother for almost an hour. The mother raised issues "that I will think about over the holidays," Paterson said. Nothing he'd heard, however, would have changed his mind.

A day later, the governor dispensed some more justice, this time handing down actual pardons to two dozen New Yorkers threatened with deportation for past convictions. In these cases, most sentences were already served, and only the official forgiveness conveyed by a pardon would protect them from expulsion.

Among those pardoned by Paterson was a woman with a marijuana misdemeanor whose husband is an active-duty U.S. Army soldier soon to begin his second tour of Afghanistan. Another is a Haitian man, a permanent resident since age 10, who did five years' probation for a third-degree attempted burglary and is married to a U.S. citizen with two young sons. Another, with two minor marijuana convictions, became a minister working with youth and those suffering from HIV and AIDS. Yet another, the father of a New York City cop, had a 1994 conviction for possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree for which he served five years' probation.

These mercy-worthy cases emerged from 1,100 pardon applications evaluated by a special panel created by Paterson in May. "It became abundantly clear," said Paterson on Christmas Eve as he announced the pardons, "that the federal government's immigration laws are often excessively harsh and in need of modernization." He added: "I will not turn my back on New Yorkers who enrich our lives and care for those who suffer."

We're so sure we had David Paterson figured out a long time ago that it's easy to dismiss these last good deeds as simply the kind of thing governors do when they're fast approaching the office exit. But Paterson's prison reprieves show that the man long mocked as the "accidental governor" has been thinking about these things long and hard. They are an echo of some of the first brave steps he took after he found himself catapulted into Eliot Spitzer's suddenly vacated chair.

In his first year as governor, Paterson made moves no one before him had had the courage to make. He approved the first raise in the basic state welfare grant in 20 years. Before he signed that bill, families on welfare in the 21st century were expected to subsist on a budget configured way back in the last one. Paterson also signed into law the rollback of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Like his prison breaks, this was one of those no-win propositions for a veteran liberal. Top law enforcement officials loudly insisted that he was putting public safety in jeopardy. Paterson said he respectfully disagreed and did it anyway. So far, we're no worse off for his decision.

Likewise, he finally agreed to the so-called "millionaire's tax," a move that put New York's tax charts back where they'd been before Republicans started tilting them in favor of the wealthy. Later, when the state Senate descended into gridlock and chaos, Paterson took another gamble, appointing a new lieutenant governor whose vote would break any tie. This was improper and illegal, he was told. Again, he went ahead. The courts ultimately said he was right.

But there was barely time for cheers. The downhill slide started with the Clinton Senate seat fiasco; it picked up speed when his top aide had the state police intervene in a domestic-violence incident; even the governor's effort to take his son to see a World Series game at Yankee Stadium blew up in his face.

Paterson himself never had a chance once Saturday Night Live decided this first blind state chief executive made for great comedy. It was all supposed to be great good fun: a Paterson look-alike squinting cross-eyed away from the camera, a budget forecast graph held hilariously upside down. Paterson complained and then finally gave in. "You poked so much fun at me for being blind," he said on a late-September appearance on the show, "that I forgot I was black."

But if you want to see inspiring video, skip the SNL reruns and dig out the website of the National Federation of the Blind (nfbny.org/media.htm), where there's a clip of Paterson addressing its October 2009 New York state convention. The governor is introduced by his friend, federation president Carl Jacobsen, a blind New Yorker who has known Paterson for more than 20 years. "I can think of no David better to conquer this Goliath," Jacobsen says by way of introduction. The crowd breaks into joyous, foot-stomping, cheers, whoops, and whistles. It goes on for a full minute. You can see the joy and pride on their faces: He's blind just like us, and he's the governor. Paterson wipes his eyes a couple of times. The video's too fuzzy to tell if it's tears, but he's clearly moved. "After a reception like that, all I can say is it's great to be blind," he tells them. More cheers.

Paterson tells the story of being forcefully led at the age of five by his mother into a schoolroom in Hempstead, past a teacher who suggested a blind boy would be out of place. "I won't compare it to the desegregation of Little Rock," Paterson says, "but 10 minutes later I was seated in that classroom." More cheers.

You look at the video and wonder what he might have been able to accomplish had the cards fallen more his way. He's got a couple more days in office, and there are applications for clemency on his desk just as worthy as the ones he's already granted, while requiring even greater political courage. Let's hope he finds it. In the meantime, here's a cup of kindness for auld lang syne for David Paterson, who made New York history.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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