Basil A. Paterson, one of the old-guard Democratic leaders who for decades dominated politics in Harlem and influenced black political power in New York City and the state into the 21st century, when he saw his son David A. Paterson rise to the governor’s office, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 87.
His family confirmed his death, at Mt. Sinai Hospital, in a statement released on Thursday. Mr. Paterson lived in Harlem.
Mr. Paterson, a lawyer, labor negotiator and federal mediator who also served as a state senator, a deputy mayor and New York’s secretary of state, got into politics in Harlem in the 1950s and became part of the group of powerful clubhouse leaders known, sometimes derisively and at other times enviously, as the Gang of Four.
The other three were David N. Dinkins, who became the city’s first black mayor; Representative Charles B. Rangel, the dean of the New York State congressional delegation; and Percy E. Sutton, a civil rights leader and longtime Manhattan borough president, who died in 2009.
In the 1970s and ’80s, they were kingmakers, selecting and helping to elect many black candidates for legislative and executive offices once deemed beyond the reach of African-Americans, and paving the way for other black aspirants in the nation. The group also dispensed patronage, exercised legislative influence, forged alliances with state and national Democrats, and reaped the rewards of a Harlem political dynasty.
Although Mr. Paterson was one of the savviest veterans of New York’s political wars, he never held high elective office. In the late 1960s he was the state senator for much of Harlem and northern Manhattan, and in 1970 was New York’s first major-party black candidate for lieutenant governor, running on a Democratic ticket headed by Arthur J. Goldberg, the former United States Supreme Court associate justice. They lost to the Republican incumbents, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson.
Mr. Paterson was Mayor Edward I. Koch’s deputy mayor for labor relations in 1978 and led pivotal contract negotiations with municipal unions in the first year of the Koch administration. He also was Gov. Hugh L. Carey’s secretary of state, largely keeping records of incorporation and licensing, from 1979 to 1982.
After mediating an end to a 46-day strike against scores of private nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes in the city in 1984 — a task that kept him in the headlines for weeks — he flirted with a mayoral race as a consensus candidate put forward by blacks and white liberals opposed to a third term for Mr. Koch. But he withdrew before the primary elections.
In the 1990s, the influence of Mr. Paterson and his old-guard allies waned as blacks left Harlem. While he had promoted the careers of many black officials, he was known to be ambivalent about the political ambitions of his son David, with whom he had always been close. Legally blind from childhood, David Paterson became a lawyer, a state senator, the lieutenant governor and New York’s first black governor in 2008, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal.
Associates attributed Basil Paterson’s ambivalence to a father’s instincts to protect a handicapped son from rough politics. But after years of keeping a distance from his son’s political life, Mr. Paterson became his closest confidant after the new governor became entangled in controversies, including domestic abuse charges against a senior aide and perjury accusations in an ethics case involving Yankees tickets.
Governor Paterson paid a fine in the ethics case, but accusations that he had improperly intervened in the domestic abuse matter lingered even after the aide pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Amid reports of an extramarital affair and other hints of scandal, the governor resisted calls for his resignation. But after a tumultuous two years in office, he decided not to run in 2010 for a full term.
“It’s been very difficult for Basil to watch this happen to his son,” Harold Ickes, a political consultant who had known the Patersons for years, told The New York Times. “David has enormous talents and strengths and also has some weaknesses. Basil is one of the singularly most talented, sophisticated, subtle people I know, and is very wise to the world generally and to the political world in particular.”
Basil Alexander Paterson was born in Manhattan on April 27, 1926, to Caribbean immigrants, Leonard and Evangeline Rondon Paterson. (His father was from the Grenadines, his mother from Jamaica.) He grew up in Harlem, graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1942 and enrolled at St. John’s University. After two years in the Army in World War II, he returned to St. John’s and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1948 and a law degree in 1951.
In 1953, he married Portia Hairston. She survives him, as do David; another son, Daniel; and five grandchildren.
The young lawyer practiced in Harlem, joined civic and community organizations and plunged into Democratic politics. By the early 1960s, he was a rising clubhouse leader along with Mr. Dinkins, Mr. Rangel and Mr. Sutton. His 1964 election as president of the N.A.A.C.P. in Harlem was regarded as the prelude to a political career.
In 1965, he was elected to the State Senate, where he supported special education, divorce reform and other progressive measures. Despite his Roman Catholicism, he was an early supporter of liberalized abortion laws. He was re-elected, but gave up his seat in 1970 to become Mr. Goldberg’s running mate in the race for governor. While his ticket lost, he won an overwhelming primary vote, showing promise as a statewide candidate.
But Mr. Paterson was never again on a ballot for public office. He became increasingly involved in labor relations in the 1970s and ’80s, mediating dozens of disputes and representing transit and hospital workers, teachers and others. After serving in the Koch and Carey administrations, he joined the law firm Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, whose clients include scores of labor unions.
Mr. Paterson cited “pressing family problems” in declining to run for mayor in 1984. Months later, his son David quit his job as a prosecutor in Queens to work on Mr. Dinkins’s successful 1985 campaign for the Manhattan borough presidency. That fall, with the backing of Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Sutton, David won the State Senate seat his father had attained 20 years earlier.
In part to avoid conflicts of interest, Basil Paterson for more than 20 years kept a respectful distance from his son’s rising political career, especially after David became lieutenant governor in 2006 on the winning Spitzer ticket.
On March 10, 2008, as a prostitution scandal broke over Mr. Spitzer and it became clear that David would soon be governor, his first call went to his father, who offered simple advice.
“Well,” Basil said, “you say a prayer.”
“I’ve already said a prayer for Eliot,” David replied.
“That’s good. Now you’d better say one for yourself.”
Basil Alexander Paterson (April 27, 1926 – April 16, 2014), a labor lawyer, was a longtime political leader in New York and Harlem and the father of the 55th Governor of New York, David Paterson. His mother was Jamaican, and his father was Carriacouan (a person from Carriacou, the largest island of the Grenadine archipelago).
Paterson was born in Harlem on April 27, 1926, the son of Leonard James and Evangeline Alicia (Rondon) Paterson. His father was born on the island of Carriacou in the Grenadines and arrived in the United States aboard the S.S. Vestris on May 16, 1917 in New York City. His mother was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and arrived in the United States on September 9, 1919 aboard the S.S. Vestnorge in Philadelphia with a final destination of New York City. A stenographer by profession, the former Miss Rondon once served as a secretary for Marcus Garvey.