NEW YORK (JTA) – Barely two days after news broke that Eliot Spitzer had consorted with a prostitute in a Washington hotel room in February, and before the New York governor had even announced his resignation, Jewish leaders already were kvelling over his successor, Lt.-Gov. David Paterson.
“He’s great,” said New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents predominantly Orthodox Jewish areas in Brooklyn.
Hikind told JTA he considers Paterson his closest friend in Albany.
“You know what I would call him? The ultimate mensch,” Hikind said. “And I don’t use that phrase very often.”
Paterson will become the first black governor of New York and the first legally blind governor in the country when he takes over Monday. He is said to be the polar opposite of Spitzer, who resigned Wednesday in the aftermath of the sex scandal.
Spitzer was known as a pugnacious and often ruthless politician. Paterson is described as easygoing and amiable.
“He will bring such a different atmosphere up here,” Hikind said.
Rabbi Marc Schneier has known Paterson for 18 years and shared the stage with him at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in Harlem.
Schneier said Paterson has dubbed him “the white Sharpton” in recognition of his work in bridging the black and Jewish communities.
“I think in terms of who he is, and the fact that he is visually impaired, he was able to convert that adversity into triumph,” said Schneier, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “I believe that the portrait of David’s life is a beautiful and inspiring sight to behold. He’s just a very genuine, decent kind person.”
Paterson has a long record of involvement in issues of concern to the Jewish community and in helping to improve black-Jewish relations, say Jewish leaders who have worked with him.
The Harlem Democrat is part of the Black-Jewish Alliance, a coalition of elected officials Hikind created to combat racism and anti-Semitism. Jewish leaders refer to him as a “friend” of the Jewish community.
Paterson’s reputation for sensitivity on women’s issues led an Orthodox woman fighting a child custody battle in family court to seek his assistance in 1988. Dr. Amy Neustein reached out to Paterson, then a junior state senator, after courts removed her daughter from her home following a complaint of sexual abuse lodged against the child’s father.
Paterson went on to hold hearings on the subject, and testified before Congress in 1992 about the failure of the legal system to adequately protect children.
“Paterson did more for me than anyone else,” Neustein told JTA. “I was in touch with the office on a daily basis for 15 years.”
In July, Paterson addressed the annual convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in New York City. In October he visited Israel for the first time on a trip organized through Project Interchange, a program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee to bring American leaders to Israel. The trip, which focused on energy issues, also afforded Paterson a private audience with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
In a subsequent interview, Paterson described how he had a “fascination” with Israel since childhood and described the trip as the most “amazing and enlightening” he had taken that year.
“I think the thing that struck me the most, and I was a history major at Columbia, is I did not connect World War II and the Holocaust to the birth of the State of Israel as much as I did when I actually was in Israel,” Paterson said.
“Because I realized that this was the way a lot of Jewish people gathered from around the world under the banner of a new state, knowing that Jews all around the world will be assisted if there’s ever any kind of pogrom, inevitable Holocaust attempt as there was at that particular time.”