David Paterson and the Future of Black Politics

Gus Savage is not someone who normally springs to my mind. The onetime Chicago congressman lost his seat in 1992 and quickly vanished from the national scene. But as scandal threatens to consume New York Gov. David Paterson, I find myself reflecting on Savage.

Not that Savage has much in common with Paterson. The New York governor is a charming, self-deprecating baby boomer, while Savage, born in 1925, was a raging loose cannon who excelled at the politics of racial polarization. When a young Peace Corps volunteer in then-Zaire accused Savage of fondling her and demanding sex in 1989 (a claim subsequently sustained by the House ethics committee), he denounced the woman as a traitor to the black community. He also attacked the "racist" news media for airing the allegation. In fact, whenever challenged or under attack, Savage blamed racism. The act played well enough in his South Side district that, despite a record of meager accomplishment, his constituents rallied around him time and again. For they were loath to see a strong black man brought low. He won six straight terms, beginning in 1980, and finally lost to Mel Reynolds, a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar seen as the face of the future.

Paterson, of course, is not accused of sexually harassing anyone. He is alleged to have gone out of his way (and perhaps abused his authority in the process) to protect an aide who, some say, had a habit of manhandling women he was involved with. In another age—in Savage's age—black notables would have automatically rallied around Paterson. They would have dismissed the allegations as nothing more than propaganda from a racist establishment intent on bringing a powerful black man to his knees. That has not happened for several reasons, one being that even those who once considered themselves Paterson's intimates are not sure what to make of the situation. Given the pattern of ever more damning revelations, they are not convinced that he has been totally straight with them—and are unwilling to put themselves on the line for fear his actions may turn out to be worse than he has let on.

But there is also something else at play. The symbolism of having a trailblazer like Paterson in office is not quite as compelling as it once was. The very visible increase in the number of blacks and other people of color holding political power (including, most notably, Barack Obama) has alleviated some of the insecurity that minority communities have always felt in America. "Black empowerment" is no longer a sufficient rationale for a political candidacy, says the Rev. Al Sharpton: "Today you have to come with something that really matters."

Sharpton, the civil-rights crusader and former presidential candidate, has become an important player in New York politics. After the governor announced he was suspending his re-election campaign, Sharpton brought together a number of Paterson's allies to ponder what they should do. When we spoke shortly afterward, Sharpton seemed determined to put the best face on things. It was impossible to know, he conceded, whether Paterson could serve out his term. That largely depended on what comes out as a result of the state attorney general's investigation of Paterson and those around him. But ideally, Paterson could use this crisis to redefine himself and his administration. Liberated of the need to play the sort of politics a governor seeking reelection would have to play, and sitting at the helm of a state facing the worst deficit in its history, Paterson could turn crisis into opportunity, said Sharpton: "He could do some good things for the state." He could endeavor, in the time he has left, to become what he apparently always hoped to be—a fierce voice for compassionate, responsible governance.

Whatever path the governor of New York takes, it is clear we are in a very different age from the time of Gus Savage. Not to say that change invariably goes well. I should note that Savage's Ivy League successor left Congress in disgrace. Reynolds was indicted, in 1994, on charges stemming from a sexual relationship he'd had with a 16-year-old campaign worker. He was convicted the following year and subsequently sent to prison. Still, despite his ultimate humiliation, Reynolds was an important figure of the time, helping one community to see that it did not have to settle for mediocrity. That lesson held, even if Reynolds's pristine reputation did not. The lesson of the Paterson imbroglio—that accountability is more important than racial symbolism—will likely hold as well.