Basil A. Paterson, who for decades was a dominant figure in the political landscapes of Harlem, New York City and New York state, and whose career helped pave the way for younger black leaders including his son, former New York governor David A. Paterson, died April 16 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 87.
His family announced his death in a statement that did not disclose the cause.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, Mr. Paterson became an enduringly influential power broker across New York and in the Democratic Party. He was perhaps best known as a member of the “Gang of Four,” a cadre of leaders in Harlem politics beginning in the 1970s.
Besides Mr. Paterson, who was trained as a labor lawyer, they included David N. Dinkins, who became the first black mayor of New York City; Charles B. Rangel, the U.S. congressman and longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; and the late Percy E. Sutton, a prominent politician and businessman who had been an attorney for civil rights leader Malcolm X.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Paterson represented Harlem and Northern Manhattan in the state Senate seat later held by his son. The elder Mr. Paterson relinquished the seat in 1970 to run for lieutenant governor on the ticket of Arthur J. Goldberg, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice. They lost to the Republican incumbent, Nelson A. Rockefeller, but broke racial barriers with Mr. Paterson’s placement on the ticket.
In that election, and throughout his career, Mr. Paterson had to contend with the prejudice that had long kept minorities out of politics. David Paterson once told New York magazine that in the general gubernatorial election, his father’s face was not visible in campaign promotions.
“They had this view that upstate isn’t ready for black people. They thought, ‘Paterson is Catholic. People will just think he’s Irish.’ ”
Mr. Paterson served under Mayor Edward I. Koch as a deputy mayor for labor and personnel before Gov. Hugh L. Carey named him New York secretary of state in 1978. He was reportedly the first nonwhite to hold the post and remained in office until 1982. By that time, Mr. Paterson had accumulated such clout that he was regarded as a potential candidate for mayor, but he declined to run.
Mr. Paterson later was a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He also served for a period as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Outside of politics, he established himself as one of the most important labor lawyers and negotiators in New York. He spent much of his career with the influential firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, and he represented clients including the United Federation of Teachers, the Transport Workers Union and United Healthcare Workers East.
Mr. Paterson’s influence in the field of labor created a delicate situation when his son was elected to high political office. They took care to separate Mr. Paterson’s legal work from David Paterson’s political duties.
“If anybody thinks that I will make a call to my son on behalf of someone,” Basil Paterson declared, “I can’t do that.”
On other matters, Mr. Paterson was described as a close adviser to his son, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Eliot Spitzer and assumed the office in 2008 after Spitzer resigned following revelations of his involvement in a prostitution scandal.
David Paterson recalled phoning his father when news of the scandal broke.
“‘Well,” Basil Paterson said, according to an account in the New York Times, “you say a prayer.”
“I’ve already said a prayer for Eliot,’’ David responded.
“That’s good,” returned his father, a veteran of the vagaries of politics, as if predicting the numerous controversies that his son would battle during his short time in office. “Now you’d better say one for yourself.”
Basil Alexander Paterson was born April 27, 1926, in Harlem. He became interested in politics as a teenager and recalled that his first job, at 16, was loading trucks at a wholesale house.
“Every year there would be a Christmas party for the employees at some local hotel,” he told the Times. “Those of us who worked in the shipping department were black. We got paid not to go to the party.”
After Army service during World War II, he received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1948 and a law degree in 1951, both from St. John’s University in Queens. After finishing his education, he went into law practice with Dinkins, and the two later joined political forces with Rangel and Sutton.
As early as 1967, the New York Times described Mr. Paterson as “a perceptive and impressive politician.”
Mr. Paterson pursued his career while raising two sons, Daniel and David, who became legally blind after contracting an infection. The Patersons aggressively pursued a normal childhood for him, moving the family to a suburb where he could attend mainstream classes.
Mr. Paterson’s survivors include his wife, the former Portia Hairston, whom he married in 1953; two sons; and five grandchildren.
“Everything he did,” the former governor said of his father, “I wanted to do.”