NEW YORK -- Across the state, the political demise of Gov. Eliot Spitzer has fueled a surge of black pride in the unexpected rise of Lt. Gov. David Paterson, a longtime lawmaker and heir to a Harlem political dynasty.
The 53-year-old Paterson will be sworn in Monday as New York's first black and legally blind governor, succeeding Spitzer, who announced his resignation this week after getting caught in a federal prostitution investigation.
To Leonardo Reynolds, a 19-year-old community college student from Syracuse, the ascension of Paterson has been inspiring, especially when paired with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I think there's still a lot of racism around, but having black leaders in these positions will help change things," Reynolds said.
The new governor, who served as Spitzer's lieutenant just 14 months, has been a Democratic state senator since 1985 representing parts of Harlem and Manhattan's Upper West Side in a city where blacks are 28 percent of the population, compared to 16 percent statewide.
A graduate of Columbia University and Hofstra School of Law, Paterson lives in an apartment complex in the heart of Harlem on Lenox Avenue, also called Malcolm X Boulevard.
"He's a good man from a good home who worked hard, and he knows what our people have gone through," retired plumber Thomas Baxter said in an interview a few blocks from Paterson's home. "But this should have happened 40 years ago -- a black man becoming governor."
For Paterson, politics is the family business. His father, Basil, a former state senator representing Harlem and later New York's first black secretary of state, was part of a political fraternity that included fellow Democrats U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins -- the city's first black mayor -- and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton.
In a news conference Thursday, Paterson reflected on his political career.
"In some ways, I feel that I'm sitting on a sand castle that other people built," Paterson said. "There are so many African-Americans, both men and women throughout the past couple of centuries, who have struggled unremittingly to try to advance opportunity for all people and for themselves."
He went on to say that if his newfound fortune makes him a role model for blacks, the disabled, Hispanics, women or other groups underrepresented in the top echelons of power, "I would feel very privileged, very proud and very flattered to be in this position."
In interviews around the state, it was clear this week that he has touched a chord in the black community.
"I believe with the help of the others he will do an excellent job," Eva Jeter said from behind the counter of her gift shop at the Broadway Market in an economically distressed part of Buffalo. "It shouldn't matter what race you are, it's whatever you're capable of doing. We all are human beings, regardless of our ethnicity."
William Jackson, who was having a cup of coffee at the market, was also celebrating Paterson's luck. "I think it's great, though too bad he had to make it like that," he said.
Vinita Hall, a bookkeeper in Rochester, agreed.
"It's exciting to see a difference, to see change," she said. "It's nice to see that someone of color is in power."
Though Paterson becomes New York's first black governor - and only the third nationwide since Reconstruction -- he's not the first who aimed for the top office.
Former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall was the first black candidate for governor on a major party line; he lost to Republican George Pataki in 2002.
Maurice "Mickey" Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said he hasn't polled voters to see whether Paterson could be elected statewide, but said it's no longer outside the realm of possibility.
"This business of, 'Can a black guy represent white people, or can a white guy represent black people?' -- that's 25 years ago," he said, adding that if there were an election today, "Paterson would be a viable candidate."
While Paterson's success has been a source of pride for the black community - and many others including the blind -- it has also heightened expectations.
Jonneil Boatwright, a single mother with three children, said she hoped having an African-American governor would bring attention to the problems that continue to plague poor urban blacks -- gang violence, drugs and unemployment.
"It will only be good for black people if he helps fix some of the problems we have to live with every day," said Boatwright, a nurse from Syracuse. "As governor, he can set priorities. I want my kids educated. I don't want to see them dead on crack, or killed in some gang fight." The Associated Press