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Odd day of hope 

It's 9/11 all over again as I write this. Two years dead and gone, and the tragedies, ironies, and absurdities keep coming.

            A request is floated for $87 billion to maintain an illegal military occupation; a treasured veterans' hospital meanwhile faces closure. A top Nazi propagandist dies at 101; her methods are immortalized on Fox and talk radio. The Italian PM tidies up Mussolini's résumé. The "other 9/11," the September 1973 launching in Chile of a US-sponsored coup that also killed around 3,000, is largely ignored. (Here, not there.) And Kissinger, hard and dense as depleted uranium, is on a book tour. Maybe you saw him on the NewsHour September 9, getting a journalistic hand-job.

            But I have to admit, I found Old Henry almost comforting as he droned on. It's like when I dream of Richard Nixon, famously the "last liberal president." Those guys were pretty moderate compared to their counterparts today. Oh, for the old breed of Republican. I mean an older breed than George Pataki, a liberal here or there but fundamentally a capital Grinch.

My real problem is frustration with the Democrats, though.

            My heart and usually my votes are with the oppositional left. I come from a family of FDR-worshipping Pennsylvania coal miners, but the Dems long ago alienated me with their repudiation of the New Deal legacy. Most of them have lost the battle for their own hearts and minds, sometimes parroting right-wing beliefs, sometimes actually believing them. Either way, we all lose.

            But I still look for hopeful signs within "the system." And I'm pleased to report that one such sign came the morning of September 11, in an almost off-the-cuff interview with a rising star in state government.

            David Paterson, the new State Senate minority leader, dropped by the office, accompanied by former Senator Rick Dollinger. Paterson (Democrat-Liberal-Working Families) has represented New York City's Upper West Side and Harlem since 1985, when he was all of 31. His bio speaks openly of the "effort to secure social and economic justice for all New Yorkers." Today, them's fighting words.

            As an African-American, Paterson has taken on issues important to people of color. He's worked on legislation against bias-related crime and to prevent cutbacks in urban mass transit. His interest in accessible transportation comes at least partly from the fact that he's legally blind. A proponent of universal health insurance, he wants to make health insurers cover mental health services. So he's supporting "Timothy's Law," named for a Schenectady preteen whose depression worsened because of limitations on coverage, and who committed suicide in early 2001.

            Paterson's been outspoken for true reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, too. (I interviewed him on this point years ago, before the cause became fashionable in Albany.) But does his rise to minority leader mean the Senate, long a bastion of Republican conservatism, is near the tipping point on Rocky drug-law reform? "I thought we were there last year," he says. "Even the conservatives have said [the drug laws] are not what they intended." He says the governor's bill would give prosecutors too pivotal a role in appeals of these cases. And prosecutors, he says with justification, have a "vested personal interest" in keeping the conviction rate high.

            Then there's the state Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act passed last year. Paterson was a point person on this one; for a time, he held out for total victory on SONDA, which would have meant including the transgendered. Ultimately the bill passed without this provision. But for Paterson there was a principle at stake. "I want to be consistent with my personal belief that to exclude anyone is an affront to everyone," he told the New York Observer.

No Upstater can talk to a state legislator without plumbing the local economy --- and plumbing seems just the right word.

            So what would Paterson do? Well, for starters, he would undo this region's small-town tendency to woo prisons. "The classic 'not in my backyard' syndrome got turned on its ear when they learned in the 1970s to put prisons in these communities," he says. There are 10 counties in New York State, he says, where the prison industry is the biggest chunk of the economy.

            And how ironic: As Paterson says, the state's "rather precious location" is unchanged and can be restored as an economic engine. He reminds us that the history of New York --- city and state --- would have been quite different without the Erie Canal and its link with the Atlantic, not to mention this region's wealth of rail and highways. "We can still lever this to our advantage... if we just followed history," he says. "We're not making the same investments that our ancestors made."

            Nor are we doing the routine maintenance. One of Paterson's big concerns is the State Superfund, designed to clean up hundreds of toxic waste sites throughout New York and make them usable again. He favors legislation that would mandate a site's return to something like pristine condition; some alternative bills would require the site be cleaned up only enough for industrial re-use. "You can't have a clean-up bill that doesn't clean everything up," says Paterson quite sensibly.

The minority leader passes my acid test, too.

            Here we are near the Canadian border, and we're watching our brothers and sisters across the lake legalizing gay marriage. Some gay and lesbian Rochesterians already have tied the knot up there. What comes next for New York?

            "I personally think that people who want to get married" and are in either a homosexual or heterosexual relationship "ought to be able to do it," says Paterson. He assumes some form of civil union will come first.

            But again taking the long view, he puts it down to social evolution: What's happening with gay people today, he says --- what they're demanding, and how the majority society views them --- differs little from what happened 40 years ago with black people sitting on buses.

            This evokes other painful times in American history. But it also reminds me that progress is one of America's most important products. Yes, 9/11 and endless war keep weighing me down.

            But thanks, Senator Paterson. You made my day.


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