A Blind Governor Adjusts, and So Does Albany
ALBANY — It is a phone number that just a handful of the governor’s senior aides know.
At the end of each day they call in and record briefings, laying out what he needs to know about the following day.
They recite his schedule, read talking points and explain the intricacies of issues likely to come up. They read memos from staff members and relate biographical details about the people he is likely to meet.
Lots of governors rely on thick briefing books and helpful e-mail notes from their staffs. New York’s governor, David A. Paterson, who is legally blind, has his ears and what his aides call his Batphone.
Usually at night, in the Executive Mansion or at his family’s home in Harlem, the governor listens to the recordings on the designated phone line. They run up to five minutes each and can pile up quickly, taking hours to absorb.
“Last night I had 43 messages, all of them five minutes in length,” Mr. Paterson said in an interview. “That would be 215 minutes worth of material — over three hours.”
He stayed up that night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. listening to the recordings, which covered everything from his prepared remarks for a press conference on energy to articles on economic growth in The Economist. But that was only enough time to get through half of them.
To the general public, the transition to a governor who is legally blind has been almost imperceptible because Mr. Paterson, 53, acts in many ways like a person with 20-20 vision.
He does not walk with a cane or read Braille. He threw out the first pitch at a Mets game at Shea Stadium last week. And when he is in the Capitol’s familiar stone and marble corridors, where he has worked for two decades, he walks at a brisk pace, slowing down only when an aide alerts him to someone approaching.
But behind the scenes, Albany is a different place since Mr. Paterson was sworn in last month. With a blind man in charge — the governor can see nothing out of his left eye and only color and large objects out of his right — everything from speech preparation to the instructions for the staff at the governor’s mansion has been custom-fitted to Mr. Paterson’s needs.
“Now that he’s governor, it’s a whole new ball game,” said Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Harlem, who has known Mr. Paterson since they were boys.
Since he cannot read from a prompter, the governor tries to commit his speeches to memory, by listening several times to an aide’s recording of the speech. Delivering an address just from memory can be nerve-racking.
“It’s like a high wire,” he said. “You trip, there’s no net.”
He travels with a phalanx of assistants, typically a half-dozen, including aides and bodyguards, who act as a buffer zone around him in large public settings, from hotel ballrooms to school classrooms. The bodyguards gently steer him, often with a hand on his back or arm, toward an exit or into a waiting vehicle.
At news conferences in the Capitol’s ceremonial Red Room, it is not the governor but his press secretary, standing just to the side of the lectern, who calls on reporters, reminding them to state their names and affiliations before asking a question.
Glad-handing a crowd poses a challenge for Mr. Paterson because he cannot fully make out people as they approach him. So when his aides spot someone they recognize coming toward him, they tell him who it is. He instructs the aides not to whisper, but to speak in their normal tone of voice, because he wants the exchanges to appear as ordinary as possible.
Mr. Paterson, a Harlem Democrat who has been blind since infancy, has been making adjustments to his surroundings throughout his life. But, with the added demands of the job of governor and the relentlessness of his new schedule, staying on top of his work now takes a lot more time. He said much of his day can feel like a big game of catch-up. “I’m always trying to get back that time that I’m losing,” he said.
Given the volume of material he must take in, he tries to find ways to do things faster. He listens to very long articles or books on a special tape recorder for the blind that plays at speeds so fast, it is difficult for others to comprehend. “You get used to listening to that Alvin and the Chipmunks voice,” he said.
At the Executive Mansion, staff members have been trying to keep up with the needs of their new boss. They were instructed shortly after he moved in last month to watch the level of his drink during receptions and offer him a refill if it looked too low. He was still learning the layout of the house and could not find the bar easily.
Mr. Paterson has told the staff not to move any of the furniture in the 40-plus-room home on his account, and has said that he will learn where everything is.
He is used to adapting, in big and small ways. When he wants more salt on his food, he takes the shaker and sprinkles its contents into his hand first so he can feel whether he actually has the salt, and not the pepper, which is less chunky to the touch. When he jogs through his former neighborhood in Guilderland, near Albany, he runs the same route each time. He purposely avoids Route 146 because of the gullies that run along the side of the road.
“The secret is how to adjust,” he said. “I ask myself how am I going to fit into this world, and how am I going to do it without killing myself.”
As a baby, he suffered from a condition known as optic atrophy, which damages the optic nerve. His parents decided not to send him to school in New York City, where teachers could not promise that he would be able to interact with students who were not blind. So they sent him to school on Long Island, where he received special attention but also learned with students who were not disabled.
The minimal sight in his right eye — in which his vision is 20/400 — affords him a limited ability to read. If he holds a book very close to his eye, he can make out the words. And he said he will occasionally write himself reminder notes. But reading is so straining that it tires him after only a few minutes.
His reliance on his hearing has helped him sharpen a talent useful in politics: an ability to focus on people in a way that makes them feel that they were truly heard. His attentiveness to people’s voices has other political benefits, too.
“He can pick up a phony faster than somebody who has sight,” said Assemblyman Wright.
Although Mr. Paterson often says he does not want people to go out of their way for him, he says society should recognize that he and other blind people cannot do everything on their own.
As one of his first acts as governor, he added instructions to his official state Web site on how to enlarge the type on the screen.
“It’s just being more sensitive to people who feel that government and institutions ignore them,” he said.