Posted at: 09/08/2013 2:10 AM
| Updated at: 09/08/2013 3:28 PM
By: Steve Flamisch
ALBANY -- David Paterson, who broke ground as New York's first legally blind governor, told a gathering of blind merchants Saturday that he will fight for them in any way he can.
Appearing at the Hilton Albany, just down State St. from the Capitol where he governed from March 2008 through December 2010, Paterson addressed the 100-member State Committee of Blind Vendors.
"It means a lot to me that I don't leave some of the people I grew up with behind," Paterson said in an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 13.
In 2010, Paterson signed a law intended to expand business opportunities for blind entrepreneurs in New York. The legislation moves blind people to the front of the line to operate cafeterias, delis, snack and soda machines in various state buildings.
Blind people have been slow to reap the benefits of the new law because the State University of New York (SUNY), the Thruway Authority, and other state agencies are still locked into long-term contracts with other vending operators, Paterson said.
"We knew when we passed the legislation that results would accumulate over time," Paterson said. "We just want to make sure that it stays on track, and that qualified individuals who happen to be blind -- and who can be entrepreneurs like anyone else -- get their share of the pie."
Some blind merchants acknowledged that vendors who currently hold the lucrative state contracts are likely to resist, but Gary Grassman, chairperson of the State Committee of Blind Vendors, said his side has the more compelling argument.
About 70 percent of blind people nationwide are unemployed, Grassman said.
"When there's limited opportunity for blind people," he said, "we need to push back and say this was, in effect, a chance for us to show that we can do it."
The state law is modeled after the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act of 1936, which gives priority to blind people when choosing vending operators at federal facilities such as post offices.
Harold Wenning said the Act allowed the state Commission for the Blind to select him in 1993, through its Business Enterprise Program (BEP), to manage the vending machines inside the U.S. Postal Service Morgan General Mail Facility in Manhattan.
"I had jobs that lasted maybe a month, two months, and I got fired from every one of them," Wenning, who is totally blind, told NewsChannel 13. "I figured this program would be the best."
Christopher Schwing is another BEP manager. Robbed of most of his eyesight about ten years ago, Schwing was forced to abandon a career that required him to drive. The program gave him the opportunity to run a newsstand inside Building 8 on the State Office Campus.
The building, which houses the state Division of Taxation and Finance, was already subject to Randolph-Sheppard-style provisions because it houses more than 400 employees. The new state law, signed by Paterson, extends the provisions to state buildings with fewer than 400 workers.
That will help, Schwing said, but the private sector must respond as well.
"I encourage employers out there to please keep (blind people) in mind," he said," because there are plenty of capable, dependable, honest people out there looking for employment."
For the blind merchants at Saturday's meeting, the former governor's personal story is one of inspiration.
A childhood infection left Paterson with no vision in his left eye, and 20/400 vision in his right eye, according to published reports. He overcame his legal blindness to become minority leader of the state Senate, lieutenant governor, and eventually governor -- assuming the top job after Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in the midst of a prostitution scandal.
"I am David Paterson," he thundered out at his swearing-in ceremony on March 17, 2008, "and I am the governor of New York State."
In late 2010, the same year he signed into law the expansion of business opportunities for legally blind merchants, Paterson appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live to address the show's skits that portrayed him as bumbling because he's blind.
"Jokes that degrade people solely for the fact that they have disabilities are sophomoric and stupid," he said during the episode.
That appearance, Paterson noted Saturday, brought him a new kind of notoriety.
"It's one thing when people stop you in the street and they say, 'Oh governor, thank you for your service," he told NewsChannel 13. "It's another thing when kids come running up to you saying, 'Tell us what it's like to be on Saturday Night Live.'"
Since leaving office on December 31, 2010, Paterson has co-hosted a daily radio show in New York City and taught college courses. He said he is now building a private consulting practice and eyeing a possible run for Congress if Rep. Charles Rangel decides to retire.
"You have to let it come to you," he said of a possible return to politics.
Above all, Paterson -- who serves as a consultant to the National Federation of the Blind -- vowed to continue his advocacy. He concluded his speech Saturday by telling the blind merchants that he is on their side.
"Another thing," he said in closing, "I can get the governor on the phone."
Paterson was the first legally blind governor in New York, and the second in the country. The late Bob C. Riley was the first. He served as governor of Arkansas for 11 days in 1975.