Eliot Spitzer accidentally dialed my number the other day, and when he identified himself I automatically said, “How are you doing?”
Really not the right greeting.
“Oh ... great,” the governor said, in a tone that conveyed both deep sarcasm and a near-bewilderment.
He cannot believe what has happened to him. Our brand-new, hot-shot governor, armed with his mighty mandate, laid low. The star of the Democratic Party of New York, whose sway is currently only slightly less sweeping than the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been totally rolled by the 78-year-old leader of the State Senate Republicans.
Spitzer went to war with Joe Bruno, the Senate majority leader, over his reform agenda — the one that people elected him with nearly 70 percent of the vote to accomplish. He clearly got carried away with the governor-as-warrior metaphor. The Republicans claim that he called Bruno “senile” in a particularly nasty way. And although Spitzer denied it, the senator and his supporters reacted with such high-pitched wailing that voters must have had the impression that their governor was committing elder abuse.
Worse, members of the governor’s staff decided to collect evidence that Bruno was using the state helicopter and planes for trips that were not really about state business. It was a fool’s errand. Given the vagueness of the limits on this kind of perk, for Bruno to break the law, he’d have to buy a delicatessen in Times Square and fly down from Albany every day at 11 a.m. to handle the lunchtime rush.
The Republicans quickly turned the tables, claiming the Spitzer administration was using the State Police to spy on their leader. Before you knew it, the governor and his aides were on their way to testify before the State Ethics Commission. Meanwhile, the formerly dispirited Republicans were mouthing the dreaded question, “What did the governor know and when did he know it?”
Spitzer had promised to “bring passion back to Albany.” This was not what we thought he had in mind.
Now in a sane world, Joseph Bruno would not be taking taxpayer-funded helicopters to begin with. He’s a state senator for heaven’s sake. How much critical business can he have in Manhattan?
Bruno’s spokesman said the senator needs to get back and forth to the city to consult with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and with downstate businesses who find the Republicans “much more sympathetic to the needs of the business community.”
Can we have a show of hands? How many people think that the businesses would be willing to make a trip upstate for an opportunity to pour their wishes and hopes and dreams into a sympathetic Republican ear? And if Michael Bloomberg needs to see Joe Bruno, he can afford to hire his own helicopter. He can hire his own litter and have people carry him to Albany if he feels like it.
Bruno now sees himself as a one-man mission to protect traditional Albany from Eliot the Hun. “He’s an official with statewide responsibilities. Especially now in light of what’s come out,” said the spokesman, who referred to the helicopter investigation as “an attempt to annihilate us, to wipe us off the face of the earth, to kill him, do whatever it takes. ... ”
This is all very sad.
Spitzer is probably going to recover, perhaps as a chastened and more pleasant person. But he has lost the moment. When a new chief executive arrives, legislators are usually unsure of themselves for a while, and this is the precious soft spot when they can be pushed into doing big, bold things. If you screw it up, they’ll instantly revert to their preference for doing small, expensive things instead. (One of Hillary Clinton’s great pluses as a presidential candidate is that having been part of the great screwing up of the beginning of her husband’s administration in 1993, she may have figured out how not to do it again.)
The centerpiece of Spitzer’s first legislative session was supposed to be a campaign finance reform bill. Now, the price tag for passing it is escalating by the moment. Legislative pay raises! More construction projects!
It is a great tradition in Albany that no important bill ever emerges by itself. It gets mixed with pork and pet projects and lobbyists’ to-do lists until Bruno, Democratic Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver and the current governor sit down to create one huge hairball of a deal.
Spitzer was supposed to change that. But now here we are. Last week Senator Bruno was striding around the state like Rocky Balboa, while the governor was telling Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore of The Times that his wife had started asking, “What was wrong with going into the family business?” (High-end real estate.)
The hairball is back.