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New York Civic

Note: This article appears on page 9 of Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007, New York Sun

 

Is Governor Spitzer Crazy,

Or is He Crazy Like a Fox?

 

Henry J. Stern

February 15, 2007

 

The war between Governor Spitzer and the state Legislature broke out less than a week ago, and opinions differ as to whether the new governor is simply crazy, or crazy like a fox.

 

The last time a legislative leader was dumped was in 1994, when Governor-elect Pataki made it clear in December that he wanted a new Republican Senate leader. Incumbent Ralph Marino of Oyster Bay had treated Mr. Pataki harshly during his single state Senate term, albeit with some cause, as Mr. Pataki had opposed the leadership's proposed budget.

Mr. Pataki was chosen to run against incumbent Governor Cuomo through the influence of Senator D'Amato, who believed an attractive, well-educated, pro-choice upstate Republican could be elected. When Mr. Pataki won, he and Mr. D'Amato installed Joseph Bruno of Rensselaer as Senate leader.

 

Twelve years passed, regime change occurred again, and the new Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, 47 years old, is highly dissatisfied with the Democratic Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, 62, and the Republican Senate leader, Mr. Bruno, 77.

There are, however, several differences from 1994. First, Mr. Silver supported Mr. Spitzer from the start, and there are no political scores to settle. Second, Mr. Silver was recently re-elected speaker for two years. Third, friction between the governor and the speaker developed because Mr. Silver stood up for the Assembly by electing one of its members comptroller, despite the governor's wishes. Mr. Silver's support for a colleague is unlikely to alienate the caucus.

 

The complicating fact is that, at one point, Messrs. Bruno and Silver agreed with Mr. Spitzer to choose a comptroller from the recommendations of an "independent screening panel," which could select up to five candidates. The panel, of which two members had been comptrollers elected with less experience than they now demand, recommended only three. One cannot demonstrate that all the other 15 applicants were substantially less qualified than the chosen trio. Messrs. Bruno and Silver may have been snookered, but when they reneged on the agreement, by choosing Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli who was not approved by the panel, they became vulnerable.

 

The disappointed assemblymen, five of whom were applicants for comptroller, rejected the panel's judgment. Mr. Silver was caught between his caucus and the governor. He went with his caucus, which had elected him speaker.

The governor then declared that Mr. DiNapoli was "totally and thoroughly unqualified" to be comptroller, a position he has since modified. He vowed to go into each district to defeat Assembly members who supported Mr. DiNapoli. He flew to Syracuse Saturday to denounce Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli. Monday he was in Westchester, attacking Assemblyman George Latimer. Further forays are foreseen.

 

Mr. Latimer's response was plaintive: "I'm an assemblyman, I'm not a senior guy here. I have no lulu. I have no dough in my campaign till. If someone wants to come around and squash me, I'm a little guy. I'm just doing what I think is right."

Several issues are involved in this power struggle. One is that state legislators generally vote the way their leaders, or their caucus, direct. Individual legislators would not make many decisions on the merits, even if they knew what the merits were. Their decisions are with whom to side. They usually support the one with the power to harm them most. In the past, that has been the speaker, who sets their lulus substantial additional salaries, theoretically in lieu of expenses ignores or approves their bills, passes or kills their member items, or redistricts them out of office.

 

Many have blamed the governor's personality and background, variously terming him as arrogant, proud, an Ivy Leaguer, and wealthy through inheritance. He may be all that, but so was Franklin Roosevelt, who governed New York between 1929 and 1932. A frequent critic of Tammany Hall, Roosevelt was set to remove New York City Mayor Walker, when the mayor suddenly resigned and sailed to France.

 

Governor Spitzer wants to be the Alpha Male of Albany. If he had acceded to Speaker Silver's decisions, he would have been just one of "three men in a room." Triumvirs cannot rule if one is an 800-pound gorilla symbolizing overwhelming power. What Mr. Spitzer is trying to show is that legislators should fear him defeating them in a 2008 primary more than they worry over whatever damage Mr. Silver may inflict.

 

A Quinniapac poll Tuesday showed great public support for Governor Spitzer, and wide disapproval of Messrs. Bruno and Silver. This will influence legislators who go with the wind. But will they escape their current bondage unless they know that fealty to the governor will keep them safer than loyalty to the speaker?

 

The Spitzer-Bruno and Spitzer-Silver conflicts are equally intense. The Senate has the power to confirm or not the governor's appointees, as well as to approve all laws and the state budget. The party division there, however, is much closer, 33 to 29, with only two switches needed to change the majority to Democratic. The governor will do his best to bring that about.

 

He may be assisted by law enforcement. Leaked stories have accused Mr. Bruno of far more serious misconduct than Alan Hevesi's. If the leaks are true, felony indictments will come this year. Were Mr. Bruno's seat vacated, a special election would follow.

 

If Mr. Spitzer vanquishes both the Democratic and Republican leaders and succeeds in changing New York State government for the better, he will run for president in 2016, or in 2012 if the Republicans win in 2008. He knows that, and is acting accordingly.

 

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