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The Steamroller in the Swamp

Is Eliot Spitzer changing Albany? Or is Albany changing him?


A few months ago, I asked Governor Eliot Spitzer about his temper, the most popular subject in Albany. This was before Spitzer got into an all-out war with State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno, before Bruno called Spitzer “a rich spoiled brat” and his staff “thugs” and “hoodlums,” before Spitzer may or may not have called Bruno “senile,” before the machinery of government seemed to skid to a halt.

The day we met, Spitzer was dressed in his usual snowy-white shirt, firmly knotted rep tie, dark prosecutor’s suit, and black dress shoes.

“You have a talent for confrontation,” I ventured. “Your signature tactic has been to confront people and show your temper.”

“The full Spitzer,” aides call his angry outbursts, which, in one form or another, were often on display in the early days of his term. In the first weeks, Spitzer singled out one Democratic legislator who defied him. “Bill Magnarelli is one of those unfortunate Assembly members who just raises his hand when he’s told to do so,” he told Magnarelli’s hometown newspaper. Not long after, he famously shouted at Republican minority leader James Tedisco, “I’m a fucking steamroller, and I’ll roll over you.”

“It’s a fair question,” Spitzer told me amiably, flashing one of his awkward horizontal smiles. Spitzer described confrontation as a kind of sport. “When you’re on the playing field, you fight as hard as you possibly can. You don’t give an inch because you’re both playing by those hard rules. Afterwards, you shake hands and you say, ‘That was great! Onto the next.’” A good public pummeling. How invigorating!

Spitzer is narrow and wiry; his forehead, framed by lettuce-leaf ears, slants back, and his chin pushes forward, as if, physically, he represents aggressive energy. As we sat talking in his large bland office, it was clear that Spitzer reveled in the effects of his anger. “Outrage helps both create a conversation to frame the issues and generate an understanding of the issues,” he told me. Others view his temper as a liability, but as Spitzer sees it, it’s almost a political innovation, bringing clarity to an argument. For Spitzer, a public drubbing of Billy Magnarelli was good sport and had the added benefit of demonstrating his high-minded principles. “It fits into a larger rationale, which is that we believe in accountability,” he told me. Anger, as Spitzer explained it, was linked to the best, most optimistic side of him. It also marked him as different, part of the solution. “The cliché is, ‘You went to Albany as one of us, you came back as one of them,’” said Spitzer. “I’m not coming back as one of them.”

As attorney general, Spitzer had tackled Wall Street corruption; he’d tamed illegal practices in the country’s largest corporations, threatening to shut them down unless they cleaned up. Now he intended to use the same “force of will,” as admirers call it, against Albany, and take no prisoners. “Eliot is the reality they deny,” one aide says, and which he intended to impose. For the Republicans, he reserved a special fate. He was going to “take them out,” as his target, majority leader Bruno, put it.

That is, unless they take him out first.

On inauguration day, January 1, 48-year-old Eliot Spitzer, Princeton class of ’81, Harvard Law class of ’84, heir to a real-estate fortune, and the most famous state attorney general in America, stood on the steps of the state capital and declared that everything in Albany must change, as he’d repeatedly vowed during his campaign. “Day One is now,” he told the crowd. On that winter day, the new governor—coatless, JFK-style—tilted his jaw at his audience. His breath turned steamy in the air. A torch was being passed. Albany’s sleepy days were over. “Like Rip Van Winkle,” it slept, he said. He said state government was dysfunctional. (Privately, his people prefer a more colloquial term: a “cesspool.”) “The light of a new day shines down on the Empire State,” he said, inviting the assembled to join him on his journey of reform.

In the audience, longtime legislators smiled tightly through the insults. They’d lived in and run the dark place for decades, and many bridled at his professed monopoly on good intentions. “People don’t realize,” says Democrat Sheldon Silver, 63, Speaker of the State Assembly for thirteen years, “my role was to stop bad things from happening [under Republican governor George Pataki].” Silver professed to like Spitzer’s passion and to share his priorities. As Silver sees it, they’re cut from similar cloth. Like Spitzer, Silver is a lawyer (although of the public-school variety, Brooklyn Law class of 1968) and a liberal-leaning New York Jew. Spitzer, though, is the assimilated Jew with the Fifth Avenue spread, Silver the religious relation in a modest apartment on the Lower East Side. Silver looks the part: Dour, rabbinical, he disappears in a crowd. Few know what he’s thinking—“an enigma,” Spitzer once called him. Early on, Silver warned his enthusiastic landsman, “There’s no legislation by fiat,” as if to say, “Don’t ignore the Legislature.” Then, he wondered, “Is he patient?” As if to deliver an early lesson, shortly after the inauguration Silver broke a deal to replace comptroller Alan Hevesi, rejecting Spitzer’s candidates and selecting one of his own.


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