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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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Spitzer, wife Silda, and their three daughters, on inauguration day—"Day One," in Spitzer's lexicon.  

It was pretty good fun to beat up on Eliot’s soft-minded schoolmates, usually liberals if not lefties, which the Spitzers were not. “Ideology is anathema to Bernard as it is to Eliot,” says Carl Mayer, a college friend who later worked for Spitzer in the attorney general’s office. “It’s too imprecise.”

Eliot, like most of the family, was for the death penalty and against rent control, a subject he seems to have debated endlessly. Once he and Mayer tackled it at Princeton, where Eliot was student-government president, a moderate counterweight to the college leftists. (“He was more likely to be playing squash with the president of the university than on a picket line,” as one lefty friend puts it.) The night Eliot and Mayer talked rent control, Mayer says, “people were stunned by the level of intensity, as most humans would be.”

For Spitzer, of course, the intensity was familiar from home. At one afternoon barbecue in Rye—the family had moved there from Riverdale—the day had begun with tennis. As Mayer was coming off the court, Eliot’s mother told him, “I hope you kicked Eliot’s ass.” Then it was on to the meal and the main event. Emily started the conversation, protesting that women didn’t get equal pay for equal work. Bernard quickly ticked off four or five reasons why women should be paid less. The battle was joined; that day, Eliot was on his sister’s side. “There was shouting nonstop from all quarters, and this was just a casual lunch,” says Mayer.

For Spitzer the combat “bred rigor” and a belief in logic and reason. As law-school friend Cliff Sloan, now publisher of the Website Slate, puts it, “Eliot had a feeling that no problem was too complex or too big to be solved by human ingenuity.”

Eliot enjoyed the debates, which were “fun in their own sadistic way.” You could take the measure of yourself, your intelligence, your powers of persuasion. “He may have been the youngest, but he wasn’t the least,” says Jason Brown, a friend and now a lawyer. “The debates gave him an opportunity to show that he too was an intellectual force.

As governor, Spitzer quickly re-created the dynamics of the dinner table. At his first meeting with his top aides, he told them, “It is absolutely your duty to disagree with me. You will not be doing your job unless you disagree.” As governor, he’s the one challenging the premise. “I think I almost finished my first couple of sentences before his first question,” says one aide. “He’s pretty intense.”

Spitzer made a point of recruiting bright people; he’s a student of résumés. “The reality is Spitzer does have the smartest people in the room working with him,” says one aide. Of course, this ostentatious (and self-congratulatory) intelligence rubs some the wrong way. Congressman Charlie Rangel, the powerful New York City Democrat, called Spitzer “the world’s smartest man,” which he didn’t mean as a compliment. (Rangel also suggested he had an anger-management problem.)

In private, aides say, Spitzer is deeply respectful of others; he’s also long struck people as preternaturally assured of his own abilities. When I asked Lieutenant Governor David Paterson “Who’s more self-confident than Spitzer?,” he paused. “Muhammad Ali,” he half-joked.

Yet for a certain kind of person—male, smart, fiercely competitive—Spitzer is a magnet. “There is a little lovefest some of us here have with him,” says Paterson.

Lloyd Constantine met Spitzer a couple of decades ago when the then-law-school student interned at Attorney General Robert Abrams’s office. Constantine ran Abrams’s antitrust division. “I told my wife the first day I met him,” Constantine recalls, “‘He’s already challenged me to tennis. He’s already challenged me to squash. He thinks he’s smarter than me.’”

In Spitzer, Constantine felt he’d found a kindred spirit, his “competitive other,” as he calls it. “To some extent, we’re always in the process of trying to show who’s tougher,” he says.

With Constantine onboard as a senior adviser to the governor, Spitzer and his band of superachievers re-created another aspect of Bernard’s dinner table. Governing shouldn’t merely be a clash of ideologies. It requires that a series of problems be solved. “We don’t have much ideological baggage,” says budget director Paul Francis. They make “evidence-based” decisions, he says, like proud scientists of government.

As a first experiment, Spitzer assigned them workers’ compensation. Everyone knew that the insurance program for injured workers paid too much to too few. “A decade of screaming and shouting on either side, and no resolution,” says Spitzer.

Spitzer’s people examined every case for the past two years. “When you get beneath the surface, the difference [with past approaches] is really in the depth of understanding of the problem, the depth of the diagnosis,” says one participant. Spitzer brought labor and business together, opened the state’s books, a bold move. But, as Spitzer tells me, “the data is what drove it.”


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