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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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Spitzer delivers his first State of the State address, in front of Silver and Bruno.  

The Legislature quickly passed the reform; it was a fast and early victory—others rapidly followed: ethics reform and civil confinement of sex predators, both of which had also been stalled for years.

Spitzer drew key lessons from these early triumphs. One was that belligerence worked—his people believed that the humiliation of Magnarelli, who’d gone against Spitzer on the Hevesi replacement, encouraged a hesitant Legislature. Another was that there’s nothing wrong with Albany that Spitzer and his brainy staff couldn’t fix. And then, of course, there was an implicit taunt—See, fellas, it’s not really that difficult.

“Spitzer wants to crush the other with his arguments,” says one upstate political hand. “I’d never met anyone like that.” But Bruno was happy to claim some credit for the early wins. Spitzer, he said, was pushing Bruno’s own causes, particularly on law and order. “Those are Republican things,” he said. He complimented Spitzer for, as he put it, “rolling Shelly.” By Albany standards, it was a warm and fuzzy moment. “He knows how to compromise,” Bruno said. “We like Joe,” Spitzer told me at one point.

Republican minority leader Tedisco even added, “Maybe you need a steamroller.” Those were the good old days.

For all the dinner-table policy debates, a career in politics was almost an afterthought for Spitzer. “People don’t realize what a U-turn politics was for me,” Spitzer says. “I planned almost certainly to go into the family business.”

And yet when he thought about real estate, he hesitated. “I’ve always had this deep-down hesitation about being viewed as, if not a caretaker, a recipient of something that was handed easily to one to embrace,” he says. “My father began with nothing. I would have been given something wonderful with a great opportunity to screw it up. If I’d succeeded, I would have been, rightly, viewed as, ‘Well, look what you started with.’” The family business was a game he could only lose.

His moment of revelation came in 1994. Spitzer was then 35 years old. He’d spent six years at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and a few years at the prestigious law firms of Paul, Weiss and later Skadden, Arps, when he was struck by a brazen thought. One week before the birth of their third child, Spitzer had a brief conversation with his wife, Silda, in which he mentioned he might like to run for attorney general.

It seemed crazy. Few in the public knew him, and those who did remarked that he didn’t have the typical political skill set. “He was fierce and talented, very smart, hardworking, idealistic,” says his boss at the D.A.’s office, Michael Cherkasky. “But he wasn’t smooth. He wasn’t sure of himself as a speaker. He wasn’t particularly funny. Now he has a self-deprecating humor. He didn’t learn that technique of being entertaining for ten years.”

Silda, a North Carolina Baptist who met Spitzer at Harvard Law, was stunned. The notion upended Silda’s expectations for their life together. “This wasn’t part of the bargain,” she later told him. But Silda, who seems to view her husband as a fragile creature, decided it was important to be supportive, though she knew it meant abandoning her career. “The decision was very difficult for me. It really was,” she told me. Her mother was a homemaker who felt belittled by the term. “It was difficult at a personal level and also I felt at some level I was letting down this bigger responsibility to womankind.” But Silda eventually left her job. “For me, with my family, and my children, and where we were as a family unit, this was the right choice for us,” she says.

If Spitzer lacked a natural politician’s ease, he did have one giant advantage: family money. For the September 1994 primary, he poured more than $4 million into his campaign, much of it for TV ads, an astounding figure. And, though he finished last, he won the endorsements of the Post and the News. The defeat seemed to stir his ambition. He jumped into the next attorney general’s race early, driving the family’s Plymouth minivan 70,000 miles around the state to meet people who were almost entirely dismissive then driving back. “That was essentially purgatory,” says Spitzer. “A rational person would say, ‘What am I doing this for?’”

The effort and the new strategy, though, paid off. Spitzer easily won the 1998 primary. In the general election, against incumbent Dennis Vacco, he spent more than $8 million, almost all of which he said he personally lent to the campaign. Vacco suspected that the money from his first campaign and now this one really came from Spitzer’s father, which seemed to violate campaign-finance laws—a family member can’t contribute more than $260,000. Spitzer claimed he’d mortgaged eight apartments his father had given him at 200 Central Park South, a building Bernard developed, and raised $5 million. “No one else has guaranteed the loan,” Spitzer said in an affidavit.


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