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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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Spitzer reacted to the ads by canceling the Rivera summit. “Now that they have us under the gun, they want to come in. That’s not the way I do business. That’s not who I am,” Spitzer told me, as if it were a question of character. To compromise on the heels of the ads would be a disaster. “If they roll us, everyone rolls us,” one aide explained.

Spitzer launched his own ad campaign, paying with campaign funds, and when campaign money ran out, he wrote a $500,000 check from his own account. (“I don’t like the appearance,” he says, “but it was an essential fight that we needed to win.”)

As part of this battle, Spitzer opened up another front, going directly at Bruno this time. He targeted ten upstate Republicans in vulnerable districts. One by one, Spitzer sat them down in his office and said, “Either make a deal, or I’m coming to your district.” The tactic infuriated Bruno.

Soon, Bruno challenged Spitzer in his office, shouting that one senator “is so far up your ass he can’t even see.” At this, Spitzer exploded. “I won’t tolerate profanity or attacks on other elected officials in my office,” he yelled, to the delight of his staffers—who can tell when the boss is really mad.

On March 27, both men swallowed hard and, with Silver, announced a framework for a budget deal. “Spitzer got a lot of what he wanted, we got enough,” said one union observer; the union let Bruno know he could close the deal. The eventual agreement restored, depending on how it was counted, $300 million in cuts, but Spitzer got a historic $1 billion reduction in Medicaid spending, pretty close to his compromise number. Spitzer seemed to be gliding toward an on-time budget. Details remained to be finalized, but there were four days before the April 1 budget deadline. Bruno, though, hadn’t played his final card. Silver, happy to recede into the background as “conciliator,” as he liked to call himself, knew the game. “The governor is dealing in a different league, a different climate, a different dynamic now,” Silver said. “He’s used to dealing with assistant attorneys general who he appointed.”

Bruno stalled. He knew Spitzer wanted to complete an on-time budget by the deadline; he didn’t want to eat up the legislative session. “Bruno’s feeling is, if Bruno keeps dragging him out on the details, Spitzer will have to capitulate on more of the details,” explains one frustrated Spitzer aide. The day before the budget deadline, the staffs negotiated all night. At 4:45 in the morning, budget director Francis e-mailed Spitzer: “We better start lowering expectations.”

“Outrage,” Spitzer insisted, “helps both create a conversation to frame the issues and generate an understanding.”

When I next spoke to Spitzer, I asked him about that early-morning e-mail. Spitzer wants you to know that he masters every detail. He brings to the job a frightening energy. He rises at five, reads four newspapers, runs a few miles (with a state trooper trailing on a bike), has three quick breakfast meetings. One aide tells me that Spitzer has never taken more than seven minutes to return his e-mails. I mention the story about his budget director’s 4:45 a.m. e-mail. “He left out an important fact,” Spitzer says. “I sent him one back at 4:46.”

That e-mail told the governor that negotiations with Bruno’s staff had collapsed. The governor knew by that time that one crucial issue for Bruno was school aid. Spitzer proposed a formula to distribute aid by need rather than political power; Bruno wanted a separate distribution for Long Island, which has eight Republican senators. To satisfy Bruno would cost $200 million.

“We shouldn’t spend this much on school aid,” Francis told Spitzer, urging a showdown.

Spitzer likes to say that his unacknowledged strength is his pragmatism. Spitzer picked up the phone and called Bruno, Silver, and the two other legislative leaders, Malcolm Smith, Democratic leader of the Senate, and James Tedisco, Republican leader of the Assembly, to a meeting that morning at 11 a.m. “It’s now that people will put their hearts on the table or not. This is our last shot,” he told his staff.

Spitzer decided that it had to be a secret meeting. “We’ll lock the doors,” said Spitzer. Secret meetings, of course, are the disappointing way business has always been done in the swamp.

By all accounts, Spitzer’s performance in the meeting was a masterful exercise of mediation. Even Bruno says, “It didn’t get done his way. He learned to compromise. And we got it done.” Spitzer emerged after almost seven hours with a budget printed so hastily legislators didn’t have a chance to read it before raising their hands when their leaders told them to.


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