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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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Bruno got his $200 million for Long Island schools. Bruno also got Spitzer’s tax cut delivered as a rebate, he restored some health-care cuts, and bragged about his gains as if he’d wrestled Goliath to the mat.

Spitzer, on the other hand, seemed to have been dunked in the cesspool. Good-government groups, Spitzer’s Day One cheerleaders, pilloried him. Spitzer was frustrated that the press didn’t appreciate his statesmanship. “The formula for education is of unbelievable importance,” he tried to argue. He’d poured record amounts into schools, and got 400,000 kids insured, while lowering taxes. But Spitzer sounded defensive, at pains to explain complicated formulas. And the public—and the press, kept outside locked doors—focused on the process.

Spitzer had raised expectations. He was the politician who’d promised to say no to Albany’s secrecy and made us believe he could. “It was an incredible budget for us. We did one thing wrong, the secret meeting,” says an aide. It was no excuse—Spitzer was supposed to impose his idealistic, intolerant personality on Albany.

In June, as the legislative session came to a close, Spitzer drew a line in the muck. Usually, as one Democratic legislator says, “Spitzer’s people are so convinced they’re right that nothing they do is wrong,” but suddenly Spitzer appeared to feel he’d transgressed. He seemed to hate being taken for a secretive compromiser. He insisted that he’d get a campaign-finance-reform bill; he knew—from personal experience—the laws needed overhauling. This put him, yet again, on a collision course with Bruno, this time mano a mano.

“I thought he learned as chief executive you negotiate in good faith and compromise and get results,” says Bruno. “Then he locks up and goes on a tear over campaign-finance reform. I can’t for the life of me understand why.”

“There’s an unbelievable opportunity now to govern through the agencies,” says Spitzer, weary of the battle.

This time, Spitzer decided to do much of the fighting in public. He dragged Silver and Bruno “kicking and screaming,” says Spitzer, to open meetings in Teddy Roosevelt’s old office. He assigned them seats at a rectangular table with a handsome blue tablecloth, the whole dysfunctional family.

At the head of the table, Spitzer pushed campaign-finance reform as well as plenty of other issues. And he made nice. “We hold deep differences of opinion based on principle,” said Spitzer. He courted Bruno. “I was trying to keep him engaged,” he tells me later. It didn’t work.

Silver didn’t care much for the meetings; all the fuss over “process” is naïve, he thinks. And Bruno resented the meetings as if they were detention. “It was simply Spitzer acting in charge,” says Bruno, who showed his displeasure by twisting in his chair, one leg pretzeled over the other, and railing against Spitzer’s positions. People don’t care about campaign-finance reform, he said. “When you get up in the morning, do your children ask you the status of campaign-finance reform?”

“Money does not buy elections; that is bull,” Bruno shouted, waving a hand. His big white head shook. He added, “If somebody wants to give me a million dollars because they like what we do, fine.”

Bruno had other reasons for not wanting to fix some of the laxest campaign-finance laws in the country. (Currently, anyone can form as many corporations as he wants and give money through each.) “It would be suicide,” he says. Disarm when a rich governor is trying to destroy us? Are you crazy? Plus Bruno had to show strength. He didn’t have the command over his colleagues he once enjoyed. An investigation hung over his head, his majority was slipping. Albany used to be a place where no one disagreed with a leader for fear of reprisals. But no more.

On June 21, the final day of the legislative session, the two sides were at an impasse. Spitzer had threatened to hold up a spending bill, filled with projects dear to Bruno’s senators as well as pay hikes for legislators, if he didn’t get campaign-finance reform.

So Bruno made a brash political calculation. What was the upside of handing this self-righteous governor (whose staff, as one close to Spitzer acknowledges, considers legislators “hacks”) an end-of-session gift box? A few weeks earlier, Bruno had come to Spitzer with a deal for a nonaggression pact. Spitzer wouldn’t campaign against Republican senators, and the Senate would pass campaign-finance reform. Spitzer refused to stand on the sidelines, though he offered to praise Republican reformers. “That’s not good enough,” Bruno said.

Bruno didn’t return to meet with Spitzer. His senators were in no mood for a compromise—they felt “jammed up,” said one.

So Bruno called a press conference and started a war. “The legislative session that began with promise and achievement ended with a whimper,” Bruno told the press. (The word whimper seemed chosen with care.) He adjourned the Senate and with it the governor’s agenda. Spitzer convened his own press conference to express disappointment. Then he ticked off unresolved legislation—Mayor Bloomberg’s plan on congestion pricing, healthy meals for schoolchildren, DNA testing of criminals—listing their merits as a way, perhaps, of emphasizing his disappointment.


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