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The Steamroller in the Swamp

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When Spitzer was attorney general, I’d asked him, “So the last thing someone should say to Eliot Spitzer is ‘Fuck off’?”

“Basically, yeah,” he said.

After Bruno told him to fuck off, Spitzer seemed liberated. He hadn’t liked being an accommodator; now he didn’t have to be. He ran off to Republican districts delivering his beloved PowerPoint sermon. “Where’s Waldo?” he mocked, referring to Bruno. He claimed this fight wasn’t personal—just sports, you know. “I’ll pat Joe on the back next time I see him,” he said. “Not too hard.”

Bruno, liberated as well, threw a tantrum of his own. Where Spitzer gave his valedictorian address—“fiduciary responsibility” are his two favorite words—Bruno called Spitzer a “thug,” a “bully,” and, for good measure, a “hypocrite”; as he was pushing campaign reform, Spitzer was raising money and offering special access to donors. Bruno worked himself up as he spoke, his tone arguing that he was the real victim. “The governor is proving he’s inexperienced in negotiating as a chief executive. He’s used to dictating as attorney general with subpoena power.” Then Bruno called Spitzer a “rich spoiled brat”—a barb that particularly annoyed the governor.

For good measure, Bruno mocked Spitzer on his own terms. “So Spitzer got no result on anything by being stubborn,” Bruno says. “By thinking he’s the f-ing steamroller to roll over us. He had no steam.”

In the weeks following, Bruno kept scoring points. A press story reported that Bruno misused state aircraft to attend fund-raisers, an apparent gift to Spitzer that Bruno turned on its head. Bruno accused Spitzer of “political espionage,” saying the information came out of the executive branch. Everyone started calling for investigations—Spitzer three; Bruno two, and Bruno added that he might hold Senate hearings and use its subpoena power to put Spitzer under oath.

Even some top Democrats were lately heard to join in the joke: “Maybe he’s not a steam roller, maybe a steam iron,” said one. Indeed, some of the political class seemed delighted that, with his righteousness and his pride and oh, yes, his vast intellect, Spitzer had been taken to the woodshed by the likes of Joe Bruno.

When Spitzer was attorney general, he had always been, he once assured me, “right on the facts,” which was why he always won, he believed. And yet Albany has never worked that way—and perhaps never will. “The governor cannot just make the best case and always expect to win,” says Silver, as if explaining a harsh world to a younger sibling. Silver said Spitzer had gotten more done in six months than other governors in four years. Still, the news stories were mostly about the fight, which everyone agreed was Albany’s worst ever.

Bruno seemed giddy. He’d made this governor of supposedly pure motives look like one of them. It was sweet revenge. “He has an attitude about him,” Bruno told me. “Really, he does. He’s kind of above it all, aloof. He handles himself like some kid who’s used to getting his own way. I don’t believe he ever could understand me, one of eight kids, father shoveled coal,” Bruno continued. “Let’s face it, we come from different worlds.”

I meet with Spitzer a week or so after Bruno shut down the Legislature. We’re at Three Guys, a diner on Madison Avenue around the corner from Spitzer’s apartment. Spitzer’s state troopers are nowhere to be seen. He’s not an entourage guy. Ordinarily, Spitzer seems unrehearsed and refreshingly upbeat. He’s not conflicted, not introspective, “not deep,” as a friend says. But today, he’s different. Spitzer seems deflated. “You learn an awful lot,” he tells me.

In the long term, Bruno probably can’t win. He’s on the wrong side of history. Spitzer wants control, and the state is increasingly Democratic. Bruno will be 79 the next time he’s reelected. When asked if the Democrats will take the Senate next election, a Spitzer aide says simply, “Yes.” Which also frightens some Democrats who wonder whether Spitzer’s next target will be Silver.

Yet in the short term, Bruno is schooling Spitzer, and pleasing the Republican base. Suddenly, improbably, Bruno, king of the swamp, seems the victim, an impression that drives Spitzer wild. “This fight has nothing to do with culture or class. Bruno’s answers are simplistic pablum,” he says with scorn.

But Spitzer is weary of the struggle on these terms. “There’s a lot about politics I don’t recommend to people,” he says. “You’ve got to deal with folks like you.” I don’t take this personally. It’s a grab bag of disappointment today.

Spitzer’s already run five miles and had one meeting. “Dealing with Joe and Shelly, that’s a fun chess game,” he tells me. “You scream, you shout, you battle.” But what does it amount to? Spitzer lets me know that he’s over it. He’s going to go run the government. “The legislative piece, you need the budget, but the rest of it … eh?” he says. “Whatever they do … I don’t shrug. But … it gets more ink than it deserves.”


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