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The Chutzpah Mandate

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True, no doubt. But before the string section starts playing, let’s remember one great irony: This triumph of New York chutzpah, this golden moment of Democratic harmony, grew from a good old New York sharp-elbowed feud.

A mere two years ago, Schumer was unhappily stuck in what looked like a permanent congressional minority and very publicly began mulling a run for governor. Throughout the fall of 2004 dangled a tantalizing prospect for the New York political media: Chuck Schumer versus Eliot Spitzer in a state Democratic primary, a war between two intensely smart men who genuinely disliked one another. The preliminary sniping was by turns comical and nasty.

Alas for entertainment’s sake, the full battle was never joined. Many insiders believed Schumer’s interest was a ruse all along, a maneuver to boost his Senate stature, with the DSCC job one reward for not running for governor. Yet as a direct result of the Schumer-Spitzer rivalry and the race that wasn’t, New York has reaped a political windfall that was inconceivable in 2004. “I think,” Schumer says now, as the Montana and Rhode Island Senate seats have fallen improbably into Democratic hands, “that I made the right choice.”

“Bush won the House for the Democrats more than Rahm did,” says a consultant. “The Senate? That was all Chuck.”

The guy who ended up running for governor on the Democratic line had a pretty good Election Night too. But as Spitzer giddily piled a quotation from Whitman on top of lines from TR on top of a yawp from Jim Cramer, the holding pen beneath him in a ballroom of the midtown Sheraton filled with lobbyists and moneymen and legislators-for-life, the very crux of the Albany mess. All of them Eliot’s new best friends.

The politician working the TV cameras the hardest was State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He gassed on about how much he’d been chatting with Spitzer lately, how the two men were looking forward to working hand in hand—never mind Spitzer’s rhetoric about demolishing Albany’s culture of dysfunction. When it got to the particulars, things were less chummy. Silver vigorously defended Alan Hevesi, whom Spitzer has declared too compromised to continue as comptroller. Silver says his top priority is resolving the lawsuit over state education funding—an item Spitzer is indeed also highlighting. But Spitzer and Silver are determined that the city pay as much as $1 billion into the settlement pot, a formula Bloomberg angrily dismisses. More palatable to City Hall, however, might be a high-stakes swap: The state picks up the share of Medicaid expenses currently billed to localities in exchange for the city’s eating a bigger portion of the education budget. Such a deal would also lift the Medicaid burden from upstate counties, making it an easier sale in the State Legislature. (How fossilized is that legislature? Two indicted incumbents were reelected. And on a day that saw a Democratic tidal wave everywhere else, one Republican out of 35 in the State Senate was defeated. One!)

Spitzer talked throughout the campaign about reforming the state’s wildly expensive health-care system. One interesting sign that he’s deeply serious was an absence from the Election Night festivities. Spitzer’s list of endorsers was staggeringly long, and included most of the state’s deeply entrenched special interests. Except for one: SEIU/1199, the powerhouse health-care-workers union. Dennis Rivera, its president, helped seal the 2002 reelection of George Pataki by cutting a deal for $1 billion in raises for 1199’s members. And the union’s early endorsement of Andrew Cuomo—backed up by the loan of Jennifer Cunningham, 1199’s shrewd political director, to Cuomo’s campaign staff—was the key to Cuomo’s winning the attorney-general race this year.

Yet when 1199 offered to endorse Spitzer, complete with a press conference attended by Rivera, Spitzer turned it down. The rejection buffed Spitzer’s image as a reformer during the campaign; we’ll see if it makes cutting health-care spending any easier.

Albany’s permanent government hasn’t exactly been quaking at the sound of Spitzer’s campaign slogan, “On day one, everything changes.” “We’re considering making T-shirts,” one union leader says confidently, “day two: still here.” Which is why it’s fine for Spitzer to talk of compromise and cooperation now. But real change will require the same hard-ass attitude he’s shown Wall Street, Alan Hevesi, and Chuck Schumer.

E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com.


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