Governor Eliot Spitzer strides across the lawn, coatless on this 28-degree February morning, grinning all the way, up the stairs and through the front door of a spotless one-story, two-bedroom house in a rugged corner of Mamaroneck. He’s here to visit the Jimenezes, a photogenic Mexican-American family of four, who’ve been recruited, along with some friends and neighbors, to be the backdrop for an event staged to promote Spitzer’s budget proposals. Most politicians pretend, badly, to have a rapport with their rug-rat props, but Spitzer shows the kind of ease that comes from actually living with young children. The governor tousles the jet-black hair of 19-month-old Javier Jimenez and falls quickly into conversation with 7-year-old Lia Lopez about the relative merits of waffles versus scrambled eggs.
Even when he steers the chatter to serious subjects, like his proposal for cutting the property taxes of middle-class homeowners, Spitzer’s tone remains upbeat. He’s so charming that I nearly forget what Spitzer did immediately after entering the house: Head straight over to a large aquarium tucked in the corner. “Chinese fighting fish!” Spitzer said cheerily. “They eat their young, don’t they? Not that that’s a metaphor for anything.”
Right. Officially these little gatherings, which have also been arranged with sympathetic families in Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany, are part of what Spitzer calls the “Bringing the Budget Home Tour.” But “Rip of the Day Tour” might be more accurate. Ever since the State Assembly defied Spitzer and chose one of its own to replace Alan Hevesi as state comptroller, Spitzer has been on a tear. Four days earlier, in Syracuse, he called out William Magnarelli, mocking the Democratic assemblyman as a tool of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Today, Spitzer has chosen to come to the district represented by another fellow Democrat, George Latimer, who not only voted with Silver in the comptroller contest but had the temerity to be quoted in the Times accusing Spitzer of trying to rig the process. So after the budget spiel, the Jimenezes are hustled out of the picture and the real show begins. “I had supported George for the Assembly because I thought he supported reform and I’m terribly disappointed to see what he did, how he voted, and what he has said,” Spitzer tells the eight reporters and three TV cameras jammed behind a living-room couch. Would he back a Democratic-primary challenger to Latimer? “We’ll see what happens down the road,” he says. “I’m sure there are candidates out there who do support reform.”
Headlines assured, more state legislators infuriated, Spitzer’s out the door, heading for an idling black SUV and a ride up the Thruway to Dodge City—uh, Albany. Smiling all the way.
Method or madness? That was the debate preoccupying Albany in the wake of the nasty wrangling to choose a new state comptroller. That battle was an unequivocal loss for Spitzer—at least in the short term, with Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli selected by his colleagues, instead of the governor’s pal Bill Mulrow. But in a larger context, the comptroller debacle is a gift to Spitzer. Instead of heading into a much more important contest, over the state budget, trying to make a broad, complicated case for reform, Spitzer’s position has been crystallized. Sure, he’s been attacking legislators personally. But as ugly as it can be, it’s beside the point, as long as the governor doesn’t cross the line into demagoguery. Spitzer’s pique is all about personalizing his campaign against Albany’s entrenched power structure, making it us versus them, with Spitzer as the face of us.
“What is the cardinal rule that I’ve been accused of breaking up here, that has everybody bent out of shape?” Spitzer asks me after returning to the governor’s office. “They’re saying, ‘Ooooh, it breaks the etiquette of Albany to speak to voters about a legislator in that legislator’s district.’ [Senate Majority Leader] Joe Bruno said it violated the rules of etiquette to get involved in a Senate campaign. Well, etiquette sometimes is merely a mechanism to keep the status quo. I’m happy to break those rules and break some china and say to the voters, it is time we turn the electoral screws a little bit.”
The comptroller fallout has also played perfectly to Spitzer’s strength, as a crusader for what’s right—not simply on a policy level but on a good- versus-evil level. “It’s a much better issue with which to define what reform is about than a budget debate, where the issues are abstract and there isn’t the same moral purity,” a senior administration official says. “It’s hard to attack somebody as morally bankrupt who’s trying to protect a hospital. It’s much easier when somebody walked away from a very public agreement to do things in a merit-based way. It gives Eliot the opportunity to drive home the righteousness and validity and virtues of his position. And he’s going to keep doing it.”