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Stale Mates

Eliot Spitzer and Joe Bruno are fighting each other. But they’re beating up everyone else.

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Illustration by Darrow  

Aqueduct in January is about as bleak as it gets in New York. There are some days, of course, when the winter sun gives the old racetrack a stark beauty. There are more days, however, when gray clouds press down and a brutal wind blows across Jamaica Bay and rips through JFK’s long-term parking lots. A few thousand shivering, hard-core horseplayers, determined to enjoy a couple hours of cheap diversion, rattle around the enormous grounds. The horses themselves … well, they won’t be running in the next Kentucky Derby.

It’s hard to imagine the scene growing much grimmer. Then again, a year ago, when Eliot Spitzer was elected governor in a landslide, it was hard to imagine New York State government getting worse. Well, happy anniversary.

Winter racing at Aqueduct is likely to get scruffier soon—if the track doesn’t go completely dark. Management of New York’s horse-racing sites will devolve upon a sketchy, never-before-used panel unless state leaders hammer out a new deal by December 31. And right now, Albany’s two most powerful politicians aren’t even speaking, about the ponies or any of New York’s truly daunting problems.

It was fun for a while, as a low-comedy, can-you-top-this? spectacle. Spitzer’s staff abetted the release of embarrassing documents about Joe Bruno’s jaunts on state helicopters. An outraged Bruno, the State Senate Majority Leader, turned his back on Spitzer in public. And my personal favorite: In retaliation for a supposed scheme to get him in trouble with the IRS, Bruno canceled cell-phone service for a half-dozen Democratic staffers. Is Bruno 78 years old or 18?

It ain’t entertaining anymore. This petty, ugly grudge match has stalled Albany. Granted, that usually would be considered a good thing, given the State Legislature’s well-earned label as “most dysfunctional in the country.” But the feud between Spitzer and Bruno threatens to interfere with everything from $2 exactas to the siting of new power plants.

To his credit, the new governor made significant progress on a batch of serious issues before the battle with Bruno exploded. The long-running lawsuit over public-education funding was resolved. Workers’-compensation formulas were rationalized, saving state businesses nearly $1 billion this year. A state-budget-reform package was signed into law. Major state agencies were overhauled.

It was a nice start. But by blundering into a war with Bruno, Spitzer has seen his agenda paralyzed. Spitzer’s years as attorney general made it clear he enjoyed playing rough. The notion of using the state police and the IRS to mess with a political opponent, however, verges on Nixonian and is beneath Spitzer. But let’s be clear: In its cost to New York, a few months of clumsy Spitzer tricksterism is a bargain compared with 31 years of Bruno’s gobbling from the public trough. Each August, in the glorious sun of Saratoga, Bruno makes a show of being a genteel patron of the sport of kings. Yet he’s more adept in hardball politics than his current enemy.

Spitzer’s advisers believe that if the governor sticks with an unglamorous ground game, eventually the public will take his side against the do-nothing Republicans. “Bill Clinton did what Eliot’s been doing,” an administration official says. “You go around the state and say, ‘I’m here to talk about getting money to your schools, getting you health care…’ It’s not a brilliant strategy, but that’s the strategy.”

One problem is that Spitzer lacks Clinton’s gifts as a salesman—and, at least so far, the ex-president’s ability to learn from political mistakes. In September, Spitzer unveiled a plan to make driver’s licenses available to illegal immigrants. Even if he’s right on the facts—that bringing more people out of the shadows and into the system makes us all safer—the idea has a weirdly counterintuitive element (hand legal documents to people who are here illegally?) that requires subtle marketing. Yet instead of building alliances in advance, Spitzer unveiled the idea fully formed, practically begging the Republicans to whip up some classic, highly effective fearmongering.

The lack of political dexterity disheartens even Spitzer supporters. “Eliot was so good at choosing his fights as attorney general,” one loyalist says. “As governor, he’s picked too many fights. Partly it’s the larger volume of issues to deal with, and partly it’s related to his frustration dealing with the Legislature. But he also seems to have lost his touch.”


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