The Steamroller in the Swamp

Photo: Platon

A few months ago, I asked Governor Eliot Spitzer about his temper, the most popular subject in Albany. This was before Spitzer got into an all-out war with State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno, before Bruno called Spitzer “a rich spoiled brat” and his staff “thugs” and “hoodlums,” before Spitzer may or may not have called Bruno “senile,” before the machinery of government seemed to skid to a halt.

The day we met, Spitzer was dressed in his usual snowy-white shirt, firmly knotted rep tie, dark prosecutor’s suit, and black dress shoes.

“You have a talent for confrontation,” I ventured. “Your signature tactic has been to confront people and show your temper.”

“The full Spitzer,” aides call his angry outbursts, which, in one form or another, were often on display in the early days of his term. In the first weeks, Spitzer singled out one Democratic legislator who defied him. “Bill Magnarelli is one of those unfortunate Assembly members who just raises his hand when he’s told to do so,” he told Magnarelli’s hometown newspaper. Not long after, he famously shouted at Republican minority leader James Tedisco, “I’m a fucking steamroller, and I’ll roll over you.”

“It’s a fair question,” Spitzer told me amiably, flashing one of his awkward horizontal smiles. Spitzer described confrontation as a kind of sport. “When you’re on the playing field, you fight as hard as you possibly can. You don’t give an inch because you’re both playing by those hard rules. Afterwards, you shake hands and you say, ‘That was great! Onto the next.’” A good public pummeling. How invigorating!

Spitzer is narrow and wiry; his forehead, framed by lettuce-leaf ears, slants back, and his chin pushes forward, as if, physically, he represents aggressive energy. As we sat talking in his large bland office, it was clear that Spitzer reveled in the effects of his anger. “Outrage helps both create a conversation to frame the issues and generate an understanding of the issues,” he told me. Others view his temper as a liability, but as Spitzer sees it, it’s almost a political innovation, bringing clarity to an argument. For Spitzer, a public drubbing of Billy Magnarelli was good sport and had the added benefit of demonstrating his high-minded principles. “It fits into a larger rationale, which is that we believe in accountability,” he told me. Anger, as Spitzer explained it, was linked to the best, most optimistic side of him. It also marked him as different, part of the solution. “The cliché is, ‘You went to Albany as one of us, you came back as one of them,’” said Spitzer. “I’m not coming back as one of them.”

As attorney general, Spitzer had tackled Wall Street corruption; he’d tamed illegal practices in the country’s largest corporations, threatening to shut them down unless they cleaned up. Now he intended to use the same “force of will,” as admirers call it, against Albany, and take no prisoners. “Eliot is the reality they deny,” one aide says, and which he intended to impose. For the Republicans, he reserved a special fate. He was going to “take them out,” as his target, majority leader Bruno, put it.

That is, unless they take him out first.

On inauguration day, January 1, 48-year-old Eliot Spitzer, Princeton class of ’81, Harvard Law class of ’84, heir to a real-estate fortune, and the most famous state attorney general in America, stood on the steps of the state capital and declared that everything in Albany must change, as he’d repeatedly vowed during his campaign. “Day One is now,” he told the crowd. On that winter day, the new governor—coatless, JFK-style—tilted his jaw at his audience. His breath turned steamy in the air. A torch was being passed. Albany’s sleepy days were over. “Like Rip Van Winkle,” it slept, he said. He said state government was dysfunctional. (Privately, his people prefer a more colloquial term: a “cesspool.”) “The light of a new day shines down on the Empire State,” he said, inviting the assembled to join him on his journey of reform.

In the audience, longtime legislators smiled tightly through the insults. They’d lived in and run the dark place for decades, and many bridled at his professed monopoly on good intentions. “People don’t realize,” says Democrat Sheldon Silver, 63, Speaker of the State Assembly for thirteen years, “my role was to stop bad things from happening [under Republican governor George Pataki].” Silver professed to like Spitzer’s passion and to share his priorities. As Silver sees it, they’re cut from similar cloth. Like Spitzer, Silver is a lawyer (although of the public-school variety, Brooklyn Law class of 1968) and a liberal-leaning New York Jew. Spitzer, though, is the assimilated Jew with the Fifth Avenue spread, Silver the religious relation in a modest apartment on the Lower East Side. Silver looks the part: Dour, rabbinical, he disappears in a crowd. Few know what he’s thinking—“an enigma,” Spitzer once called him. Early on, Silver warned his enthusiastic landsman, “There’s no legislation by fiat,” as if to say, “Don’t ignore the Legislature.” Then, he wondered, “Is he patient?” As if to deliver an early lesson, shortly after the inauguration Silver broke a deal to replace comptroller Alan Hevesi, rejecting Spitzer’s candidates and selecting one of his own.

In June, Spitzer and Bruno make their points in Teddy Roosevelt's old office. "It was simply Spitzer acting in charge," says Bruno.Photo: Mike Groll/AP Photo

If Silver is an ally, albeit a tricky one, Joe Bruno, 78, seems a central-casting nemesis. Not everyone is so “blessed” as to be born with a rich father, Bruno likes to say, and then describes his “miserably unhappy childhood”—no central heat, one toilet for eight kids. Bruno, Skidmore class of 1952, is a Rensselaer County businessman, and breeds horses. He’s a former boxer with a twice-broken nose, a real tough guy to Spitzer’s tough talker; a self-made man to Spitzer’s modesty-in-the-face-of-inherited-wealth act. And he has, as he likes to say, “the common touch”—he’s never joked about overcoming “the disadvantage” of Yale Law school, a crack Spitzer makes about friends. Bruno winks across the room at a press conference or merrily cups his hands to mime mud balls, which he accuses Spitzer of slinging. An ongoing FBI investigation into corruption is said to focus on whether a business Bruno consulted for got favorable governmental treatment, but even a federal probe can’t dampen his high spirits. Bruno always has a quick return. Albany dysfunctional? “Pure nonsense,” he retorts.

From the start, Bruno resented Spitzer’s condescension and barely concealed it. “Spitzer has an attitude about him, he really does, like he’s kind of above it all. He thinks I’m a street kid that doesn’t know night from day,” Bruno told me. “I’ve survived 31 years. I don’t pretend to be a genius. I have common sense, a lot of intuition.”

Even though Spitzer was elected by 69 percent of voters, to drain the swamp he’d have to work with Silver and go through Bruno, daunting challenges for a new executive. As Silver put it, “How difficult it’s going to be to deal with the Senate will be the governor’s biggest surprise.” The looming question was whether the same hyperaggression that had been successful in the attorney general’s office would work in Albany, where he must appease complicated constituencies, while not having subpoena power.

When I first talked with the governor several months ago, he had no doubts as to his tactics. He relished the fight. Taunting, as he saw it, was a part of the game. I asked about the threat to kill the Republican majority. The governor has a habit of sitting perfectly still, like Lincoln on the National Mall. “There is some virtue in my saying to them, ‘Fellows, your hold is tenuous,’” Spitzer answered, and shot me one of his quick horizontal smiles.

Spitzer’s appetite for confrontation was nurtured early. Perhaps every dinner table is theater; Spitzer’s childhood table was, as one friend puts it, a “Darwinian” drama. Spitzer’s father, Bernard, now 83, presided over what another friend called “an ongoing argument that never stops. It was like intellectual professional wrestling, except it wasn’t staged.” Bernard is the brilliant immigrant (he graduated college at 18) who built a real-estate fortune worth an estimated $500 million, supervising every detail. One benefit of success was that the three bright Spitzer children didn’t have to waste their time in pursuit of financial gain. Instead, as one friend observed, they were to compete, achieve, and serve.

At dinner, Bernard and Anne, his wife of 63 years, discouraged small talk—“Dull and redundant,” Bernard tells me one day. “My dad didn’t want to get to dinner and gossip, though it probably would have been more fun,” Spitzer says. “My dad is not a frivolous person. I don’t think I’ve heard him have a conversation about the weather. He has always been a rigorous intellectual who pushes himself and others to think with clarity.”

Bernard sometimes assigned the kids to bring a topic to dinner and lead a discussion, one topic per dinner, no wandering—“a rotating obligation,” Bernard calls it, in a characteristically formal locution. Daniel, the middle child, the scientist, liked to discuss Antarctica and deserts—he became a neurosurgeon. Emily, the oldest, was the family feminist—she later worked as a lawyer for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund. Eliot, the youngest, was a bookish teenager. He loved sports and was good at them, and also carried a large Samsonite briefcase around junior high; in his free time, he leafed through foreign-policy magazines.

Whatever the subject, explains Daniel, “you needed to have something thought out and with gravitas and preferably with a couple of statistics thrown in. You couldn’t fake it.”

Bernard saw his role as challenging whatever argument was advanced. “I tried to elicit the principle,” he says from his Fifth Avenue office. His motto was “Challenge the premise.” No one got a pass, including visitors. William Taylor, Eliot’s Princeton roommate who later co-founded the magazine Fast Company, says, “I was never more relieved than when dinner was over and I’d survived.”

Spitzer, wife Silda, and their three daughters, on inauguration day—"Day One," in Spitzer's lexicon.Photo: Tim Roske/AP Photo

It was pretty good fun to beat up on Eliot’s soft-minded schoolmates, usually liberals if not lefties, which the Spitzers were not. “Ideology is anathema to Bernard as it is to Eliot,” says Carl Mayer, a college friend who later worked for Spitzer in the attorney general’s office. “It’s too imprecise.”

Eliot, like most of the family, was for the death penalty and against rent control, a subject he seems to have debated endlessly. Once he and Mayer tackled it at Princeton, where Eliot was student-government president, a moderate counterweight to the college leftists. (“He was more likely to be playing squash with the president of the university than on a picket line,” as one lefty friend puts it.) The night Eliot and Mayer talked rent control, Mayer says, “people were stunned by the level of intensity, as most humans would be.”

For Spitzer, of course, the intensity was familiar from home. At one afternoon barbecue in Rye—the family had moved there from Riverdale—the day had begun with tennis. As Mayer was coming off the court, Eliot’s mother told him, “I hope you kicked Eliot’s ass.” Then it was on to the meal and the main event. Emily started the conversation, protesting that women didn’t get equal pay for equal work. Bernard quickly ticked off four or five reasons why women should be paid less. The battle was joined; that day, Eliot was on his sister’s side. “There was shouting nonstop from all quarters, and this was just a casual lunch,” says Mayer.

For Spitzer the combat “bred rigor” and a belief in logic and reason. As law-school friend Cliff Sloan, now publisher of the Website Slate, puts it, “Eliot had a feeling that no problem was too complex or too big to be solved by human ingenuity.”

Eliot enjoyed the debates, which were “fun in their own sadistic way.” You could take the measure of yourself, your intelligence, your powers of persuasion. “He may have been the youngest, but he wasn’t the least,” says Jason Brown, a friend and now a lawyer. “The debates gave him an opportunity to show that he too was an intellectual force.

As governor, Spitzer quickly re-created the dynamics of the dinner table. At his first meeting with his top aides, he told them, “It is absolutely your duty to disagree with me. You will not be doing your job unless you disagree.” As governor, he’s the one challenging the premise. “I think I almost finished my first couple of sentences before his first question,” says one aide. “He’s pretty intense.”

Spitzer made a point of recruiting bright people; he’s a student of résumés. “The reality is Spitzer does have the smartest people in the room working with him,” says one aide. Of course, this ostentatious (and self-congratulatory) intelligence rubs some the wrong way. Congressman Charlie Rangel, the powerful New York City Democrat, called Spitzer “the world’s smartest man,” which he didn’t mean as a compliment. (Rangel also suggested he had an anger-management problem.)

In private, aides say, Spitzer is deeply respectful of others; he’s also long struck people as preternaturally assured of his own abilities. When I asked Lieutenant Governor David Paterson “Who’s more self-confident than Spitzer?,” he paused. “Muhammad Ali,” he half-joked.

Yet for a certain kind of person—male, smart, fiercely competitive—Spitzer is a magnet. “There is a little lovefest some of us here have with him,” says Paterson.

Lloyd Constantine met Spitzer a couple of decades ago when the then-law-school student interned at Attorney General Robert Abrams’s office. Constantine ran Abrams’s antitrust division. “I told my wife the first day I met him,” Constantine recalls, “‘He’s already challenged me to tennis. He’s already challenged me to squash. He thinks he’s smarter than me.’”

In Spitzer, Constantine felt he’d found a kindred spirit, his “competitive other,” as he calls it. “To some extent, we’re always in the process of trying to show who’s tougher,” he says.

With Constantine onboard as a senior adviser to the governor, Spitzer and his band of superachievers re-created another aspect of Bernard’s dinner table. Governing shouldn’t merely be a clash of ideologies. It requires that a series of problems be solved. “We don’t have much ideological baggage,” says budget director Paul Francis. They make “evidence-based” decisions, he says, like proud scientists of government.

As a first experiment, Spitzer assigned them workers’ compensation. Everyone knew that the insurance program for injured workers paid too much to too few. “A decade of screaming and shouting on either side, and no resolution,” says Spitzer.

Spitzer’s people examined every case for the past two years. “When you get beneath the surface, the difference [with past approaches] is really in the depth of understanding of the problem, the depth of the diagnosis,” says one participant. Spitzer brought labor and business together, opened the state’s books, a bold move. But, as Spitzer tells me, “the data is what drove it.”

Spitzer delivers his first State of the State address, in front of Silver and Bruno.Photo: Nathaniel Brooks/Polaris

The Legislature quickly passed the reform; it was a fast and early victory—others rapidly followed: ethics reform and civil confinement of sex predators, both of which had also been stalled for years.

Spitzer drew key lessons from these early triumphs. One was that belligerence worked—his people believed that the humiliation of Magnarelli, who’d gone against Spitzer on the Hevesi replacement, encouraged a hesitant Legislature. Another was that there’s nothing wrong with Albany that Spitzer and his brainy staff couldn’t fix. And then, of course, there was an implicit taunt—See, fellas, it’s not really that difficult.

“Spitzer wants to crush the other with his arguments,” says one upstate political hand. “I’d never met anyone like that.” But Bruno was happy to claim some credit for the early wins. Spitzer, he said, was pushing Bruno’s own causes, particularly on law and order. “Those are Republican things,” he said. He complimented Spitzer for, as he put it, “rolling Shelly.” By Albany standards, it was a warm and fuzzy moment. “He knows how to compromise,” Bruno said. “We like Joe,” Spitzer told me at one point.

Republican minority leader Tedisco even added, “Maybe you need a steamroller.” Those were the good old days.

For all the dinner-table policy debates, a career in politics was almost an afterthought for Spitzer. “People don’t realize what a U-turn politics was for me,” Spitzer says. “I planned almost certainly to go into the family business.”

And yet when he thought about real estate, he hesitated. “I’ve always had this deep-down hesitation about being viewed as, if not a caretaker, a recipient of something that was handed easily to one to embrace,” he says. “My father began with nothing. I would have been given something wonderful with a great opportunity to screw it up. If I’d succeeded, I would have been, rightly, viewed as, ‘Well, look what you started with.’” The family business was a game he could only lose.

His moment of revelation came in 1994. Spitzer was then 35 years old. He’d spent six years at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and a few years at the prestigious law firms of Paul, Weiss and later Skadden, Arps, when he was struck by a brazen thought. One week before the birth of their third child, Spitzer had a brief conversation with his wife, Silda, in which he mentioned he might like to run for attorney general.

It seemed crazy. Few in the public knew him, and those who did remarked that he didn’t have the typical political skill set. “He was fierce and talented, very smart, hardworking, idealistic,” says his boss at the D.A.’s office, Michael Cherkasky. “But he wasn’t smooth. He wasn’t sure of himself as a speaker. He wasn’t particularly funny. Now he has a self-deprecating humor. He didn’t learn that technique of being entertaining for ten years.”

Silda, a North Carolina Baptist who met Spitzer at Harvard Law, was stunned. The notion upended Silda’s expectations for their life together. “This wasn’t part of the bargain,” she later told him. But Silda, who seems to view her husband as a fragile creature, decided it was important to be supportive, though she knew it meant abandoning her career. “The decision was very difficult for me. It really was,” she told me. Her mother was a homemaker who felt belittled by the term. “It was difficult at a personal level and also I felt at some level I was letting down this bigger responsibility to womankind.” But Silda eventually left her job. “For me, with my family, and my children, and where we were as a family unit, this was the right choice for us,” she says.

If Spitzer lacked a natural politician’s ease, he did have one giant advantage: family money. For the September 1994 primary, he poured more than $4 million into his campaign, much of it for TV ads, an astounding figure. And, though he finished last, he won the endorsements of the Post and the News. The defeat seemed to stir his ambition. He jumped into the next attorney general’s race early, driving the family’s Plymouth minivan 70,000 miles around the state to meet people who were almost entirely dismissive then driving back. “That was essentially purgatory,” says Spitzer. “A rational person would say, ‘What am I doing this for?’”

The effort and the new strategy, though, paid off. Spitzer easily won the 1998 primary. In the general election, against incumbent Dennis Vacco, he spent more than $8 million, almost all of which he said he personally lent to the campaign. Vacco suspected that the money from his first campaign and now this one really came from Spitzer’s father, which seemed to violate campaign-finance laws—a family member can’t contribute more than $260,000. Spitzer claimed he’d mortgaged eight apartments his father had given him at 200 Central Park South, a building Bernard developed, and raised $5 million. “No one else has guaranteed the loan,” Spitzer said in an affidavit.

And then, days before the election, Spitzer came clean to the Times. His father had, in effect, financed the campaign. Bernard was really paying off the co-op loans; Spitzer was supposedly repaying his father, which permitted Spitzer to claim the money was technically his. Spitzer said the scheme was legal. If so, he had lawyered election and tax codes close to the line.

Perhaps Spitzer’s clearer infraction, though, was that he misled—some said lied to—not only the public but also his closest campaign aides. “People were disappointed and shocked,” says one aide. Spitzer was remorseful—“He felt bad,” says the aide. He won the election, but barely.

Later, I asked Spitzer, now the state’s ethical crusader, whether he regretted this deception. “I just would have been completely transparent about it,” he tells me. “I didn’t realize how necessary it was to be transparent about every personal financial transaction.” It’s difficult to hear the word transparent and not think that the more precise word is honest. Spitzer once told me that he’d learned at the D.A.’s office there are some fights in which, as he put it, “you can never concede errors because you just can’t do it.” Maybe this is one of those.

Joe Bruno’s spirited jibes conceal a truth—power has been slipping away from him. In the past four years, the Republicans have lost four Senate seats. When Spitzer became governor, they held a bare three-seat majority. Spitzer was determined to shrink it further. He dangled jobs in his administration in front of a number of Republican senators, and one of them, Michael Balboni, from Nassau County, took him up on it, becoming Spitzer’s Homeland Security chief. That put his Republican seat up for grabs in a largely Democratic district. (Spitzer campaigned for the Democrat, who took the seat, a victory that made both Democrats and Republicans appreciate Spitzer’s electoral muscle.)

For Spitzer, as for every governor, the most important policy tool is the budget. Spitzer had ambitious goals: Lower taxes, redistribute school aid, insure uninsured kids, among others. As a top priority, he was also determined to rein in health-care spending, especially Medicaid, a program on which New York spends far more than any other state.

To do this, Spitzer took aim at perhaps Bruno’s most important patron: the powerful health-workers union Local 1199 SEIU, headed by Dennis Rivera. The Republican organization statewide is very thin, and in the absence of effective field operations, the party has often counted on 1199’s manpower and wealth. Every year 1199, with Bruno’s support, fiercely opposes any health-care cuts. Spitzer’s interests—killing Republicans and cutting health-care spending—aligned nicely. “It’ll be a tough fight, but it’s the right fight,” Spitzer told his staff.

Predictably, Spitzer got the fight going. During the campaign, he had refused the union’s endorsement. Then, at a March breakfast talk to the Association for a Better New York, Spitzer stood onstage at the New York Hilton with a favorite weapon, his PowerPoint presentation. A slide appeared on a large screen. GUARDIANS OF THE STATUS QUO, it said in giant letters. To illustrate the concept, the logos of 1199 and its ally, the Greater New York Hospital Association, were shown. “Now, my good friends at 1199 and Greater New York, I want to put your logos up here just so everybody will know who you are,” he said, introducing them to the crowd. (It got worse; soon he was, in effect, calling them liars.) It was a stunning personal assault. He rubbed their noses in it, and his staff loved every minute. “I have never in my professional life seen anything like that,” Kenneth E. Raske, the president of the hospital association, said.

At 1199, they were “horrified.” “We’re true believers,” as one union official put it. “We represent 200,000 health-care workers, a lot of whom make $7.15 an hour.”

Privately, Bruno had been telling Rivera’s team to go on the attack. “If you don’t defend yourselves, we can’t,” he said. Spitzer had already scheduled a meeting with Rivera, and even had a compromise in mind. But two days before the summit, the union put up a series of powerful ads, part of a campaign that cost $4.5 million. Hospital workers, many of them minorities, looked into the camera and said things like “I don’t know why Governor Spitzer is attacking me and my hospital.”

The union had used a similar tactic against Pataki to devastating effect. In 2002, 1199 had previewed its ads for Pataki—“punched them into the VCR,” says one Spitzer aide. That year, Pataki and Rivera came to a historic compromise, as it would later be known, earning Rivera’s workers millions and Pataki the union’s endorsement. Spitzer’s people had deep contempt for the compromise. “Pataki buckled,” said one.

Spitzer reacted to the ads by canceling the Rivera summit. “Now that they have us under the gun, they want to come in. That’s not the way I do business. That’s not who I am,” Spitzer told me, as if it were a question of character. To compromise on the heels of the ads would be a disaster. “If they roll us, everyone rolls us,” one aide explained.

Spitzer launched his own ad campaign, paying with campaign funds, and when campaign money ran out, he wrote a $500,000 check from his own account. (“I don’t like the appearance,” he says, “but it was an essential fight that we needed to win.”)

As part of this battle, Spitzer opened up another front, going directly at Bruno this time. He targeted ten upstate Republicans in vulnerable districts. One by one, Spitzer sat them down in his office and said, “Either make a deal, or I’m coming to your district.” The tactic infuriated Bruno.

Soon, Bruno challenged Spitzer in his office, shouting that one senator “is so far up your ass he can’t even see.” At this, Spitzer exploded. “I won’t tolerate profanity or attacks on other elected officials in my office,” he yelled, to the delight of his staffers—who can tell when the boss is really mad.

On March 27, both men swallowed hard and, with Silver, announced a framework for a budget deal. “Spitzer got a lot of what he wanted, we got enough,” said one union observer; the union let Bruno know he could close the deal. The eventual agreement restored, depending on how it was counted, $300 million in cuts, but Spitzer got a historic $1 billion reduction in Medicaid spending, pretty close to his compromise number. Spitzer seemed to be gliding toward an on-time budget. Details remained to be finalized, but there were four days before the April 1 budget deadline. Bruno, though, hadn’t played his final card. Silver, happy to recede into the background as “conciliator,” as he liked to call himself, knew the game. “The governor is dealing in a different league, a different climate, a different dynamic now,” Silver said. “He’s used to dealing with assistant attorneys general who he appointed.”

Bruno stalled. He knew Spitzer wanted to complete an on-time budget by the deadline; he didn’t want to eat up the legislative session. “Bruno’s feeling is, if Bruno keeps dragging him out on the details, Spitzer will have to capitulate on more of the details,” explains one frustrated Spitzer aide. The day before the budget deadline, the staffs negotiated all night. At 4:45 in the morning, budget director Francis e-mailed Spitzer: “We better start lowering expectations.”

“Outrage,” Spitzer insisted, “helps both create a conversation to frame the issues and generate an understanding.”

When I next spoke to Spitzer, I asked him about that early-morning e-mail. Spitzer wants you to know that he masters every detail. He brings to the job a frightening energy. He rises at five, reads four newspapers, runs a few miles (with a state trooper trailing on a bike), has three quick breakfast meetings. One aide tells me that Spitzer has never taken more than seven minutes to return his e-mails. I mention the story about his budget director’s 4:45 a.m. e-mail. “He left out an important fact,” Spitzer says. “I sent him one back at 4:46.”

That e-mail told the governor that negotiations with Bruno’s staff had collapsed. The governor knew by that time that one crucial issue for Bruno was school aid. Spitzer proposed a formula to distribute aid by need rather than political power; Bruno wanted a separate distribution for Long Island, which has eight Republican senators. To satisfy Bruno would cost $200 million.

“We shouldn’t spend this much on school aid,” Francis told Spitzer, urging a showdown.

Spitzer likes to say that his unacknowledged strength is his pragmatism. Spitzer picked up the phone and called Bruno, Silver, and the two other legislative leaders, Malcolm Smith, Democratic leader of the Senate, and James Tedisco, Republican leader of the Assembly, to a meeting that morning at 11 a.m. “It’s now that people will put their hearts on the table or not. This is our last shot,” he told his staff.

Spitzer decided that it had to be a secret meeting. “We’ll lock the doors,” said Spitzer. Secret meetings, of course, are the disappointing way business has always been done in the swamp.

By all accounts, Spitzer’s performance in the meeting was a masterful exercise of mediation. Even Bruno says, “It didn’t get done his way. He learned to compromise. And we got it done.” Spitzer emerged after almost seven hours with a budget printed so hastily legislators didn’t have a chance to read it before raising their hands when their leaders told them to.

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.

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.”

Spitzer has commissions going for improving everything from schools to public authorities to local governments. He just engineered tens of millions of dollars for legal-aid lawyers—the Times editorial page caught that, he proudly tells me. And he excitedly recalls staying up all night to nail down a settlement of World Trade Center insurance claims that had tied up construction for years. There’s development deals to do. Midtown, upstate. He can push his environmental agenda without Bruno. The list goes on. “Governing for me now is more about the authority we’ve got to change policy administratively,” he says. Spitzer is eager to get back to being idealistic and intolerant—back to being the smartest guy in the room, back to running the government without Bruno and Silver. “There is an unbelievable opportunity now to govern through the agencies, and that’s frankly what I’m really looking forward to,” he says. “At end of the day, that gives me a lot of comfort,” he says, though it sounds to me like he might mean consolation.

Lately, Spitzer has been steeping himself in biographies of great New York governors, Teddy Roosevelt and Al Smith. They, he tells me, were initially scorned in the press—Roosevelt was “excoriated” for having compromised on reform. History judged them differently.

Spitzer says he’s taking the long view. “I can be patient,” he says. To change everything Day One is no longer the imperative—he’s learned that much. “I’ll build coalitions, I’ll get it done,” he says. “I’ve got four years, I’m in no hurry.”

Spitzer checks the BlackBerry on his waist, pays the bill, and rushes out the door.

The Steamroller in the Swamp