Landslide Surfing

Eliot Spitzer moves fast down a Union Square sidewalk, ignoring the staggering stench of the dog run, ordering surprised teenagers to register to vote, and shaking hands with anyone who makes eye contact. It’s the day of the primary, and Spitzer is a lock, even at noon, but he doesn’t stop campaigning or moving.

He startles a woman eating out of a plastic container. “What have you got there?” Spitzer asks. “Noodles? We’re hungry. Where’d you get them?”

“Made ’em myself,” says Jeramy Zimmerman, a 34-year-old choreographer.

“That’s great,” Spitzer replies. “Did you vote yet?”

“Yes,” Zimmerman says, smiling. “And I voted for you!”

“Thanks!” Spitzer says, back in motion. “But you didn’t save me any noodles!”

“Hey, I voted for you,” she says, laughing. “One thing at a time!”

Spitzer could go to the beach for the next seven weeks. He could take up the clever suggestion of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and tell contributors, thanks, but $15 million in the bank is plenty, and, to show he truly believes in campaign-finance reform, refuse all other donations. Spitzer would still rout John Faso in the general election.

Unfortunately, he won’t do either. His temperament won’t allow him to slack off between now and November 7. Spitzer is by nature a man who wants it all: the noodles, the vote, the power. But it isn’t ego driving Spitzer’s determination to win as big a victory as possible. It’s a strategic choice. Spitzer isn’t running against Faso so much as he’s running to give himself the strongest possible hand when he reaches Albany. The general-election campaign is crucial to Spitzer, even without any semblance of a horse race. As A.G., Spitzer became a master in the uses of shame and publicity when fighting Wall Street corruption. He thinks a historically lopsided win can be equally effective in shaking up Albany. Politicians routinely talk about winning a “mandate,” but Spitzer thinks a blowout will set him up as being above party or politics.

“It matters enormously how you win,” he says, his deep-set eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. “The capacity to change the culture of Albany depends upon both the reality and the perception that the public has spoken with some sense of unity about the direction the change needs to move in. It’s important to build that sense of momentum, to build that argument, that the status quo not only is broken but that the public at large embraces the notion, and therefore we’ve gotta do something fundamental to change it.”

The conservative Faso will be more foil than opponent, a useful device in Spitzer’s positioning. “We’ll make the race a choice between what’s right and what’s right-wing,” says a senior Spitzer adviser. “Eliot talks about the simple rules: You ask what’s right or wrong. And he does what’s right.”

That kind of black-and-white distinction is swell for a campaign. But the establishment Spitzer will confront in Albany specializes in endless shades of gray.

The 50-foot steel arches that support Riverside Drive as it runs through Harlem are a favorite setting for car commercials and movie chase scenes. Tonight, however, they’re an interesting and slightly ominous backdrop for the Spitzer victory party on a closed-off block of West 132nd Street.

The candidate emerges from the side door of a barbecue restaurant and bounds up, smiling, onto a temporary stage. Behind the door, wedged into a crowd of politicians, is Shelly Silver, the leader of the State Assembly. When Spitzer speaks the words “If Albany will not bring change to us, then we will bring change to Albany!” Silver dutifully applauds.

He also seems to shrug. Silver, along with State Senate leader Joe Bruno, is one of the implacable powers of New York’s legendarily dysfunctional state government. It’s hard to believe that Bruno and Silver, masters of outlasting threats to their authority, are going to quake in the face of Spitzer’s big numbers.

“New York legislators can think of a million ways to stand up and agree with someone on their agenda, and then work the system so it can never happen,” says Mike Balboni, a Republican state senator from Long Island. “If Spitzer wins and takes the perceived mandate and puts that on his shoulders as he walks into the swamp of the Legislature, he’ll drown. But if you go out in a little boat and paddle through and see what’s doable and what’s not, that’s different. Politics is about people. It’s personalities.”

Balboni likes Spitzer and has called to offer his help on homeland-security initiatives. Spitzer called back and was “gracious,” which Balboni takes as an encouraging sign of the governor-in-waiting’s ability to play nice as well as tough.

A far more significant portent is that for much of the past year, a longtime friend of Spitzer’s, former investment banker Paul Francis, has been crisscrossing the state, sounding out policy wonks and key constituencies on Spitzer’s behalf. Francis, officially, is Spitzer’s chief policy adviser, and he has indeed been instrumental in crafting position papers on core issues like property taxes and Medicaid and laying out a legislative timetable for the first year of the Spitzer administration. But Francis is also Spitzer’s emissary, trying to build alliances that can be called on to support the new governor’s legislative initiatives.

And when Spitzer starts replacing his rhetoric with budget specifics, the cheers will give way to grumbling. Spitzer’s campaign has enjoyed nearly universal support from labor unions, but high on his governing agenda is closing hospitals and reducing Medicaid-reimbursement rates—moves sure to be unpopular with SEIU/1199, the politically astute health-care-workers union. Everyone is in favor of lower property taxes—but in order to do it, Spitzer may need to slash the state payroll; extending the nickel returnable-bottle deposit to water bottles isn’t enough. Reforming the wasteful state authorities? Well, law firms and underwriters that make millions from the authorities like things the way they are, and they all employ well-connected lobbyists. Saying there needs to be a “statewide solution” to education-funding problems sounds rational and equitable, but it makes upstate legislators scream, since the current formula is stacked against city schools.

“If Spitzer takes the perceived mandate and puts that on his shoulders and walks into the swamp, he’ll drown,” says a state legislator.

No matter how much advance work his aides do, the force of Spitzer’s intellect and personality will ultimately be what determines his success. “Eliot will outwork this last administration,” says an Albany insider. “He’ll put in seventeen-hour days, if that’s what it takes to close a deal. Pataki never wanted to do that.”

Right now, Spitzer is the electoral equivalent of the 2006 Mets (even though he is, tragically, a Yankees fan). Both Spitzer and the Mets jumped out to early, prohibitive leads and have done nothing but widen the gaps. Both are loaded with talent, but both have demolished inferior opponents. The underlying anxiety is that they’ll founder when challenged by a higher level of competition. The baseball playoffs start in October. Spitzer has to wait slightly longer to prove he’s really this good.


Landslide Surfing