Spitzer on a Rampage

Illustration by Darrow

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.”

How he keeps doing it, however, is subject to improvisation. Though his enemies are trying to caricature Spitzer as a one-note rage-aholic bully, the governor is freelancing to a degree that surprises, and sometimes unnerves, even his allies. “There’s a bit of play-as-you-go with Eliot,” one administration official says. “I’m not so sure the rationale has been completely determined on all these things … Is this going to be scorched earth, or is this take a couple of villages, send the message, and then regroup? Eliot hasn’t decided yet.”

The effects, however, are obvious: Legislators are freaking out. Previously anonymous members are suddenly in a glaring spotlight, thanks to Spitzer’s blasts (“I’ve always wanted New York Magazine to call me!” one assemblyman shrieked to me last week). They’re also being bombarded by calls and e-mails from constituents mad about the comptroller maneuverings. Legislators are alarmed, and very suspicious that Spitzer is coordinating the hostility. “Legislators may not like the methods,” says Lieutenant Governor David Paterson. “But they’re getting the message the public is paying attention.”

“Nixon once said it’s helpful when your opponents think you’re crazy,” says an Assembly member who has been on the receiving end of Spitzer’s venom. “But Eliot’s outbursts have all the airs of spontaneity when you hear them. He can’t help himself, but then he rationalizes it as a tactic … This is not about reform; it’s about power.”

Well, yeah. Spitzer’s closest colleagues see no reason for him to lower the volume, and say his outbursts are both emotionally sincere and entirely premeditated. “Eliot knows exactly what he’s saying when he’s saying it,” says Lloyd Constantine, a lawyer and Spitzer mentor who’s signed on as the governor’s senior adviser. “I’ve never seen a person more in command of himself.” And even as he’s been ranting in public, Spitzer has been playing a subtler hand, holding private meetings with legislators who, in the twelve years of George Pataki’s reign, rarely got an audience with the governor (though even some of these Spitzer chats, like a session with Democratic assemblywoman Cathy Nolan of Queens, have degenerated into bickering). The next move in this game of psychological warfare will be stroking legislators. “There are different pressure points,” the governor says. “The most I can say is that everybody wants to be Teddy Roosevelt, and I’ve used that metaphor. But there are also times to be Lyndon Johnson, who knew how to get things done.” Blunter tools are also being discussed, including TV ads to counter an expected blitz by the health-care unions, which oppose Spitzer’s budget. “Eliot fights fire with fire,” says a senior Spitzer strategist.

Spitzer is also trying to exploit a fascinating paradox: Uniting to elect a comptroller has emboldened individual legislators to strike out on their own. They’re freshly puffed up with a determination to prove that they’re smart, too, and they’re bitter, especially on the Assembly side, that Sheldon Silver hasn’t protected them better in public when they’ve been bashed as the most dysfunctional legislature known to man.

“Shelly’s never been able to go outside and craft a message that made the public understand what we were doing,” an upstate assemblyman says. “Look, he’s a superb negotiator, and we were always satisfied to win the negotiation and lose the press release. Turns out we were wrong. There’s been a cumulative impact. He was nowhere in the press today defending his members. I don’t think he knows what to do.” In this environment, even the previously unthinkable—that Silver could be toppled as Speaker—has become plausible. “Part of the equation is Shelly’s performance,” an Assembly member says. “The danger for him is that the same forces Shelly used to control the comptroller race—county leaders like Vito Lopez in Brooklyn and Joe Crowley in Queens—will try to come in and control the Speaker race.”

There isn’t any Speaker’s race—at the moment, anyway. The governor would be satisfied to loosen Silver’s grip on the Assembly and to shift the Senate majority to the Democrats before November 2008. “There are levels at which everything is following the course we had gamed out,” Spitzer says, “and there’s twists and turns that are new. That’s what makes it exciting.” Yet stoking public anger and turning legislators into relatively free agents is easy compared with reaping the whirlwind he’s unleashing.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Spitzer on a Rampage