Stale Mates

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.”

So where does the war end? A special session of the State Legislature this week is a prime opportunity for the two combatants to play nice and move forward on cutting property taxes and raising legislative pay. But the moment would likely be a pause in hostilities, not a cessation. Bruno is determined to embellish Spitzer’s image as a bully. Ask an administration official if Spitzer’s team has been doing anything to mend fences with Bruno and the response is, “We haven’t attacked.” Not yet, anyway.

Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki all had their spats with leaders of the Legislature. But those skirmishes, though personally heated, were about some policy issue—taxes, the death penalty, delivering the state budget on time. The Spitzer- Bruno war is about power. Underlying all of Spitzer’s strategy is his bedrock belief that a confrontation with the Legislature was inevitable—and necessary. Isn’t that why we elected him, to demolish the old, closed, corrupt way of doing business in Albany? Naturally the protectors of the status quo were going to scream and fight back with every weapon at their disposal. “Bruno feels threatened. It’s that simple,” a Spitzer aide says. With good reason: Spitzer declared early on that he was coming after Bruno’s Senate Republican majority, and he hasn’t let up. That’s why the bitterness won’t end—at least not until November 2008, but probably not ever.

Spitzer believes there’s good news for him below the surface of Republican-stoked furors. “On the driver’s-license issue, if you read the Latino press, or listen to Latino radio, Spitzer’s a hero,” a senior administration official says. “The Republicans look at the headlines the next day in places like the Post and feel good, but they’re playing a short-term game. We’re playing a long game. History is on our side.”

Maybe. But Spitzer can help himself sooner by emulating some of the less-emotive, more-traditional behind-the-scenes tactics that helped Bill Clinton climb out of a first-term ditch. The governor needs to quietly reach out to centrist legislators on both sides of the aisle with a more sophisticated array of carrots and sticks—some money for local parks and job creation here, some withdrawal of state offices there. Whether it’s property-tax cuts or campaign-finance reform, offer them something positive to talk about when they run for reelection. Spitzer doesn’t necessarily need Republicans to switch teams, just to be less lockstep in following Bruno’s anti-Spitzer party line. Because if this destructive struggle spreads, Aqueduct’s bettors will be only the first in a long line of losers.


Stale Mates