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Commentary By Fred Siegel

Road to Ruin

Cities, Cities New York City

It all seems so familiar: New York, once the Empire State, beset by a dysfunctional government and a dying upstate economy; a wildly popular, crusading attorney general seemingly on his way to a landslide gubernatorial victory by promising to revive the state’s flagging fortunes. Four years ago, Eliot Spitzer was the man riding in on the AG’s white horse; this year it’s Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo has no doubt carefully read Peter Elkind’s Rough Justice, if only to see how his own role in the former governor’s political demise is depicted. The “rough justice” in the title refers to the methods used by Spitzer as attorney general when he went after Wall Street executives, and also by Cuomo when, as Spitzer’s successor, he went after Governor Spitzer’s use of state troopers to subvert a rival. The method: Go after a guilty bigwig who has a lot to lose, try him in the press, squeeze him, and then force to him to quickly acknowledge his wrongdoing. The technique can be brutally effective. There’s no need for subtleties or convictions, just a big PR victory. Cuomo used the same methods to discomfit Governor Spitzer that Attorney General Spitzer had used to make himself governor.

Elkind’s book is primarily the story of Spitzer’s descent into the world of “high class” call girls. But there are two, more substantial but less developed, stories folded into the book’s melodramatic format. The first is the story of why New York’s government works best for the people employed by government. The second involves the danger of electing candidates who are merely intelligent while lacking character, experience, and integrity.

There are a number of strands in Elkind’s melodrama, none of which is plausible or well developed. In one, Spitzer is done in by his evil twin, Irwin. “Irwin” was the name staffers gave to Spitzer when he flew into one of his rages. But this theory of a split personality is so thin as to be a mere throw-in. The second, only hinted at, is that Spitzer was done in by sinister Wall Street bad guys such as Hank Greenberg, the man he had deposed as head of AIG, and Ken Langone of Home Depot, who had been sued by Spitzer for his role on the New York Stock Exchange’s compensation committee. Charges were eventually dropped against both men. But this is a barely developed argument by inferential suggestion. The third, and least plausible, theme is that Spitzer was done in by nefarious pols such as his arch-Albany enemy Joe Bruno, the dapper and corrupt Republican president of the state senate. This is the strand that should most interest Cuomo since it speaks directly to the problems he’ll face should he be elected.

After 12 years of the increasingly lethargic and ethically challenged administration of Republican governor George Pataki, who entered the statehouse in 1995 a man of modest means and left a millionaire in 2006, New York, burdened by a famously dysfunctional legislature, was ready for a new departure. Disgust with Albany, which had been hit by a series of legislative scandals, had reached new levels. The number of lobbyists had doubled during the Pataki years, property taxes were 70 percent above the national average, and the business climate was rated the worst, or next to worst, in the nation. Upstate New York, and particularly western New York, was dying. Spitzer shocked downstate when, campaigning for governor in 2006, he described part of New York as “Appalachian” in its poverty, but he wasn’t far off the mark. Spitzer, who was already being mentioned as a future president, ran on two Obama-like slogans: “total change” and “on day one everything changes.”

In his January 2007 inaugural speech, Spitzer decried, “The burdensome property taxes and the health care we can’t afford the jobs that have disappeared from our upstate cities and the schools that keep failing our children. .  .  . Like Rip Van Winkle,” he went on, “New York has slept through much of the past decade.” Spitzer proposed a billion-dollar development fund for upstate New York, more support for the State University of New York, which he saw as a potential economic engine, lower property taxes, and more school aid. But to pay for all that he had to slow the growth of health care spending, which was crowding out every other item in the budget. New York was spending more on Medicaid than Florida and Texas combined, and getting only mediocre care in return.

“Medicaid spending,” argued Spitzer’s friend and ally Lloyd Constantine, “foreclosed the possibility of progress in education, infrastructure construction and repair, and numerous social and environmental programs.” So Spitzer proposed, as a bargaining position, cutting the rate of Medicaid spending growth from its customary 8 percent a year (roughly four times the rate of inflation) to only one percent. That put him on a collision course with both Dennis Rivera, the head of the SEIU’s health care affiliate Local 1199, who became one of the key architects of Obamacare, and Rivera’s close political ally Senate President Joe Bruno. And thereby hangs a tale.

The trim, silver-haired Bruno, then 77, was a fixture in the Albany region which benefited richly from his patronage. The eponymous local baseball stadium is known as “the Joe,” and the local airport and Amtrak station are adorned with his busts. When upstate had lost so many jobs and Republicans that the GOP hold over the senate was threatened, the moderate conservative Bruno entered into a political partnership with Local 1199’s Rivera, whose hard left leanings have never prevented him from striking an advantageous deal for his hospital workers.

“1199,” Spitzer snarled, “owns Joe.” Spitzer rightly saw that their arrangement was bleeding the state fiscally. Bruno was already under federal investigation, and had Spitzer been patient, he could have just waited out the GOP leader. But after 1199 ran a richly funded ad campaign claiming that he was slashing health care spending, Spitzer, who didn’t have the nerve to confront the union directly, stepped up his campaign against Bruno. Spitzer’s staff provided the Albany Times-Union with records indicating that Bruno was illegitimately using the state’s helicopter for political fundraising expeditions. This was nothing new�Governors Cuomo and Pataki had acted similarly�but when Fred Dicker of the New York Post, the state’s most influential columnist, broke the story of “troopergate,” describing how Spitzer’s staff was misusing the state police to track Bruno’s activities, Spitzer, mocked by Bruno as a “spoiled brat,” never recovered politically. Even before he became famous as Client Number Nine, the guy who liked to have sex with his socks on, Spitzer was finished as a force in Albany.

In his rush to the White House, Spitzer never concealed his well-justified disdain for Albany’s hacks. In a famous exchange very early in his tenure, he told a legislator to get out of his way, saying, “I’m a f�ing steamroller.” The son of a wealthy man, Princeton and Harvard-educated, Spitzer was convinced that since, in the words of his communications director, “he was �smarter than all these sons of bitches,’ ” he didn’t need to come to terms with them. When one of his aides explained that the governor needed to share his success with the legislature, Spitzer, the perpetual sophomore, responded, “Why should I want to do that? Divvying up credit is a tawdry game. They should want to do it because it’s the right thing.”

Spitzer had been able to intimidate CEOs with a few well-placed headlines that drove down their share prices. But parochial pols were a different matter; they didn’t have reputations to protect. And besides, as New York’s political system had collapsed along with the upstate economy, half of the legislators won with 80 percent of the vote or more. A defeated incumbent who hadn’t already been indicted was a rarity.

“How,” asked Lloyd Constantine, who counted himself among the best and the brightest, “could such an A+ student of government fail to recognize that success as governor required skill in, and respect for, consensus building, conciliation, and compromise?” Good question. The best answer comes from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who explained that “an �extraordinary’ man has the right. that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea,” which might benefit all of humanity.

Andrew Cuomo will have no such problem. He was neither an A+ student nor devoid, like Spitzer, of practical political experience. Schooled in the trenches of Albany’s political battlefields as a young man when he served as his father’s enforcer, Andrew Cuomo starts off with a far better knowledge of the legislature’s folkways than Spitzer. But he’s also far more closely tied to 1199 than Spitzer ever was. Local 1199’s political organ, the Working Families party, made him attorney general.

Recently, Cuomo released a 224-page report on New York’s problems, the best part of which calls for a 2 percent cap on property tax increases and reads as if it had been drafted by the Empire Center’s E. J. McMahon, the leading critic of Albany’s fiscal follies. But when it comes to health care spending, the document becomes flaccid. Maybe that’s wise; maybe he’s looking to avoid a fight with his old allies even before he enters office. But sooner or later, if Cuomo is to govern effectively, he will have to take on the public sector spending monster that destroyed Eliot Spitzer as surely as did his overactive libido.