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Steven Malanga
Steamrolled
Unlike his predecessor, Governor Spitzer loses his first Albany battle.
14 February 2007

George Pataki first ran for governor of New York as an inconspicuous freshman state senator, considered little more than the pawn of the state’s then most powerful Republican, U.S. Senator Al D’Amato. By contrast, Eliot Spitzer ran for governor after a celebrated tenure as state attorney general that won him a national reputation as a tough-guy prosecutor.

And yet, comparing their early tenures, it’s remarkable that the unassuming Pataki managed to prod his own rebellious party leaders to back his first-year agenda, while Assembly Democrats have steamrollered Spitzer, leaving him looking like a 98-pound legislative weakling. Unless Spitzer can grab control of his own party—and soon—he risks watching the Albany reform agenda he campaigned on go up in smoke.

Pataki and Spitzer faced similar challenges after winning the governorship. But Pataki clearly handled his better. More conservative as a senator than Albany’s GOP leadership, Pataki swiftly discovered that the Republicans who controlled the state senate would oppose him, especially on his tax-cutting agenda. When Pataki unexpectedly and narrowly beat Mario Cuomo, observers wondered who would really be Albany’s top Republican—Pataki or Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino.

But Pataki and his allies quickly put an end to the speculation. Just weeks after victory, Pataki engineered a coup that deposed Marino and put key allies in charge of the Senate. With his own party’s legislative leaders now behind him, Pataki was able to strong-arm the Democrat-controlled Assembly to endorse his first-year agenda, including an income-tax cut and reductions in state spending. It would be Pataki’s most productive year in office. Only in later years, when he abandoned the platform he’d run on and undercut his own allies in the state Senate, did Pataki’s agenda falter.

After his election last November, Spitzer had everything that Pataki lacked: an already established reputation as a brawler and a huge mandate from voters. The state’s political press left no doubt who’d be in charge of Albany. It was only a matter of when, not whether, Spitzer, as the new head of the state’s Democratic Party, would depose Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and install his own allies in leadership positions in the state capital. But Spitzer balked, either because he feared to take on Silver, whose free-spending, pork-barrel-driven, “let’s make a deal” style of politics exemplifies what’s wrong with Albany, or because he didn’t think the Assembly boss would dare defy him.

But Silver quickly broke with Spitzer when the Assembly appointed one of its own, Long Island Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli, as state comptroller, in defiance of a Spitzer-backed independent commission that had recommended three more qualified candidates, none an assemblyman or an Albany insider. Given that the comptroller supposedly is the state’s auditor and watchdog, the Assembly’s message couldn’t be clearer: It’s still business as usual in Albany, where legislators hand out plum assignments based not on merit but on political connections, and where the fox gets to guard the chicken coop.

Spitzer’s response to this early challenge has been feeble. He’s threatened to work harder to win Democratic control of the State Senate, so he can use it as an ally against the Assembly. In other words, Spitzer wants to set one house of the legislature potentially controlled by his party against another house of the legislature already controlled by his party. That’s a party divided against itself—and a new governor grasping at straws.

Since the next legislative elections aren’t until November of 2008, it would be nearly two years until Spitzer could realistically take control of the Senate—unless he could get two senators to switch parties, which he’s proposed, but which is a long shot at best. And if he has to wait two years, his reform agenda could well be dead; governors never have a better chance to enact their platforms than when newly in office and fresh off a landslide victory. What they can’t do when their political capital is at its greatest, they’re unlikely to achieve later.

Polls show that the public expected Spitzer to use tough-guy tactics to take on Albany reform, and especially to tame an unruly legislature. Is it possible that voters got less than they bargained for with their new governor?

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More by Steven Malanga:
Welcome to the Jungle
Trolling for Dollars
March Labor Madness
More . . .
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