Monthly Archives: March 2008

Off the cuff

In all of the media coverage about incoming Gov. David Paterson, this observation from a Times-Union profile caught my eye:

According to lawmakers, lobbyists and others who have worked with him, Paterson can’t read small print or long passages. Perhaps to compensate, he has developed a prodigious memory. People who first meet him sometimes marvel at his ability to mentally retrieve a phone number or recite details of legislation. He can memorize speeches and has been known to cite passages from complex Russian novels like Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” to drive home a political point.

Paterson has degrees from Columbia University and Hofstra Law School, and he worked for the Queens district attorney’s office before being elected to the Senate in 1985. But his lack of sight prevented him from passing the bar exam, and he’s spoken of the need to improve test accommodations for the blind. Now he’ll have another test to grapple with, although it’s more about style than substance: the annual State of the State Message the governor traditionally gives in January, which historically has run as much as an hour or more.

If anything, at least we’ll get a governor who probably won’t be relying on speechwriters.

Great Lakes compact signed

As mentioned at TAP: New York Joins Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

Governor Designate David A. Paterson today announced that legislation has been signed authorizing New York State to join the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. The Compact is a multi-state agreement designed to protect, conserve, and improve the water resources of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin. The legislation was signed by Governor Spitzer on March 4, 2008…

“Governor Designate”… strange term for the weird times we live in. I remember inventing a new term “Governor Pre-Elect” for Spitzer, back when his poll numbers were so overwhelming and he was a shoo-in for election.

Paterson transition: The little things…

I keep noticing that the media delights in labeling David Paterson as “affable.” I think that’s going to be his official nickname; I say, good, if it keeps them from noticing that he’s never been known to be all that passive. (BTW, his full press conference today is here.)

Channel 9’s reports from Albany on Wednesday were a hoot especially when they kept referring to Joe Bruno as “now the lieutenant governor.” I can already tell that this is going to be a hair-tearing exercise to inform the clueless media that he is the Senate Majority Leader and only performs the duties of lieutenant governor. He is not the Lieutenant Governor. Okay?

Then I sat and watched John DeFrancisco refer to Paterson as “the acting governor.” He was referring to Paterson in the future tense, looking forward to the next three years, so I hope it was just a slip of the tongue and not some weird twisty GOPspeak of the sort that I thought DeFrancisco was well above.

This evening, I watched all Onondaga County legislators (except Barclay) lined up on a panel on Channel 9 to be interviewed about their views on Paterson. All of them were enthusiastic, as you might expect, that one of their own was coming in. (And I’ll bet Valesky is glad that nobody insisted on a lengthy statement on Spitzer the last couple days… he was probably hiding under his bed!) Al Stirpe, however, made a truly clueless statement when he said (not an exact quote) that Eliot Spitzer was “created” by the people of New York as a response to some sort of imaginary impression that Albany was “bad.” (You know, when after all Albany really is good and pure). Make no mistake, there’s still a wall of denial and disdain for public opinion lurking in the Capitol.

However (in a spirit of conciliation) I’ll say that this past week brought home that I’ve learned a lot about Albany and politics in general since starting this blog project several years ago. I won’t back down from the contention that legislative reform is critically necessary for the state’s future — and Paterson, I believe, really knows that — and I still have a copy of the Brennan Center Report on my hard drive. But it’s also true that the rawly political, unofficial power structures that exist in Albany sometimes do work in a positive way that protects what needs to be protected. Those structures are based on relationships that we as outsiders sometimes have trouble trusting (and sometimes, very rightly so). We saw the political law of the jungle in action this week… and I don’t think it was necessarily a foregone conclusion that Spitzer would go at the appropriate time. But many different political institutions and players instinctively reacted to a shock in a visceral way that I think ultimately defended, like white blood cells, the business of the state – the business we sent these people there to do. The high stakes were understood by all. The people of New York also participated in this short but painful process.

I have read comments from those outside our state who wonder at how New York managed to get through this crisis in such short order, when the rest of America is struggling with a great deal of corruption at the very top and nobody can do anything to get it away from partisanship and resolve it. Simply put it’s because New Yorkers knew precisely why they elected Spitzer and why they no longer wanted him. And the structures of the government here may be badly off-kilter and in need of reform, but maybe they are not crumbling structures and are worth saving.

Why we had an Eliot Spitzer for Governor is a good question to explore, but I most emphatically do not agree with Al Stirpe’s thoughtless and cynical dismissal of what ordinary New Yorkers feel and know. Eliot Spitzer is gone. His mandate goes on. We elected Spitzer because we do have the highest aspirations here in New York. For real. That’s who we are in the Empire State, and Assemblyman Stirpe had better never forget it. Then again, he’s a near-freshman and has a lot to learn, too. Maybe he should start by studying our state motto – which has rarely been more relevant than it was this week.

Eliot and I

I was in a meeting today when Spitzer resigned, and I’m glad. I think it would have been too sad to watch. So many hopes were pinned on him. He seemed to embody everything that was good and great about New York. It didn’t matter what part of the state you were from; he was supposed to be an Uber-Governor, the Great Reformer who would vanquish the Boss, and every tough word made voters’ hearts thrill a little bit – even when he seemed to be down. Spitzer was going to scatter the wrongdoers with his mighty arm, and New York was going to come back and be great again.

He and the people of New York had an understanding, one that was going to elevate both him and us. How rare and special that kind of understanding is. Or was. Or wasn’t.

Now that he’s gone, it’s not just a political career that has been ruined, not just an individual’s ego perhaps deflated, but in a way, the self-perception of New Yorkers as leaders and progressives may have deflated a little, as well. (I mean “progressive” in the old-fashioned sense it was used in the 19th century — industrially as well as socially.) This is why Spitzer was elected so handily. He didn’t have to make speeches or really sell himself: he himself was the speech.

Even before Monday’s bombshell, it was clear that things weren’t working out as everyone had hoped. There was last year’s Choppergate ethics scandal, and all of the infuriating political shenanigans attached; and his failure with the immigrant licensing issue. Those were the big things, but there were so many little things that went wrong, or off tracks, or just… “off.” I think back hard for a high point. State of the Upstate speech?

Initially, in 2005, it was Tom Suozzi who attracted my interest as a potential candidate for governor, even though Spitzer was already being highly touted, with even Chuck Schumer stepping out of his way. It was Suozzi, however, who had seized the issue of reform (in his clumsy way) early on. In any other year, Suozzi would have been a formidable candidate. He was too much in bed with the Conservative Party for my tastes, and had his own ethical baggage, but when he decided to primary Spitzer, I thought it was good. The richness and depth of New York’s political field offered ample opportunity for Spitzer to sharpen his all-important message and focus on the state’s tremendous problems before he even entered office. Suozzi’s presence in the race could only help shape Spitzer’s future greatness.

But Spitzer persistently refused to debate Suozzi, only giving in after Suozzi just wouldn’t drop it. After all, what did Spitzer need with debates when his poll numbers were so overwhelmingly secure? Upstaters only got to see one of these debates – at least, one that involved both candidates. It was a disappointment, and I consoled myself by voting for Suozzi and pretending I was sending Spitzer a little message. Cute, I know. But Spitzer was not the kind of guy who was capable of sensing such faint messages from the hinterlands. When it came to matters not involving political pugilism, he apparently lived by the poll, even when he could have lived a fuller political life past them. (He died by them, too.)

When Spitzer was due to choose a running mate, there was some idea that he might choose a woman, or maybe even an Upstater for balance. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a tantalizing possibility. But not only did he not pick an Upstater, his choice was (to me) doubly puzzling and disappointing. Why would he steal away Dave Paterson from the Senate? Paterson was supposed to become our Majority Leader, the successor to Bruno in the epic battle that Spitzer would personally lead on a white charger. Later, I understood why. It was more about positioning Paterson to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s job in 2008, once Hillary won the presidency, as she no doubt handily would. All ducks neatly in a row. The great work of a hero, it appeared, didn’t have anything to do with our little hopes for symbolic acknowledgement.

When Spitzer was elected, up went a transition website soliciting resumes from hopefuls all across New York. It was to reach out in a bipartisan manner to people from all over the state and even the country, in hopes of breaking Albany’s hold on such jobs. But the website’s submission form, apparently cribbed in haste from another website, also had a field for “Where would you be willing to relocate to…” with India and North Carolina as some of the choices. Those of us who noticed it had a good laugh, but…

Spitzer also had another website. It was called Spitzer 2010. What about Spitzer Today? I recall wondering.

I remember attending a Spitzer speech on saving cities, before the election. I was trying to get a feel for his ideas and rhetoric, what sort of inspiring inaugural speech he might give us, what grasp of imagery he had, what fresh ideas for Syracuse he might have. It felt like a very wonky speech, without much new in it. I thought this was just a style we would have to get used to, and wait and watch harder for the breaks of light in the rhetorical clouds. But those breaks of light never really came.

Spitzer, as governor, made the rounds of Upstate cities and to Syracuse. What ideas would he bring with him beyond the usual promises of aid and gifts? What was our role in his master plan? But nothing new was unveiled; he just met with local movers and shakers, proclaimed their pre-existing plans good — plans that didn’t always enthuse local alternative thinkers. “Right… carry on.” He also hired an “Upstate Czar,” something which appeared to be a good idea, and still does I suppose (I wonder what will become of Dan Gundersen now?). But I couldn’t help feeling that whenever Spitzer came here, he was not really paying attention. Of course he couldn’t; this is a huge state; but…

And the little disappointments unfolded against a constant state of war.

Hope after hope, continued waiting and hoping, and little disappointments here and there. And questions floating in, vague wonderings if Spitzer really “got it.” Of course he did. How could he not? All one needed to do was wait just a little while longer.

We had an understanding, Eliot and I.

Some observations on the New York State government crisis

Over the last 24 hours it has been fiendishly difficult to even find any really reliable news or even rumors about what’s happening in Albany (and Manhattan… of course). The reason why is that nobody really knows anything. Nobody can really know anything when you have a governor who has a very tight, almost hermetically sealed circle surrounding him. The average citizen started to learn more about this during last year’s Choppergate nonsense with Bruno, but now it’s painfully clear just how tiny Eliot Spitzer’s world in Albany really has become. It’s become something like a hostage standoff, with one person (and a couple of their closest advisors) holding a gun to New York’s government, screaming at the rest of the state (political opponents, political allies, media, citizens) to back off. Behavior that most New Yorkers have come to expect of the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker, and even the governor sometimes, but usually clothed in something resembling an issue of public business. Clothed in something other than raw self-concern (or more charitably, raw partisan concern).

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