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Meet the new boss: Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer at a rally in Schenectady.

Ready For a New New York

Enthusiastic Albany Democrats, skeptical Republicans, cautious advocacy groups and upstate politicians contemplate an Eliot Spitzer administration

 

Do You Believe in Day One?

Eliot Spitzer has a mandate from the people of New York state, and that is an understatement. With nearly 70 percent of the vote, Spitzer won the governorship by the largest majority of any candidate in modern state history. The euphoria and hope surrounding Spitzer are astounding, and now that he has been swept into power the question remains: Can he possibly live up to expectations? Can Spitzer fight the good fight as governor? Can he crack the three-man-in-a-room system that has ruled Albany for years?

You surely haven’t forgotten the promise of Spitzer’s campaign slogan: “Day One, everything changes.” But is it a promise that is to be believed?

State Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) certainly does. “My expectations of the new governor are so high, I don’t think they could be higher,” he says. “He is bright, honest and, most importantly, he will always do the right thing. I think he will take on the Legislature as he has taken on the stock market and the insurance industry.”

And so does Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton: “When we talk about everything changes Day One, I’m talking literally. I believe Eliot will move to change things as quickly as possible.”

Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany), although hopeful, says reality may make Spitzer’s promise more of a pipe dream.

“There will be some euphoria,” says McEneny. “After 12 years out in the cold, it is always nice to get into the parlor, and then we will see. When I look at Spitzer’s ads, my first thought is, ‘I can’t wait for Day Two if we are going to change it on Day One.’ And that’s great. I suppose if Wall Street is booming, that might be possible. And what if it’s not? Who are you going to blame it on? The Legislature doesn’t share my vision or the economy doesn’t meet expectations? It could involve a, ‘Sorry, I was overly optimistic.’ ”

The wait for Spitzer has seemingly been a march toward coronation day. Some state offices and bureaus have ground to a halt, with heads waiting to see where Spitzer will lead them, wondering if the ax will fall on their necks.

Meanwhile, politicians and insiders have tried to cozy up to the Spitzer camp, looking to be a part of what is assumed will be a powerful, change-driven administration. As Stratton put it, “People are supportive. People working for a Republican administration are all of a sudden getting a change of heart. Some are trying to convince us that they may be Democrats at heart. It is part of the survival instinct. I think it is going to be interesting. But it is similar to the massive change in 1995 when Pataki was unexpectedly elected.”

The question remains: How much will really change in the immediate aftermath of Spitzer’s storming of the governor’s mansion? According to McEneny, one of the first, most noticeable changes may be the makeup of the Legislature.

This guy's sharp: Spitzer meets a young supporter

“It will begin with the People magazine-type of approach,” he says. “There will be a focus on the first family and the time they spend in Albany. Stuff like that. Watching how the governor conducts himself in a role he didn’t have before. And then they will look at the personalities to go into the government. Who is going to stay? Who is going to go? How many Assembly people might be interested in leaving the Assembly to go into the Sptizer administration? Who fills the jobs? Who leaves? Then it will get heavier toward the third and fourth weeks of January when it gets into the business of the budget and fun things like that.”

Breslin agrees. “This is a changing of a 12-year regime. He is going to go slowly. He won’t throw people into positions and kick people out. He will be deliberate, thoughtful and pick good people. Some will be surprised that the people he picks will not all be Democrats. And then, come budget time, he will have some serious, serious discussions with legislative leaders.”

According to insiders, Spitzer’s handling of two recent scandals, first the scandal involving Comptroller Alan Hevesi, then the DWI charge against his campaign manager, has worried some in the Democratic Party. Some think that Spitzer has reacted to these scandals with swift righteousness in disregard to the actual guilt of the accused. Spitzer reportedly reacted to the news that his campaign manager Ryan Toohey was charged with DWI by insisting Toohey would not be part of the transition team and, reportedly, docking his pay.

Some say that Spitzer’s retraction of his endorsement of Hevesi was quick and uncounseled, and that the retraction may have started a rift between Spitzer and Democratic party heads, including Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Breslin insists that Spitzer’s reactions have been, overall, reassuring.

Speculation also has been raging that the time Spitzer has spent helping other campaigns because of his commanding lead in his own race has drawn the ire of Republican leaders. According to the New York Post, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Brunswick) gave Spitzer a call to demand he stop campaigning against Republican senators who may be in jeopardy. The Post reported, “ ‘Bruno told Eliot that if he wants to have good relations, he’s got to steer clear of both those races,’ said a high-level Democratic official.”

But Breslin very much doubts either majority leader plans on stonewalling Spitzer. “I don’t think either house is going to dictate to Governor Spitzer how they are going to handle things. I think that Spitzer’s going to have a lot of say about how this state does business, and I think if anyone underestimates him they do it at their own peril.”

However, McEneny and Breslin do not see eye-to-eye with Spitzer on one major issue, and that is the death penalty. “The death penalty, to me . . . that’s a line in the sand. There are no ‘Yeah, buts’ on that,” says McEneny.

But both of the legislators note there is disagreement within the party on the issue and say there is plenty of time to come to common ground.

“Sure, there are areas of disagreement,” says Breslin. “But this state is languishing, and he, by sheer force of will and mandate, will change the way we do business. I’ve known him for 10 years, and he just always seems to do the right thing. He has never disappointed me.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


A Changing Republican Role

Republican scandals were plentiful during this election cycle, so when reports surfaced alleging that the New York state comptroller—a Democrat—misused taxpayer dollars, it breathed new life into the state GOP. As the “Driving Mrs. Hevesi” scandal unraveled, Republican leaders carefully monitored Eliot Spitzer’s reaction. They stood ready, with harsh words and television advertisements, to pounce on any action deemed a misstep.

Less than one week after the scandal broke, Spitzer defended Hevesi during the first gubernatorial debate, calling the comptroller “an honest, stupendous public servant.”

Republican leaders view this initial support of Hevesi as grounds for questioning Spitzer’s message of reform. “When he had an opportunity to start Day One a little earlier, he didn’t do it,” says John Nolan, chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee.

That argument didn’t resonate with the majority of voters, however, especially since Spitzer later withdrew his endorsement of Hevesi and, in his role as attorney general, ordered the comptroller to place an additional $90,000 in an escrow account pending investigation. That’s above the thousands Hevesi had paid to the state already.

Supporters of the governor-elect argue that Spitzer’s reactions to Hevesi are yet another example of his ability to set aside partisan politics in favor of justice, for which Spitzer has received statewide popularity and acclaim. Although the public may view Spitzer’s tenure as attorney general as one in which he single-handedly revitalized the office, Nolan says Spitzer may be “in for a rude awakening” if he tries to continue the one-man act as governor.

“He’s got an awful lot to learn,” Nolan says. “He took on Wall Street and supposedly he came away with their scalp, but can he do that with the whole state and start going around intimidating [Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon] Silver, intimidating [Senate Majority Leader] Bruno? I don’t think so. He may be the governor, and you certainly have to respect him for his position, but that doesn’t mean the other two people have to give up their particular role in government.”

The Democratic sweep of top state positions on election night thrust Bruno into a new informal title: The most powerful Republican in New York state government. Although the net power of the Republican Party has been deflated, Bruno may prove critical in keeping afloat the Republican agenda as one of the “three men in a room.”

Regardless, the dynamics of the “room” and relationship between the three men in it are certain to change. Whereas Bruno currently sits across the table from a governor who is a fellow Republican, he soon will find his party in the minority. GOP leaders can only speculate about the effect that change will have on the Senate’s power and the Republican agenda.

Matthew Maguire, spokesman and director of communications for the Business Council of New York State, says his organization is optimistic. He says the Business Council was encouraged by how both Spitzer and John Faso made the concerns of the business community priorities of their campaigns.

Although the traditionally right-leaning organization is most often associated with the Republican agenda and GOP candidates, Maguire generally has been supportive of Spitzer’s candidacy. (He says the Business Council has maintained a strong working relationship with Spitzer, in his role as attorney general.)

“We are heartened by the fact that the campaign has been dominated, to a significant extent, by these economic policy issues,” Maguire says of Spitzer, specifically. “He has talked clearly and consistently about our issues: about taxes, about creating jobs, about costs of energy, about costs of health care.”

Has Spitzer put too many issues on the table? Nolan says he’s skeptical that Spitzer will be able to make good on all of his promises, especially in the short time frame he’s proposed.

“If he’s got some magic wand, it might work,” Nolan says.

Republicans are scratching their heads about the fiscal practicality of such a large agenda, as well. Fixing New York’s school-funding problems will take billions alone, says Nolan, who wonders aloud where such large sums of money will be generated from, especially if Spitzer plans to make good on his promise not to raise taxes.

Michael Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State, is more than skeptical of Spitzer’s promise to not raise taxes. He insists Spitzer’s gubernatorial reign will include tax increases.

“In all honesty, I’m sure he’ll try to block tax cuts,” Long says, also adding spending cuts and the creation of more charter schools to the list of major issues he believes Spitzer will avoid as governor.

“My hope is that the [Republican] Senate will become the watchdog for the taxpayers of the state of New York,” Long says, “and will force Eliot Spitzer’s hand to create economic growth, encourage our young people to not move out of New York, and create and encourage businesses to come here.”

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


Upstate, Waiting

Eliot Spitzer’s TV ads were shock-ing. This was not because they were negative, but because they directly addressed one of the main fears of New Yorkers: The state’s best days are in the past. Spitzer would, he promised, bring back the glory days of technological innovation and economic prosperity. You might be tempted to dismiss this as Reaganesque showboating, but you would be in the minority: A large majority of voters took Spitzer at his word on election day—including millions of people living upstate, in Central and Western New York, or in the Southern Tier, where the economy is, frankly, in terrible shape.

To many folks in New York City, “upstate” is everything north of the Bronx. Economically, however, “upstate” is almost everything north and west of the Hudson Valley. And it’s doing badly, from Schenectady to Buffalo, and from the Canadian border to the Southern Tier cities of Binghamton and Jamestown. Most of New York has been losing jobs and population for decades; there are a few generations that have grown up without knowing the “old” New York Spitzer referenced in his ads.

As Spitzer himself explains (in a position paper): “Look around our cities—especially upstate—and you can see signs of distress. You find far too many vacant lots, abandoned factories, boarded-up homes and empty storefronts. . . . You know we have a problem when the eight cities with the highest property tax rates in the entire United States are located in Upstate New York.”

Upstate is ready for the attention, and eager for Spitzer to take over. “With the election of Spitzer, there will be a new sheriff in Albany. And he’s coming with a strong mandate from New Yorkers for change.” That’s not a Democratic politician speaking—it’s the editorial voice of Rochester’s Gannett daily, the Democrat & Chronicle. They add that “much of that change must focus on upstate New York, where too many people and jobs are still leaving in droves.”

“With new focus and leadership,” the editorial concludes, “build the new Empire State.”

Located about 70 miles southwest of Rochester, Hornell is a small city of almost 9,000 people in mostly rural Steuben County. It used to be an important transportation hub in the days of the Erie Railroad; the former Erie shops are now used by Alstom, the European railcar manufacturer.

Hornell’s mayor, Shawn D. Hogan, has held his job for 20 years. In fact, he’s the longest-tenured mayor in the state. Hogan was also an early supporter of Eliot Spitzer, and fully expects the governor-elect to deliver on his campaign promises.

“I’ve known Eliot Spitzer since 1995 or 1996.”

After he lost in the 1994 Democratic attorney-general primary, and Republican Dennis Vacco was elected in the general election, Spitzer visited Democratic elected officials around the state. When he visited Hogan, he explained his desire to run for the attorney general’s office in 1998 and expressed his hopes for the future of the state.

“I signed up right there. I said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

After lining up Hogan’s support, Spitzer didn’t just disappear. “He’s always kept in contact with me,” Hogan explains. Spitzer visited Hornell a number of times over the last decade, the mayor adds, always very interested in the local economy. This, Hogan explains, is why Spitzer is so well-versed in upstate’s problems, and why Spitzer’s briefly controversial comparison of upstate to Appalachia rang so true.

“I cheered when he said parts of New York were worse than Appalachia,” Hogan says. “I remember when Bobby Kennedy helped get the Southern Tier included in the Appalachian Regional Commission in the 1960s. . . . And there was a hell of a lot more industry” in the region then, he says. Spitzer’s recognition of the obvious was, he says, “heartening.”

Interestingly, Hogan points out that, owing to the presence of Alstom and the local businesses that supply it, Hornell has a relatively vibrant economy. “It’s a bright spot in the Southern Tier.”

He adds, however, that the economic bright spots in Western New York are few and far between and often attributable to luck or circumstance.

“Politicians [like me] can take some credit for our economic development work,” he says, “but there can be a lot of luck involved.”

Hogan relates a telling story. Alstom was looking to expand its operations and build the shells for its rail passenger cars in the United States. It didn’t happen—the shells are manufactured in Brazil and shipped to Hornell for assembly—but the company didn’t even consider doing the work in Hornell. Alstom had been looking at a location in Tennessee for the expansion because New York’s energy costs are so high.

Lowering energy costs and high property taxes, making health care affordable, and reforming the workman’s compensation system are just a few of the problems Hogan lists as crippling upstate.

“It’s an ugly stew,” the mayor concludes. Spitzer, he says, is the “one chef” to fix it.

“Eliot and his staff are going to come up with a plan.”

Upstate is more than willing to give the governor-elect a chance. As the Syracuse Post-Standard editorialized the morning after the election: “Now comes the real challenge. . . . But if the new governor is honest, open and accountable, and as hard-working and effective as he was as attorney general—better days are ahead for the resident of New York state.”

—Shawn Stone

sstone@metroland.net


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