Spitzer Seeks Redemption; Owes For What We Endured
The self-initiated resurrection of former Governor Eliot Spitzer continued with an appearance on the Today show, where he was interviewed by Matt Lauer. Attention was predictably paid to his relationship with prostitutes, which when publicized by Federal agents (Client No. 9) caused him to resign as governor in order to avoid impeachment.
As state law provides, he was replaced by Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, Spitzer’s personal choice for that office, which is largely honorific except for the power of succession. Numerous black (and white) Democrats would have preferred Leecia Eve, a graduate of Harvard Law School (who passed the New York State bar examination), and a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary.
Leecia was regarded as intelligent and attractive, and would bring diversity to the ticket in terms of gender and geography. All the other candidates were downstate males.
The choice of Mr. Paterson for Lieutenant Governor was the first of Mr. Spitzer’s strange decisions.
What has been ignored in the tale of personal renewal is the fact that Governor Spitzer was only technically brought down by his fling with Ashley Dupre in Washington’s Hotel Mayflower. Oddly enough, that hotel shares a city block with a building which the new real estate baron Eliot Spitzer just bought for $180 million. The money was earned by his developer-father, Bernard.
The real reason Spitzer felt compelled to resign was that no one in Albany, including Democrats, could stand him. His bizarre behavior, public cursing, insults to staff members and legislators, threats of reprisals, grandiosity and inability or unwillingness to conduct himself as an adult, had totally alienated all those who supported him at his inauguration on January 1, 2007. Even at that ceremony, he publicly insulted his predecessor, George Pataki, who was present to honor the new governor, by likening him to Rip Van Winkle, the Washington Irving character who had slept for 20 years. Despite his failures of temperament and inability to lead, Governor Spitzer did not steal from the state, engage in private practice, or require gifts from others.
He voluntarily and substantially reduced the amount of money he would accept from a single campaign contributor.
It would be painful and unnecessary to list the foolish things the Governor said and did during his 14-month tenure. By this, we do not mean policy differences, because on some issues he was right, far ahead of the ethically-challenged legislature.
When the prostitution scandal became public, the Republicans, seeing blood, demanded the governor’s removal. The Assembly would, if it cared to, first have to vote to impeach, which would have been followed by a trial in the Senate, which at the time was under the control of Republicans, led by Senator Joseph Bruno, who had been a particular target of Governor Spitzer’s wrath. The governor had used state troopers to document his Republican rival’s alleged misuse of a state plane, and set up a contrived FOIL request for the Albany Times-Union demanding the airplane’s travel records. Bruno was using the plane with Spitzer’s consent, Governor Pataki having previously grounded him over a political dispute.
When faced with the possibility of impeachment, Spitzer went to Speaker Sheldon Silver, ruler of the Assembly, and asked what the Democratic Assembly would do about the Republican demand for his political scalp.
It is reported, and we were not there so it cannot be said with certainty, though it is widely believed, that Silver told Spitzer that most Democrats would vote to impeach. One version was that there were only seven sure votes for Spitzer. Faced with this prospect, the Governor resigned on March 12. Paterson was sworn in on March 17, the day he disclosed his own marital infidelities (and his wife’s) to the public, thus stepping on his own story in the first of a series of errors of judgment.
In fact, it is unlikely that Spitzer would have been removed from office if his only sin were his liaison with a prostitute. Distasteful as it may be, voluntary cohabitation by consenting adults, even with a financial inducement, is not a particularly awful crime. The decision of the Federal authorities not to prosecute Spitzer for violation of the Mann Act or some other federal statute was a sound judgment in the circumstances The Feds made sure that the money came from Spitzer personally and not the taxpayers.
The problem was that after a contentious first year, nobody in Albany wanted him around, and the legislature was willing to take a chance with Paterson, who had been a senator for decades. The sex scandal was an excuse for the Democrats to get rid of someone they loathed. The situation resembles somewhat the plight of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who said in his statement of resignation in 2004 that “I am a gay American.” Yes, Jim McGreevey was a gay American; there are millions of them. But he was forced to resign because he was a crook, and stepping down voluntarily was a way of avoiding prosecution. This may be an early case of someone asserting his gayness for his own political advantage, if you overlook straight people trying to avoid military service.
Eliot Spitzer was not accused of misusing the public trust. However, the way he conducted himself as governor dashed the hopes of millions of people who had voted for him as a reformer. His behavior made it impossible for him to accomplish many of the good things he wanted to do. David Paterson does not appear to have a reform agenda, but he did win early popularity by calling for fiscal restraint, a position he later abandoned under pressure from Speaker Silver and public employee unions.
This article is an attempt to tell what really happened, in a situation where most of the lines spoken by participants in the drama fall short of the whole truth. That may be a political necessity for the players, but there are some columnists who consistently try to investigate and report. We would like to cite a partial list, in alphabetical order: Wayne Barrett, Elizabeth Benjamin, Fred Dicker, Michael Goodwin, Bill Hammond, and Dan Janison. There are many fine journalists who cover Albany and City Hall who we intend to cite later, so please do not take offense. My years outside public office have given me new respect for the value of independent criticism, since government so largely controls the flow of information as to what it does.
It was a political axiom that the opportunity for reform comes once in a generation. We hope that, despite the failure of 2007, it will not be necessary to wait until 2031 for a refreshing tide to clean the swamps of Albany.
One aspect of the business we have chosen is that, sordid as some of it may be, politics is fascinating to watch.