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Road to Ruin

Client Number Nine had other problems, too

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By FRED SIEGEL
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“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.

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