ALBANY-”Three men in a room” has become shorthand for describing he state’s insular, insulated style of government.
And then there’s the Capitol’s fourth source of institutional power, the one who wears Bermuda shorts and bolo ties, collects guns and would rather be feared than loved: Fredric Uberall Dicker.
“As soon as somebody knows what the three men in a room are doing, it’s Fred Dicker,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman. “He’s the fourth man.”
Mr. Dicker is the New York Post’s man in Albany, and has been-with one brief break -since 1982. Far more than a typical newspaper reporter, he can drive the agenda of the Capitol and elevate or, more often, bring down its inhabitants. He has many sources, and not so many friends. Last year, his reporting infuriated both the Senate Majority Leader, Joseph Bruno, and the Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, to the point that they have stopped appearing regularly on his influential Albany-based radio show. He has been Governor George Pataki’s most potent critic for a decade, and has emerged as one of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s key boosters as Mr. Spitzer prepares to run for Governor in 2006.
Mr. Dicker, who is about to turn 61, has enraged so many people in Albany it’s surprising that nobody has used physical violence against him-hold on, actually that did happen, back in 1987.
“I see myself,” Mr. Dicker said judiciously, “as being an equal-opportunity prick.”
Back to that 1987 incident, one which tells you a great deal about Fred Dicker. The setting was a drab state office building near the Capitol. Mr. Dicker was brimming over with outrage that he-a taxpayer and a member of the Fourth Estate-was being kept out of an Assembly office in a public building. He explained this persistently to the Assembly Speaker’s chief of staff, Norman Adler. Mr. Adler finally shoved him to the floor and-according to Mr. Dicker and a television reporter he brought along-threatened to kick him in the, er, crotch. A television crew and a photographer were on hand to record the confrontation.
” Post Albany Chief Beaten,” was the Post’s front-page headline the next day, with an image of Mr. Dicker’s bald pate and Mr. Adler towering over him.
“He has refined the art of being obnoxious in the search of information,” Mr. Adler, now a prominent lobbyist, told The Observer recently. “That’s why he ended up on the ground.”
Mr. Adler lost his job as a result of the incident. Mr. Dicker reprinted the Post’s cover on T-shirts and sold them around the Capitol to cover printing costs.
On a recent Monday morning, Mr. Dicker met an interviewer at 8 a.m. at a modest cafeteria in the state government complex. (Mr. Dicker referred to the place as “that pathetic little dump that passes as a ‘deli’ and reminds visitors day in and day out how low New York has sunk.” The man has a blunt opinion about everything.) He wore a red-pinstripe shirt with a deep red tie, green wool Orvis pants with leather lining for the pockets, and a black beret atop his long, narrow head.
Monday is Mr. Dicker’s day, the morning on which his weekly column appears in the Post and tosses a bomb of unpredictable size into Albany’s political bunker. This week’s was a medium-sized one: The column led with the scoop that the Governor’s former communications director, Michael McKeon, who is still an advisor to Mr. Pataki, had recently been arrested for drunk driving. While the piece became the talk of the small town that is Albany, other recent stories have echoed more loudly: For example, Mr. Dicker’s story about the expensive accommodations the state made for Mr. Bruno’s brother, a state employee, and his piece about the discount that Mr. Silver got on a hotel suite in Las Vegas.
To Mr. Dicker’s admirers, his relentless reporting, with its heavy reliance on anonymous sources and its utter lack of boundaries, is a healthy antidote to Albany’s clubbiness.
“He is just tough and good,” said former Governor Mario Cuomo, whom Mr. Dicker compared to the deranged Captain Queeg in a front-page story on Election Day 1986, when Mr. Cuomo won a second term. “Of course, he was trying to cut my throat most of the time I was in office.”
Not everyone, however, is so easygoing about Mr. Dicker’s criticisms. Pierre Rinfret, a Republican who ran a disastrous campaign against Mr. Cuomo in 1990, has a Web page comparing Mr. Dicker to Josef Goebbels. A prominent Albany figure compared Mr. Dicker to Joseph McCarthy-and insisted on remaining nameless because “he can ruin careers.” And Mr. Dicker has a testy relationship with the rest of the Albany press corps, whose members he sometimes attacks on his radio show, in violation of the press’ tacit nonaggression pact.
“He’s not a fellow who wants to be liked,” said a former Post colleague, George Arzt.
His competitors blend an admiration for his scoops with a suspicion of his methods and a resentment of his open disdain for some of them.
“Fred’s phaser is always set on ‘kill,’” said Jordan Rau, Newsday’s former Albany bureau chief and a sometime antagonist of the Post columnist, who added that he admired much of Mr. Dicker’s work. “Albany is a bully’s paradise, because everyone there only respects strength and toughness, and Fred is the bully’s bully.”
Others question his accuracy. Mr. Dicker’s reliance on anonymous sources and his sources’ inevitable agendas means that he’s sometimes spectacularly wrong. One Albany insider actually catalogued all of Mr. Dicker’s weekly columns for the last three years and checked his predictions, giving him a success rate of just over 66 percent. Amid the scoops were a few that didn’t pan out: Mr. Dicker predicted that Assemblyman Roger Green’s indictment for faking travel vouchers would broaden into a massive state-government scandal, and reported to the very end that Senator Charles Schumer was likely to run for Governor in 2006. (Mr. Schumer chose not to run.)
Mr. Dicker says all his reporting is based on what his sources tell him, and that he has “a pretty good average” with his predictions.
But Mr. Dicker isn’t just a skilled muckraker: He’s a political institution in his own right, a one-person media empire whose reach includes his column, a television gig with Albany’s CBS affiliate and an hour-long daily radio show with a small, influential audience. His column routinely generates a follow-up from the Associated Press Albany bureau and regularly drives news coverage. And his likes and dislikes can help make or break careers.
At the moment, Mr. Dicker likes Mr. Spitzer quite a bit. On a recent television appearance, he described Mr. Spitzer as “unbeatable” in the 2006 gubernatorial race.
“He gives you the sense of brilliance,” Mr. Dicker said.
Mr. Spitzer, a regular Dicker reader, returned the compliment.
“Fred is an intrepid reporter who, over the years, has unearthed stories that have shaped the landscape of politics in Albany,” he said through a spokeswoman.
Mr. Dicker’s own politics defy easy categorization. He likes guns and public access to government, dislikes taxes but approves of Mr. Spitzer’s war with Wall Street. He’s a fan of Edmund Burke and just finished Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which he very much enjoyed. (“The Calvinist concept of a ‘calling’ I think makes some sense,” he remarked over a sad-looking sandwich: “the concept that your everyday job takes on transcendent religious significance.”) A sticker reading “Fight Terror. Support Israel.” marks the door to the boxy Capitol office he shares with his deputy, Ken Lovett; on the wall is a huge picture of a stubbly Mr. Dicker, machine gun across his chest, grimacing in a Nicaraguan jungle during a visit to the contras.
Mr. Dicker’s political roots are even muddier. He was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the Congress for Racial Equality at Long Island University, and was dispatched to the University of Massachusetts by the leading theorist of American communism, Herbert Aptheker. There, Mr. Dicker wrote a master’s thesis that touched on the career of the Soviet spy Alger Hiss-and Hiss himself helped edit it.
“I literally went to meetings where they bolted the door and called each other ‘comrade,’” Mr. Dicker recalled.
By the time he arrived for a job interview at the Post-by way of an Amherst underground paper called the Mother of Voices, a series of Massachusetts papers and the Albany Times-Union-the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Soviet anti-Zionism had driven him right.
But he still cut a striking countercultural figure in a long leather coat. When he arrived at the Post for a job interview in the early 1980′s, Post editors Ken Chandler and Steve Dunleavy decided to test the applicant by asking him to play a trick on another reporter who was a fan of the writer Hunter S. Thompson. They told the reporter, Phil Messing, that Mr. Dicker was in fact Mr. Thompson, and instructed Mr. Dicker to play the part. Mr. Dicker gamely opened a couple of packets of artificial sweetener on his desk and pretended to do lines of cocaine.
“Only at the New York Post would I have to pull off a scam like that to get hired,” he said. Needless to say, he got the job.
For years, Mr. Dicker was taken for a Republican hatchet man (despite his Democratic Party registration, which he later switched to “unaffiliated”). His longtime readers recall that back in 1993, he was among the first to notice an obscure State Senator from Westchester, George Pataki. Mr. Dicker’s Republican sources were the best-he had known the party’s chairman, William Powers, when he was a local reporter in the Capitol district and Mr. Powers was a local politician in Rensselaer County.
“Dicker created Pataki-him and [former U.S. Senator] Al D’Amato,” said a former Post editor, Stuart Marques. “We would sit in the newsroom and say, ‘Dicker is doing another story about this Pataki guy?’ But he was right.”
Mr. Pataki beat Mr. Cuomo in 1994, and his staff became great fans of Mr. Dicker. They expected their admiration to be returned.
They were wrong.
“They acted like I was supposed to be an arm of the administration,” Mr. Dicker said with disgust.
Early in his first year in office, Mr. Pataki and his combative communications director, Zenia Mucha, posted a guard at the entrance to the Governor’s offices in the Capitol, ending reporters’ free access to the state’s chief executive and his staff. Mr. Dicker’s response was apoplectic. Now, more than a decade later, Mr. Dicker still is angry. He says secrecy is Mr. Pataki’s defining trait.
“I have never seen the degree of secrecy that we have in this government,” he said. “The hostility to the press, the unrelenting suspicion of the press, the lack of any respect for the Fourth Estate-it’s like they’re turning the clock back to before Watergate.”
He predicts that the Governor will retire rather than run for a fourth term in 2006 and dismisses Mr. Pataki’s Presidential ambitions.
“My guess is, what he wants to do is what Al D’Amato did-make millions of dollars as a well-connected former governor/lobbyist.”
Mr. Pataki’s press office had no comment on Mr. Dicker, but one ally blamed Mr. Dicker’s antipathy for the Governor on Mr. Powers, the former party chair who never emerged as the central player in the Pataki administration that some expected.
These attempts to explain Mr. Dicker away amused E.J. McMahon, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who also served in the Pataki administration.
“People are always saying that Fred has ulterior motives.’” he said. “He’s out there screaming about what he’s unhappy about, and they’re asking: ‘What’s his motivation?’”
Others in state government have whispered over the years that Mr. Dicker is subject to a more personal influence: His longtime romantic partner, Jean Somers Miller, worked in both the Cuomo and Pataki administrations. She recently retired.
“It’s been used against him in both Democratic and Republican administrations as a rhetorical shot,” said Sandy Frucher, a former top aide to Mr. Cuomo who is now the chairman of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. “But there’s never anything you can hang from it. The worst thing you ever hear about it is, ‘That ungrateful son of a bitch!’”
Mr. Frucher could have warned Mr. Pataki not to rely on the columnist’s loyalty.
“If you are foolish enough to think Fred’s your guy, or you’re his guy, you’re crazy,” Mr. Frucher said. “You can go to dinner with Fred on Tuesday night, but at 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, if he feels you have your hand in the cookie jar in some way, you can count on the fact that in the Thursday paper he’ll cut your hand off.”
It’s advice that two politicians now courting Mr. Dicker, Senator Hillary Clinton and Mr. Spitzer, would do well to heed.
Mr. Dicker’s view of politics is intensely personal. He believes “the ego needs of politicians are more important than the ideologies they claim to care about.” At the heart of his reporting are very personal issues of ethics and process, not policy, and his deepest rift with one politician he’s known and admired since the 1970′s, Mr. Bruno, came when he caught the Senate leader using his office to help his brother. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Mr. Dicker shies away from using the word “friend” to describe any of the people he’s worked beside for two decades.
“None of them has ever been my friend, as a real friend. I’ve always tried to be friendly to them,” he said of politicians and their aides. “If somebody’s your friend, you can’t put a figurative stake in their heart, and I’d put a figurative stake in the heart of anybody I cover.”