Eliot Spitzer spoke softly.
“I’m a pacifist,” the Governor said, a coy smile spreading across his angular face.
After multiple declarations of war on the political establishment of Albany, he now says that he is done “beating the drum to say I’m going to unseat legislator A, B or C” and has renounced anything else that could be interpreted in a “vitriolic, angry way.”
But don’t be fooled. Mr. Spitzer’s sudden change of tone doesn’t reflect a change of heart.
If anything, we have entered a second stage of the war that Mr. Spitzer is waging against what he calls the “inbred” and “self-protective” culture of the state capital. It is less noisy, maybe, but no less fierce.
It is a cultural clash between the upstart Governor from the Upper East Side and Albany’s entrenched leaders: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and the powerful unions and lobbyists whose roots run deep in both chambers. And while Mr. Spitzer has momentarily suppressed the rhetoric of steamrollers and knockouts, his message remains clear: Change is inevitable.
“I still think, with some degree of certainty, that I’ll win,” he said.
Folding his legs in an armchair on the 39th floor of his spacious Third Avenue office on Friday afternoon, Mr. Spitzer expressed confidence that the Democrats would soon take over the State Senate, and that he could then apply more pressure on the Assembly, led by the wily Mr. Silver, to get with his program.
In the interview, he said that a recent fight with the Assembly over the appointment of a State Comptroller had helped to identify the enemies of reform, and he characterized an ongoing fight with the health-care workers’ union, 1199 SEIU, over Medicaid cuts in his budget as “another such crystallizing event.”
The union is currently paying for a television campaign against those proposed cuts. Mr. Spitzer says he is undaunted.
“They are trying to undercut the public support,” he said. Mr. Spitzer’s office said it maintained the possibility of running television spots in response to the union’s ad campaign.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a striped red tie that looked like a strip of gift-wrap, he alternated with ease between conciliation and defiance.
When asked about 1199 SIEU’s use of the term “Bush/Spitzer cuts”, he joked, “Oh, I’m so laid-back, nothing rubs me the wrong way.” But when challenged on how he would stop 1199 SIEU from getting its way, a flash of the fiery Mr. Spitzer broke through the coyness and lawyerly rhetoric.
“This is a veto pen—that’s why,” he said, waving the pen in his hand. “I will not cave. I will not cave.”
Mr. Spitzer said that his first months as Governor reminded him of the rampant malfeasance he’d encountered in his pursuit of crooked corporate executives on Wall Street as the State Attorney General.
“In each instance, what you have is a leadership group that wants to preserve itself,” said Mr. Spitzer, adding that in both cases, the best interests of the constituents—shareholders or voters—were ignored. Instead, he said, the leadership “begins to respond more to the immediate circles around it.”
Mr. Spitzer is on solid ground here, and he knows it.
The New York State Legislature is widely known to be one of the most dysfunctional in the country. Backroom deals for discretionary allocations known as member items are the norm. The most quiescent members are the ones who get rewarded with committee assignments and salary perks. And incumbents in the majority party are essentially guaranteed re-election thanks to gerrymandering.
And so the Governor born into wealth on the Upper East Side went up to Albany and, essentially, picked a fight with the locals. In his inauguration speech, Mr. Spitzer ridiculed the ‘‘Rip van Winkle’’ years of former Governor George E. Pataki’s Albany and privately declared himself a ‘‘steamroller’’ ready to squash anyone in his way.
After the Assembly’s members ignored his recommendations to fill a vacant comptroller position with a non-legislator, Mr. Spitzer lashed out at them, traveling to the districts of two Democratic Assemblymen to disparage them as unethical and anti-reform. And referring to his battle with legislators, he reportedly told supporters that a “knockout punch is coming.”
In the interview, Mr. Spitzer suggested that there was a method to the bravado.
“We were touching a nerve and succeeding in what we need to do, which is to get the public involved emotionally,” he said. “At a certain level, the response of the public to their comptroller decision will be one of the major impetuses for change.”
Having provoked the Legislature into a posture of defensive unity, Mr. Spitzer’s strategy now is to overthrow the Republican majority in the Senate—his aides have already sought to hasten the process by soliciting potential G.O.P. defectors—and replace them with reform-minded Democrats loyal to his agenda. That would leave the Assembly, and Mr. Silver, isolated.
“Without any question, at some point it flips,” said Mr. Spitzer, referring to the Senate. “The Senate could become an example of a genuinely reform-minded chamber that would embrace full campaign-finance reform, redistricting concepts—all sorts of reform issues where we will have a better shot. Senator Bruno has not been hospitable to those reforms.”
Mr. Bruno has not taken kindly to Mr. Spitzer’s combative style. In response, he has offered patronizing lessons about Albany politics to the Governor, like: ‘‘People who dictate, people who are tyrannical, they don’t get results.”
Mr. Bruno’s spokesman, Mark Hansen, also disagreed with Mr. Spitzer’s characterization of the majority leader as opposed to reform.
“Mr. Bruno has been at the forefront of many reforms over the last 12 years,” Mr. Hansen said. He added that Mr. Bruno had pushed to make party meetings more public and to increase the transparency for tracking spending in the budget, which he said was “something that the Governor resisted.”
Mr. Bruno, who is currently under a federal investigation into whether he used his position as Senate Majority Leader to procure favors for clients of his consulting business, was further provoked by what he considered to be the Governor’s intrusion into a local legislative race.
The Republican majority is now down to a four-seat advantage over the Democrats, after Craig Johnson, a candidate handpicked and championed by Mr. Spitzer, won a special election in the solidly Republican Nassau County district.
“Have I violated the rules of etiquette of Albany? You bet. But those rules are designed to do one thing—maintain the status quo,” Mr. Spitzer said. “Those rules that said a Governor shouldn’t get involved in a State Senate race are completely illogical. They are designed to say: ‘Governor Spitzer, don’t use your popularity to help elect good, reform-minded legislators; let us remain in control so we can have gridlock.’”
Now that the public argument over the comptroller selection has subsided, Mr. Spitzer seems more reluctant to criticize Mr. Silver. In the interview, he would only say that he was “displeased” by the Speaker’s recalcitrance. Mr. Silver enjoys near-absolute power in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, a fact that the newly diplomatic Governor cited when asked why Assembly members hadn’t been more willing to embrace change.
“They haven’t been in a position where they could do it or would do it,” said Mr. Spitzer.
Asked how he planned to change that situation, he smiled.
“This is a chess game, and I’m not going to say, ‘Here are my moves, one through 10,’” he said. “But I think that there is a lot that will go on that will encourage people to be reform-minded and reform-oriented, including Shelly.”
Skip Carrier, a spokesman for Mr. Silver, downplayed any disagreement between the state government’s two leading Democrats.
“Of 200 issues, we are in agreement with the Governor on 195 of those,” he said, adding that the Assembly was actively pursuing reform in education and health care and workers’ compensation with a Governor that the Speaker had long supported. “There’s a lot here that suggests that this house and the Speaker have been advocates for reform.”
In the meantime, Mr. Spitzer also has to contend with the deeply connected and extremely powerful health-care workers’ union, 1199 SEIU—which, in the first of what will doubtless be many conflicts, is doing its best to derail the $1.2 billion in health-care cuts that Mr. Spitzer has proposed in his $120.6 billion budget.
At the moment, the union is waging a full-scale political campaign against him, writing to more than 200 legislators for help and airing television spots with sickly children and wheelchair-bound seniors in an effort to deprive Mr. Spitzer of his greatest asset— popular support.
“We certainly made our opinion known about it,” said Jennifer Cunningham, a senior political advisor of 1199 SEIU, who went on to express almost cheery confidence in the lawmakers that Mr. Spitzer has characterized as inbred. “In our representative democracy, legislators appropriately look to see what choices their constituents would have them make.”
But Mr. Spitzer, who made his name by suing wayward corporations as State Attorney General—and who still hasn’t ruled out the idea of mounting primary challenges against legislators from his own party—thinks the Legislature will soon be subject to an entirely new set of pressures.
“What I’m seeing increasingly are the parallels between changing the institutional momentum and self-protective behavior of legislators, and the self-protective behavior of corporate executives,” he said.
“That self-protective, sort of inbred atmosphere is what you have to change.”