It’s been eight weeks since Joe Bruno and the Republicans in the New York State Senate started pursuing Eliot Spitzer, and it still feels like they’re just getting started.
Immediately after Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s report in late July outlined misconduct by Eliot Spitzer’s top aides in using state police to track Mr. Bruno, the pugnacious 78-year-old Republican Senate majority leader was an aggrieved victim with political license to exact a measure of justice from the bullying governor.
Now—after one of the aides in question was transferred and another was suspended for a few weeks, after a concluded (if inconclusive) investigation by the state inspector general, and with ongoing inquiries by the Albany district attorney, the State Ethics Commission and Investigations Committee in the Republican-controlled Senate—Mr. Bruno and his Senators seem to be determined to make this a long-term proposition.
Senate Republicans have just announced they’ve invited the state police to speak at the committee’s next hearing, and they are making plans to hire a special counsel to help with their investigation.
And there’s much, much more.
“We have a responsibility to go forward here on the legislative arena on the issues such as FOIL reform, the use of state aircraft, and certainly the issues of conflict of interest within the inspector general’s office, certainly were concerns that were raised,” said State Senator George Winner, head of the Investigations Committee, referring to the issues wrongly invoked by the Spitzer aides to justify their initial actions. “We’ve got independence-of-state-police issues and maybe strengthening the official misconduct statues that relates to abuse of state resources. Those are legitimate legislative arenas that have been identified so far.”
The question now—one that state Democrats clearly wish to answer in the affirmative—is whether Mr. Bruno and his allies in the Senate have exhausted that initial public sympathy, and overplayed their hand. Or, worded another way, whether Joe Bruno has crossed the line from justifiably indignant Albany elder to vengeful old hack.
The answer, judging from an unscientific survey of pollsters and interested political observers: maybe soon, but not yet.
“They have [Spitzer] by the balls and they don’t care if his heart and mind follow,” said Prof. Doug Muzzio of Baruch College.
Mr. Muzzio said that despite waning support from editorial boards and little sustained public interest in the matter, Mr. Bruno still has political capital to pursue Mr. Spitzer because “we still don’t know everything.”
It should be mentioned that, though the public has barely noticed yet, government in Albany has ground to a near halt. Seventy-nine of Mr. Spitzer’s appointees, many sent to the Senate in the days before the scandal, are still awaiting confirmation months later.
“I believe this is a huge mistake for Bruno because by doing this he risks doing what Newt Gingrich did,” said radio host and SUNY Albany professor Alan Chartock, referring to the former speaker of the House of Representatives in the mid-1990’s. “The end of the end of Newt was shutting down the government.”
Among those not confirmed are the nominees to head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and three trustees for the State University of New York.
“The ‘too far’ is taking the Spitzer people hostage,” said Mr. Chartock. “The State University of New York is held up because Bruno is pissed off at Spitzer? That’s absurd.”
Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked for Mr. Spitzer in the past, predicted that the governor’s Republican pursuers were getting close to the political danger zone.
“They’re getting close to the edge because there is nothing new in the story, so the story is becoming boring,” he said. “Which is what happened with the Whitewater investigations. They kept pounding and pounding and pounding and there was nothing there.”
He added, “The Republican problem is they have to come up with something new, fast, because nobody likes old.”
But Mr. Bruno, for now, at least, has one major advantage: The public is never going to hold him and his members accountable for gridlock in Albany if no one knows who they are.
“More than half the voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion and those who do are more negative than positive,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg. “And that has been the history over the last couple of years any time we looked at the legislative leaders, whether it’s [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver or Joe Bruno.”
Mr. Greenberg continued: “Various sides in different disputes have been known to overplay their hands and that certainly could be something that happens. But we haven’t seen it yet.”