Putting on the Spitz: Eliot’s Brain Trust

When State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sat down to breakfast with storied financial consultant Felix G. Rohatyn at the Regency

When State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sat down to breakfast with storied financial consultant Felix G. Rohatyn at the Regency this January, he was so eager to pick his guest’s brain—and so intensely solicitous—that he barely had time to touch the food on his plate.

He needn’t have worried.

“I said to him, ‘Look, you don’t need to buy me breakfast, because I am going to support you,’” Mr. Rohatyn recalled telling Mr. Spitzer when the check arrived. “But anytime you want to talk, I’m available.”

Mr. Spitzer has taken him up on the offer—repeatedly—adding Mr. Rohatyn to the ever-expanding collection of gray eminences regularly talking to him about what to do when, not if, he becomes Governor.

Mr. Spitzer has attracted a vast network of experts, policy wonks and powerbrokers, all eager to offer counsel to the man currently sitting on a cartoonishly large lead in the polls over both his primary- and general-election opponents.

For many of these pillars of their respective fields, Mr. Spitzer is the star to which they have hitched a variety of ideas on how to drastically broaden the boundaries of the Governor’s office and physically transform the infrastructure of New York State.

And the frequency and breadth of the shadow policy briefings—as well as descriptions of Mr. Spitzer’s eager, almost voracious attitude when taking part in them—suggest that he’s anxious to get going.

“I think he wants to get in there and hit the ground running,” said Lloyd Constantine, the white-shoe attorney who led Mr. Spitzer’s transition team when he first took office in 1998. “It’s very much that there is a shadow government in formation.”

Besides Mr. Rohatyn, Mr. Spitzer has held regular meetings with mentors like District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who called him “a quick study,” and has sought regular counsel from transportation-policy guru Robert D. Yaro, urban-renewal advocate Deborah C. Wright, North Shore–L.I.J. Health System chief medical officer Jon Cohen, New York State Board of Regents co-chair Merryl Tisch and former Kodak president Dan Carp.

These advisors, among others, represent a particularly prized constituency for Mr. Spitzer, who now has the luxury of worrying less about money and votes than about what his agenda will be after he’s sworn in.

In the regular private meetings he holds in front of these small, knowledgeable audiences, the image of Mr. Spitzer that emerges is one of a hyper-activist, ideologically eclectic policy nerd—a fast-talking, angular study in contrast with current Governor George Pataki, who came to power on the simple, aerodynamic platform of smaller government, lower taxes and the death penalty.

Encouraged by his informal team of policy sages, Mr. Spitzer advocates ambitious, legacy-ensuring public-works projects and is considering some positively radical fixes for the state’s ailing health-care system. He wants to reverse recent precedent by installing a powerful state education commissioner to reform the school system—including a distinctly conservative-sounding plan involving pay for teacher performance—and seems willing, even eager, to pour state money into fancy-sounding technology projects.

“He gets pretty animated,” said Ms. Wright. “His hands go up and his face lights up.”

At the same time, the 47-year-old Mr. Spitzer has been known to court this circle of elders with a sort of deference—humility, even—that is often missing from his aggressive and ultra-confident public persona.

Not long after their initial breakfast, for example, Mr. Rohatyn hosted a party for Mr. Spitzer at his Fifth Avenue apartment with about eight other guests from the business community.

Mr. Rohatyn said that Mr. Spitzer took advantage of the meeting to address his ongoing, highly public feud with John Whitehead, the former Goldman Sachs chairman and founding chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp who accused Mr. Spitzer of threatening him with “war.”

Mr. Spitzer’s public response, documented on the front pages of the city’s papers, was utterly free of contrition and amounted to, in essence, calling Mr. Whitehead a liar.

His response at the Fifth Avenue gathering was markedly different.

“There was this big controversy with John Whitehead. He took it, he explained it, tried to explain,” said Mr. Rohatyn, adding. “He understood that he’d made a mistake and we went on.”

That’s not to suggest that Mr. Spitzer is shy or—perish the thought—uncertain of himself. Many of the policy experts who have privately briefed Mr. Spitzer see a man who, in his mind, at least, has already begun governing.

He usually only waits a few minutes into a presentation before firing off pointed, probing questions. Janette Sadik-Khan, former deputy administrator at the Department of Transportation, said that she remembered one recent meeting when, part of the way into a presentation about infrastructure, he grabbed a marker and began drawing alternative routes on her maps.

Mr. Spitzer’s seemingly boundless ambition, on occasion, has taken even some of his closest advisors my surprise. Ms. Tisch, who advises Mr. Spitzer on education issues, recalled a meeting “billed as ‘Let’s talk to the future Governor about libraries,’” held at the New York Public Library in the spring and attended by library executives. In the end, it was Mr. Spitzer, and not the library’s staff, who did nearly all of the talking.

He wound up delivering a sort of mini-policy address, laying out a vision of libraries as a statewide system of gateways to illegal immigrants and the homeless. In Ms. Tisch’s words, to “use libraries in terms of a greater agenda.”

And Mr. Spitzer has delighted some policy wonks by seeking to translate their ideas into policy—before he even takes office.

That was the case last November, when Mr. Spitzer visited the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx to examine its unorthodox system of integrated care—which has taken the unusual step of assuming insurance risk like an H.M.O. in order to better manage and provide its health services—and promptly began working the system into his policy addresses as a statewide proposal.

Or when, after a series of meetings with Mr. Yaro, a famously ambitious transportation wonk, Mr. Spitzer expressed support for, basically, everything New York transportation advocates always dreamed of: a long-awaited plan to connect all major New York–area railways in one continuous system, new rails linking Western New York with the Midwest and to financial hubs in Canada, and a new tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey underneath the Hudson River.

“We’re very optimistic and very hopeful that these projects are going to move ahead on an accelerated basis,” said Mr. Yaro. “I think we are going to see a pro-growth Governor here.”

Mr. Spitzer’s feisty, ambitious style plays well in the state’s parlors or policy think tanks, but how will it translate to the Governor’s office.

Some opponents of Mr. Spitzer question whether if he is really prepared to offer substance beyond the rhetoric and sideline meetings.

“Spitzer is at once running and governing,” said Harry Siegel, policy director for Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Mr. Spitzer’s beleaguered Democratic opponent for Governor. “As a functional incumbent, he is using his campaign as the beginning of his expected administration.”

While Mr. Siegel said that he believed Mr. Spitzer would mark an improvement on Mr. Pataki’s tenure, he argued that Mr. Spitzer seemed far better at proposing rafts of big-sounding ideas than coming up with the specific details that would make them possible. He argued that Mr. Spitzer lacked a clear plan on education, and had failed to offer a plan to cap public spending and bring real reform to Albany. He also argued that Mr. Spitzer’s health-care plan amounted to “tinkering at the edges” rather than directly addressing the ills of the system, like Medicaid fraud.

Even worse, Mr. Siegel said, is that no one seems to be demanding any more of the man who seems like such a prohibitive favorite to become the next leader of New York State.

“No one expects much, but everyone wants something, which stops people from being critical or speaking ill,” said Mr. Siegel. “Who wants to offend the new Governor?”

No one, apparently.

According to Karen Schimke, who advises all candidates at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, there are very few prominent policy advocates who aren’t lining up to talk to Mr. Spitzer.

“Every specific interest I know, and we work across health and human services, so whether it’s the homeless folks or the mental-health or the substance-abuse folks, everybody, you don’t go anyplace around town without hearing, ‘Oh yeah, we met with Spitzer’s people last night.’”

The jostling also signifies that the race to fill the coveted posts in an eventual Spitzer administration has already begun. “Literally thousands of Democrats in New York are sending in their résumés,” said Helen Desfosses, an associate professor of public administration and policy at the Rockefeller College at the University of Albany, and a co-chair of several “Women for Spitzer” events in the capital region. “I would be very surprised if the transition isn’t already underway.”

But it remains unclear if that transition and Spitzer’s eventual administration will be able to accomplish everything he seems so intent on doing. With such a wide and daunting array of subjects to tackle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t seem to waste too much energy on campaigning.

“If you want to raise money, you need a lot of people,” said Mr. Rohatyn. “But if you want to talk intelligently, you need very few people.”

That may be true, but Mr. Spitzer is not taking any chances, and his schedule is booked with people who want just a minute of his time.

“In the same way that when a President comes in, it’s not just the people who have worked for you, but the best minds who want in,” said Mr. Constantine. “We already have some of that happening. People are flocking to him.”

Putting on the Spitz: Eliot’s Brain Trust