Spitzer Readies Long Knives For Pataki’s Appointees

It’s going to happen quickly and quietly, and the victims, for the most part, will end up going back to

It’s going to happen quickly and quietly, and the victims, for the most part, will end up going back to their comfortable private lives. But it will be a massacre nonetheless.

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Democratic nominee Eliot Spitzer is preparing to clear away hundreds of political appointees whom Governor George Pataki has placed on the boards of state agencies come Jan. 1, 2007, when—unless he gets struck by an asteroid—the State Attorney General is going to become Governor.

It is not just Peter Kalikow, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whom Mr. Spitzer will call upon to step down, but the rank-and-file members of numerous boards that set policy, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Empire State Development Corporation and the Thruway Authority.

Some such housecleaning is par for the course, but Mr. Spitzer’s overhaul is likely to be bloodier than usual—if only because Mr. Pataki has stacked these boards this past year, filling almost every available vacancy with appointments that will not expire until 2009, 2010 and even 2012.

A source in the Spitzer campaign said that the attorney general intends to model his transition on Mr. Pataki’s grand entrance in 1995, when every last state board chair was asked to tender an immediate resignation.

“It’s our view that many people will voluntarily offer to resign to make it possible for a new Governor to shape policy,” the source said. “If those people do not resign, we will make a decision whether to ask them to resign or not.”

These board members are usually part-time, and many of them are unpaid. Some of them serve, by statute, “at the pleasure of the governor” and should be relatively easy to get rid of, as will those in the commissioner posts or the hundreds of political positions in state administrative departments. But others serve fixed terms of three, six or even 12 years and cannot legally be ousted.

“What Spitzer will do is ask everybody to submit their letter of resignation, and 95 percent will, because they want to do business with the state in other capacities and be good sports,” said one political consultant who took part in a previous gubernatorial transition. “The other 5 percent, they will be too rich to care.”

Mr. Spitzer, according to his policy director, Paul Francis, “has been very clear about the need to tackle boards and authorities and has said he hopes to have the ability to bring the fresh leadership necessary to shape policy and bring the fundamental reform to these entities.”

It is a whole other question whether political appointees are morally obligated to step down before their terms expire. Mitch Pally, a Republican who is the Suffolk County representative to the M.T.A. board, said the whole point of having fixed terms was to insulate board members from politics.

“One could make a law that says that everybody’s term ends on Dec. 31 whenever there is a new Governor,” he told The Observer. “You want them to have long-term views. You want them to be independent.”

For Mr. Spitzer, those terms could amount to an enduring headache. This summer, for example, Mr. Pataki reappointed Mr. Kalikow to a new term as M.T.A. chairman that will last until 2012. A real-estate executive who declared bankruptcy in the early 1990’s, Mr. Kalikow has publicly said that he wants to remain until the major projects he’s working on win complete financing from the federal government. Privately, according to a source close to the M.T.A., he has indicated that he would be ready to leave “three to six months” into a Spitzer administration.

Certainly, appointees like Mr. Kalikow won’t be inclined to make this any easier for Mr. Spitzer, who has angered Pataki loyalists with relentless, sometimes personal criticism of the Governor and the people who serve him. At an upstate appearance in September, for instance, the Democrat said that he would replace Charles Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, with someone “who knows where money needs to be spent, and not just hanging out in Manhattan, going to cocktail parties with celebrities.” Last May, he named the M.T.A., the Port Authority, the Department of Transportation and the Thruway Authority as one-time “world-class leaders in their field” that had let their standards slip, and pledged to “appoint individuals to executive and board positions based on professional excellence and experience and not based on political patronage.”

Mr. Gargano serves as ESDC chairman at the pleasure of the Governor and will therefore not be able to stay on at the economic-development agency. But he is also vice chairman of the Port Authority until the end of his term in May, and he could remain on as one of the 12 commissioners of the bi-state agency until 2012. When asked about his political future at an appearance with Mr. Pataki on Oct. 12, Mr. Gargano said, “Next year? I am trying to get things done now.”

For all of his publicly expressed antipathy, though, Mr. Spitzer could selectively allow for survivors from the previous administration. One notable candidate for leniency is Port Authority Commissioner Christy Ferer, the widow of Port Authority executive director Neil Levin, who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. She has served as what she calls a “liaison” between Mr. Spitzer’s campaign and the families of victims of the terrorist attacks, and she told The Observer that she would also like to stay until the end of her term in mid-2007.

But the fates of most appointees will ultimately depend on whether the next Governor sees them as politically connected hacks or experts in their fields.

The Spitzer campaign would not comment on any personnel decisions.

But one board member widely expected by insiders to draw his attention is David S. Mack, a member of the powerful family that runs Mack-Cali Realty Corporation and Apollo Real Estate Advisors. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (Mr. Spitzer’s former rival for Governor) recommended three years ago that Mr. Mack’s appointment to the M.T.A. board be renewed. Governor Pataki recently reappointed Mr. Mack to the Port Authority board as well.

Mr. Mack didn’t return messages for comment, but an assistant said: “He has three years left on both boards, and he intends on staying.”

And then there is the husband-and-wife team of Nancy Shevell Blakeman, an M.T.A. board member, and Bruce Blakeman, a Port Authority commissioner. Mr. Spitzer appears to smile upon Ms. Blakeman, the director of administration at her family’s trucking company, and recommended that she assist Mr. Kalikow in negotiating the sale of the M.T.A.’s West Side rail yards to the city. But her husband, Mr. Blakeman, a lawyer and transportation consultant, is considered dangerously close to the Governor: He ran as the Republican candidate for State Comptroller in 1998, losing to Carl McCall. Together, the two Blakemans contributed $43,720 to Mr. Pataki’s last election campaign.

Ms. Blakeman would not return phone messages, while Mr. Blakeman wouldn’t say whether he planned to remain as a commissioner.

“I do know the attorney general,” Mr. Blakeman told The Observer. “He lives in our neighborhood and works out in the same gym—except he gets there much earlier in the morning than I do. We campaigned together in 1998, though on opposite sides. I think there is mutual respect between us.”

Spitzer Readies Long Knives For Pataki’s Appointees