Politics

Spitzer's Gamble

Who's got more clout in a state--the governor or the attorney general? In New York, that's not an easy question.
by | July 2007
 

Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York, has arguably been the most influential state official in America during the first decade of the 21st century. His crusades against Wall Street investment houses, insurers, environmental polluters and even music moguls have brought billions of dollars into the New York State treasury and earned the ambitious Democrat constant media attention. Now Spitzer is an overwhelming favorite to win the governorship and move on to an even more powerful job.

But--is it really a more powerful job? You can make a pretty good case that Spitzer, assuming he does go from the AG's office to the governor's mansion, will be giving up more power than he will be gaining. As attorney general, he has been able to take on any cause he chooses, armed with the subpoena power to pursue each one to the limit. The AG in New York has a broader mandate than his counterparts in many other states and has unique influence over the economy-- particularly in the financial sector, which is headquartered, like his office, in Manhattan.

While Spitzer has been conducting his crusades, Republican Governor George Pataki has been watching the legislature override one of his vetoes after another. Pataki has scored a few genuine victories in his three terms, especially in the area of tax cuts. But legislators have never really given him free rein at making policy. "The legislature is notoriously ornery and entrenched and very insistent on its prerogatives," says Michael Greve, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Decades of divided government in Albany--a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate--have led to stalemate and parochial dealmaking and could easily thwart any of Spitzer's goals. In anticipation of this challenge, Spitzer has made governmental gridlock a central issue in his campaign. His slogan is "Bring some passion back to Albany." He likes to talk about his "willingness to change a system that is broken."

Some Spitzer-watchers insist that, stalemate or no stalemate, he will find openings and opportunities, just as he has done in his current job. "What made him so successful is that he discovered issues that 49 other attorneys general and their predecessors did not find," says John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor. "He can use his skill at finding new issues and put them on the agenda as governor as well."

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