Eliot's Shaky Summer

New York's tough-talking governor tries easing up a bit.
by | October 2007

The past few months haven't been much fun for Eliot Spitzer. He was elected governor of New York in a landslide last fall on a promise to clean up state government, and voters seemed ready to tolerate some tough tactics in getting the job done. But not the tactics that were revealed in July: While Spitzer was continuing to claim the high ground, members of his staff were misusing state police in an attempt to discredit a political rival. The resulting scandal has provided endless fodder for the New York media, and multiple ongoing investigations have the potential to create more embarrassment. The question now is how well Spitzer can learn and recover from his mistakes.

Spitzer made his name prosecuting Wall Street wrongdoers as state attorney general and believed that as governor he could similarly further his cause by personalizing his attacks against the entrenched powers in the capital. Soon after taking office, he was turning up in legislators' districts to complain when they dared oppose him, even if they were fellow-Democrats.

That won him few friends, but what really earned him grief were his attacks on Joe Bruno, who as Senate majority leader is New York's leading Republican. High-ranking Spitzer aides put out the word that Bruno had used state-owned helicopters and police cars for travel to political fundraisers. Andrew Cuomo, Spitzer's successor as attorney general, found that the governor's staff had improperly asked state police to glean such information. One aide resigned and another was suspended.

Spitzer is doing his best to put the bad news behind him. The man with the steamroller temperament recently gave a speech talking about "the importance of humility" and the need to "avoid descending into the self-righteousness that can so easily overtake good intentions." He's been making nice with legislators he once publicly derided as he travels around the state to talk up his plans for economic development.

If that charm offensive somehow succeeds, the trooper scandal may turn out to be a "blip" in the governor's career, as Alan Chartock, publisher of Albany's Legislative Gazette, suggests. "The people sent him to reform the way business was done at a state capital that they abhor," Chartok says. "They still think that he is doing a very good job." Polls seem to bear that assessment out: A recent one showed that most New York voters thought Spitzer knew about the trooper misconduct in advance, but still gave him an overall approval rating of nearly 60 percent.