BY NATHAN RILEY | Governor Eliot Spitzer's fractured relationship with the Legislature is on the mend - and that is a remarkable turnaround. After a fruitful and productive first month in office last year, which included passing long overdue reform of the worker compensation laws and securing a more equitable distribution of education monies under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling, Spitzer's reputation plummeted. His senior advisors tried to embarrass Joe Bruno, the Senate's Republican leader, with disastrous results. They ended up placing themselves and the governor under investigation.
Spitzer's popularity collapsed and the question quickly became: Was he the worst governor in the last 100 years? In his weakened state would the governor sue for peace and cooperate with the very forces he had vowed to change?
The answer is unequivocally "no."
"Hallelujah," exclaimed Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice, trumpeting Spitzer's courage. "Nobody else in Albany would stand up to the pressure he was put under." Mario Cuomo stayed "in the tank for 12 years" cooperating with Bruno and the Senate Republicans, Barrett told a forum at the New School on February 27. Democratic Speaker Silver used to discourage his Assembly members from opposing Senate Republicans.
"Now what you have is Speaker Silver handing up an Assembly member so respected he can win," Barrett said of the upset victory by Democratic Assemblyman Darrel J. Aubertine over his GOP colleague William A. Barclay in a special election for a vacated seat in the far upstate Watertown area. The district had previously not elected a Democrat since the 19th century. This victory for the Senate Democrats wouldn't have been possible without Spitzer and Silver's support- a clear sign the governor is learning when to cooperate and when to fight. He is restoring his relationships with the Democrats while his war with the Republican Senate continues.
Though the Senate Democrats remain one seat shy of wresting the majority from the Republicans for the first time in 40 years, Aubertine's victory could trigger a seismic change in Albany even before the November election. The defection of just one GOP senator, perhaps sensing the way the political winds have shifted, would create a tie, allowing Lieutenant Governor David Paterson to cast the deciding vote in favor of the Democrats.
Winning control of the Senate of course carries its responsibilities. At the Empire State Pride Agenda's 2007 fall dinner, Malcolm Smith, who last year became the Senate Democratic leader, pledged that if his party won a majority, marriage equality for same-sex couples, already approved by the Assembly at Spitzer's behest, would be at the top of the agenda.
Out of the box, however, Smith would have problems on that pledge. First, Aubertine did not vote for marriage equality as an Assembly member last June. And there is at least one die-hard Senate Democratic opponent - the Bronx's Ruben Diaz, Sr. Would Smith be able reach across the aisle to dramatically hopscotch New York to the head of the gay and lesbian equality line? Or would additional seats need to be won in November to advance this key gay priority, along with long-stalled measures for transgender nondiscrimination protection and school bullying legislation?
Spitzer's reputation is improving for reasons unrelated to the bitter battles between Republicans and Democrats. The administration is actually doing important things.
The governor has proposed closing five juvenile detention centers and three prisons. These measures could create savings that could be used to offer treatment rather than prison time for small-time drug offenders.
One major initiative is national in scope. State Insurance Superintendent Eric DiNallo is leading a rescue plan for the tax-free municipal bond market - that is the place where New York City, Syracuse, and Westchester go to finance their roads, schools, bridges, and court houses. Issued in a total volume of $1.7 trillion nationally, these bonds are often insured by private companies. If the integrity of this insurance becomes imperiled, municipalities across the state would see the credit ratings on their bonds downgraded and their interest costs increased, diverting needed money to debt service on the bonds.
In January, DiNallo's Insurance Department, in record time, licensed a new insurance provider, owned by Warren Buffet, the legendary investor whose company Berkshire Hathaway has billions of dollars in cash to invest. The availability of Buffet's capital allows local government borrowers nationwide to leverage that against his insurance company competitors, so that they will increase reserves out of fear of losing business and thereby stabilize the municipal bond market.
The bottom line is New York State is taking the lead in helping local governments enjoy low interest rates on their debt. It is a noteworthy accomplishment and one that will surely help Spitzer's reputation.
The governor has also turned to a former political opponent - Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi - naming him to head a commission reviewing the property tax, always a big issue for homeowners.
East Side Senator Liz Krueger reports in her newsletter, "I finally feel that I have an ally - in fact many allies - in the executive branch" trying to address the state's housing crisis, one of her priorities. These changes in tone can often lead to major policy advances. It's another sign that the Spitzer administration is moving in the right direction.
The governor's early performance disappointed his many supporters, but it's no longer time to think about counting him out. We may soon be joining Wayne Barrett in the Hallelujah chorus.