By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Eliot Spitzer vowed to shake up government and politics in New York. He did so in ways absolutely no one anticipated.
By dallying with a call-girl ring known as the Emperors Club VIP—the name augured power, and cost Spitzer his—he brought to office a remarkable new governor who may succeed in achieving Spitzer’s goals through methods nothing like those of the man who once called himself a “steamroller.”
While David Paterson, who will take over Monday as New York’s first African-American governor, can be a fierce Democratic partisan, he is positively courtly toward his Republican adversaries and often entertains them with his wit.
State Sen. Kemp Hannon offered a litany of the stylistic contrasts between Spitzer and Paterson that called to mind Oscar and Felix of “The Odd Couple.”
“Paterson will work with people,” said Hannon, a Republican. “Spitzer wanted to tell people what to do. Spitzer liked to yell at people. It’s hard to imagine David raising his voice. Paterson could use humor to advance his political causes, which might not necessarily be mine. It’s hard to see Spitzer using humor. Paterson listens to people. Spitzer would often just tell you you’re wrong.”
One other difference: People may have fought with Spitzer, even hated him, but no one underestimated him. Paterson says he has often enjoyed the asset of being underestimated. Having spent time with Paterson, who is legally blind and memorizes his facts, figures and speeches, I would urge his adversaries to abandon the practice.
The big question about him is whether his geniality will lead him to abandon Spitzer’s agenda of far-reaching change, or make him a more successful, if less boisterous, reformer.
Reform is a peculiar concept in Albany, the seat of New York’s state government. It is a baroque town in many ways. Its 19th-century capitol building is an elaborate wedding cake of a place that happened to cost far more than it was supposed to. Albany gave us the brilliant novelist William Kennedy, whose machine politician in his classic “Roscoe” quipped, “Life without gravy is not life.”
The structure of power is medieval: Legislative leaders exercise nearly absolute power in their respective chambers. They maintain it through careful attention to the distribution of favors to the lords and the earls who chair the committees and share the perks of leadership.
At times of crisis, the system can be very efficient. Covering the place many years ago, I learned that a one-vote margin in the Assembly or Senate was a close vote, and a two-vote margin was a landslide.
So tight is the control of the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate that when a nasty bill absolutely has to pass—usually one involving tax increases or budget cuts or both—the party leaders engineer exactly who has to vote “yes” and who gets to vote “no.”
Electorally vulnerable legislators are let off the hook to vote against the abomination. Safe members are required to push it through. The preferred margin is always two votes. That lets as many people as possible avoid a controversial stand while also guaranteeing that no single vote can ever be described in the next campaign as having been decisive.
But Albany has always been immune to altering its rhythms, and that’s why Spitzer’s drive, impatience, sometimes even his obnoxiousness, excited many people.
Alexander B. Grannis, who came to the Assembly in 1975 and left last year to become Spitzer’s environmental commissioner, captured the dejection felt by so many Spitzer partisans.
“He was a bright, combative man, and that’s what the public expected of him,” Grannis said. “Here was a guy willing to go into battle, take the gloves off and fight for what he believes in. You don’t run into that very often.” And then the fighter joined the Emperors Club.
Many who had bitter tangles with Spitzer, particularly Joe Bruno, the Republican state Senate leader, are overjoyed to have a friendlier governor, which makes reformers nervous.
But state Sen. Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat who worked closely with Paterson when the latter was the Democratic Senate leader, argues that a toughness lies below Paterson’s graciousness.
He notes that Paterson saw the previous Democratic Senate leader as too willing to play ball with Republicans and organized a rebellion against him. “In Albany, you know how rare a successful coup is,” Schneiderman said. Paterson, he added, “has a record of taking progressive positions, but doing it in a smart way, and picking his fights.”
Spitzer turned Albany upside down. Paterson will try to change it from the inside out. New Yorkers may welcome a governor who is less adventurous, at least in certain respects.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group