Thursday, January 19, 2006

Reformer vs. Reformer In the Empire State: Eliot Spitzer vs. Thomas Suozzi

These are interesting times for New York State Democrats and I am not referring to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential ambitions. Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi plans to challenge New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary for governor. Spitzer is easily the most famous state attorney general in the nation. It was Spitzer’s office that shamed Washington into cracking down on Wall Street for abusing the trust of misinformed investors. Indeed, Spitzer has emerged as the public face for punishing cheating financiers on behalf of the little guy and restoring integrity to the investor class. It is doubtful that Sarbanes-Oxley would’ve ever become law if not for Spitzer. Had John Kerry become President in 2004, Spitzer may have been tapped as his Attorney General. Spitzer comes across as a compassionate tough guy with a square jaw and he’s Jewish which gives him ethnic appeal.

It totality Spitzer appears to be an especially attractive candidate for New Yorkers. For those of you who don’t follow New York politics, let me put it this way: Albany makes Washington look like a beacon of rectitude in comparison. We’ve had Jack Abramoff style corruption forever and our state legislative body is as transparent as mud. Both parties are disgusting in New York. A budget passing on time in the Empire State is considered news in itself. Governor George Pataki promised to be a reformer but chose to govern as an exploiter of Albany’s corrupt culture instead. The two legislative leaders, Republican State Senator Joseph Bruno and Democrat Assemblyman, Sheldon Silver are no better. The phrase used to describe how New York is governed is, “three men in a room.” Nobody else has any input about how the state is governed. Meanwhile, Pataki has packed the MTA and other agencies with incompetent cronies, most legislators are part of the problem, and reformers are completely shut out.

In his first two terms Governor Pataki never had to concern himself with a serious challenger or coherent opposition from the Democrats. After Pataki deposed Mario Cuomo in 1994, the state Democrats were in total disarray and 9/11 only enhanced the governor’s prestige. Whenever he got in serious trouble Pataki would emphasize his moderate credentials on the environment (not a bad record for a Republican), abortion (pro-choice), gays (not a homophobe) and guns (not a red state wacko regarding firearms). He also proceeded to spend more of the state’s money without cutting the budget or rolling back his tax cuts for the wealthy. Consequently, New York Democrats never had a chance in spite of his fiscal mismanagement. Last year the Republicans actually joined with Democrats in the state legislature and imposed tax increases on the reluctant governor. As a result we now have a surplus that Pataki plans to squander on tax cuts for the wealthy to strengthen his conservative credentials among national Republicans.

After three terms Pataki fatigue has set in here and the governor calculated it made more sense to run for President than take on the popular Spitzer – leaving New York Republicans in total disarray. New York Democrats have watched in glee as former Massachusetts Governor William Weld indicated his interest to run for governor here, only to step into scandal regarding a Kentucky trade school he used to run. Republicans are now pinning their hopes on Thomas Golisano, an upstate billionaire who can finance his own campaign and free donor money for other New York State Republicans. But Golisano has ran for governor twice before as an independent and treated Pataki most unkindly. I used to smile at his 1998 commercials that referred to lying as “pulling a Pataki.” Pataki holds a grudge and may not give a Golisano candidacy his blessing. On top of all this was Jeanine Pirro’s embarrassing candidacy for the Senate against Hillary Clinton. The Democrats in comparison appeared to be a sea of tranquility.

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi however is a very compelling candidate in his own right and shaking things up. The politically moderate Catholic surprised everyone to win in heavily Republican Nassau County on Long Island in 2001. Nassau County was former Republican Senator Al D’Amato’s base for running New York as an old fashioned party boss. The county was notorious for crony capitalism, backroom deals, and bribery galore. For years Nassau County was governed with the same Enron style fiscal policy that Republicans operate nationwide, leaving this bastion of prosperity on the verge of bankruptcy. Suozzi skillfully guided the troubled county past its problems with management reforms and a controversial twenty percent property tax hike. The voters of Nassau County rewarded Suozzi and elected him to a second term this past November.

As a New York Democrat I am delighted by the contest. It always bothers me when party leaders stifle competition. As much as I admire Spitzer’s record I don’t believe he’s entitled to a coronation as the Democrat’s nominee. At its best, politics is a competition for who has the best ideas and I’m curious to watch these two high caliber candidates push each other. So while I may well pick Spitzer over Suozzi, I’m gratified to have a choice between two attractive candidates. One thing in Suozzi’s favor is executive experience that Spitzer does not possess. Also, Suozzi is even more of an outsider than Spitzer who has been in Albany since 1998. Temperamentally, both men are known to have an edge and treat adversaries harshly. I suspect that Spitzer’s public face may prove more attractive than Suozzi’s. Although Spitzer is equally ambitious, Suozzi’s hunger comes across far more nakedly and that may be off putting. On the other hand we New Yorkers don’t mind a scrappy fighter.

The winner may turn out to be a future Presidential candidate. Both men harbor Presidential ambitions and New York has a history for propelling their governors to national prominence. That’s why Suozzi is willing to throw the dice and take his shot at the governor’s mansion now. If he gives Spitzer a free pass, the attorney general may be governor for two terms. Furthermore, unless Hillary Clinton goes all the way to the Presidency, neither she nor Senator Chuck Schumer will give him an opening. Both men are moderate Democrats but not “Republocrats” in the Joe Lieberman mode. Since their policy differences are few, a primary fight will likely be personal and nasty as they contrast each other. I suspect that Spitzer will come across as having more depth and stature. Each candidate has the potential to illustrate how Democrats can re-brand their party as compassionate, reform minded, and tough. Perhaps one of them will go to Washington and save the country as FDR did over seventy years ago.

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