Thursday, July 26, 2007

Clash of the Titans

I live in New York State's Capital District, in other words, the metropolitan Albany area. Despite local leaders hell-bent on making the place over as "Tech Valley" (trumpets, please), the business here is mostly government business. I have lived here for nearly five years and in that time have come to realize why our state legislature has been described as the most dysfunctional in the entire nation. Honestly, it often appears to be run like a banana republic, regardless of who is sitting in the Governor's Mansion. You see, there's the governor (right now, Eliot Spitzer, defender of truth and rich kid from Manhattan), Speaker of the State Assembly Sheldon Silver (defender of parts of Manhattan and keeper of the flame for the heavily Democratic Assembly) and, last but not least, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (defender of Saratoga's rich folk, self-made businessman and cheerleader for the heavily Republican State Senate).

In the recent past, state government was run by the triumvirate of Silver, Bruno and former governor George Pataki. Much was made of the fact that the elected members of the legislature never did much in the way of the people's business because the Holy Trinity would occasionally gather behind closed doors to--what--paint each other's toenails? No, in reality, they would hammer our deals that made each other look good, except when they didn't, which was much of the time. Shelly Silver, like his Republican counterpart in the Senate, will not be moved on issues he doesn't like or endorse. So New York State continues to have a business climate that scares away the kinds of corporations we'd like to see here and a tax burden that keeps sane people running for the nearest exit (read, state line).

Enter new governor Eliot Spitzer, the brash Democrat who made his reputation slaying corporate dragons on Wall Street as attorney general. He's considered forthright, moralizing and doesn't spurn the oft-used moniker "Steamroller." He was elected by a wide margin on a platform of campaign reform and good government. However, he is now embroiled in a scandal that threatens to derail his bold agenda before his first year is even up.

Without going into too much detail, a few Spitzer aides were discovered to be monitoring the coming and goings of the senate president as he conducted what could loosely be described as "state business," but which also included much fund-raising. Bruno likes to use state helicopters and state police escorts when he, for example, makes forays downstate. Apparently, he's above requisitioning a state vehicle for a leisurely drive down I-87 to New York City. According to the New York Times, many of these trips were heavy on politicking and rather light on legislative activity. As I understand it from reading articles in the Albany Times-Union and the Times, Spitzer's chief media adviser and two others made liberal use of their clout to investigate and log Bruno's many trips earlier in the year. (At the same time, Bruno is being investigated by the F.B.I. for some suspect business dealings, but that's another can of worms.)

Bruno and his sympathizers, having gotten wind of the Spitzer probe, are now threatening investigations of their own. Spitzer, suddenly in the midst of a political scandal that may or may not be of his own making (what did he know and when did he know it?), has been mostly forthcoming with the media this week, saying he's disturbed by the news reports and has suspended, or otherwise removed, the three aides. One of them, Darren Dopp, the governor's chief media architect, has prevaricated on the reasons he initiated the Bruno probe.

But I am fascinated most by the protestations of Mr. Bruno. While it is true that a lightning-quick investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found the Spitzer team in the wrong, what many at the Capitol are glossing over is that Cuomo's office didn't let Bruno off entirely. Cuomo's report stated that Bruno had done nothing illegal in using state transportation and state police escorts for what were largely political activities, but also mentioned--and this is what's being lost--that simply because what Bruno does is not yet "illegal" doesn't mean it's ethical.

So here we have a preening, sanctimonious senate president chiding the governor and holding self-congratulatory news conferences to lambaste the new administration. Joe Bruno feigns horror and disgust at every opportunity. Yet he doesn't for a moment see anything wrong with the way he abuses his office for his own financial and political gain. Right now he's enjoying a public game of "shoot the messenger." Something tells me, though, his smug act won't play long in Albany. Just give it time.

No comments: