The Truth Behind Troopergate

A capital melodrama starring Eliot Spitzer, Joe Bruno and Andrew Cuomo

The seminal moment in the war between Spitzer and Bruno was the February election of Craig Johnson to a senate seat in Long Island. Johnson won a seat held by the GOP for decades, a crushing defeat for Bruno as well as for SEIU 1199, the all-powerful health and hospital workers’ union, which spent a fortune to mobilize an army for Bruno in suburban streets. Not only did Spitzer win that special election, his appointment of the district’s Republican incumbent to a key post in his administration created the vacancy Johnson filled. Then Spitzer began entertaining vulnerable members of Bruno’s senate conference, particularly upstate senator John Bonacic, trying either to get them to switch parties or to take a job in his government, creating another winnable vacancy. Asked if this happened, McCardle said: “It did happen, and is continuing to happen as we speak.” The Times reported last week that the wooing of Bonacic was still going on, and that Bonacic introduced Spitzer at a recent fundraiser.

Eliot Spitzer is the only New York governor in modern history to try to take a legislative body away from the party that controls it. His predecessors, like Mario Cuomo, never raised money or recruited candidates for a serious campaign of change. Even more important than Spitzer's eagerness to do both is the high probability that he will succeed, partly because registration changes and national politics could make 2008 a big year for Democrats in this state. No one has to look any further than those threatening realities to understand why such a small dustup has been elevated to such a consuming conflict. The Republicans are trying to depict Spitzer as a tyrant who will use police powers to silence or defeat them, and they couldn't be happier to have someone with the most famous Democratic name in the state—Cuomo—as their witness and cheerleader. Cuomo had many honorable alternatives to the report he issued and the behind-the-scenes role he continues to play to juice up this farce. He senses that he may have overplayed his hand, but he is more concerned with saving face than rebuilding bridges. Having acted too quickly, he may now have to live with the consequences for too long, unable to transcend them despite all the other good work his office is doing. Spitzer, for one, is unlikely to forget what Cuomo has done.

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With special research assistance by Adrienne Gaffney and Tom Wiedeman

Additional research by Benjamin Bright, Benjamin Greenberg, Jan Ransom, Samuel Rubenfeld, Danielle Schiffman, and Ethan Strauss

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The governor has already been more contrite than the missteps of his aides require. But Bruno has been making it clear for months that there will be no detente or progress on a host of other issues unless Spitzer accepts the bipartisan turf treaty that is the foundation of legislative life in a capital with a hundred billion dollars to distribute. If Spitzer doesn't bow to that presumption (and there is every indication that he won't), the Albany culture will continue to hound him—including many Democrats who, like Bruno, see any fundamental change in the state power dynamic as a dagger in their chests.

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