Living the Political Life Fantastic
Here's one more reason New York's politicians feel betrayed by Eliot Spitzer: Thanks to the ex-gov's head-spinning hooker scandal, pesky reformers are taking aim at some hallowed Albany traditions.
One of the most cherished of these is the spending of surplus campaign cash. The way it works is that elected officials—particularly those who never face tough re-elections—raise tubs of campaign money that they don't need from contributors. The money then pays for the high life: Cars, steak dinners, electronic gizmos, hotel rooms, golf outings—it is all fair game.
This sweet racket has long gone undisturbed, thanks to a generally dulled sense of public outrage. Constituents these days are just grateful not to have legislators stealing from the local little league, or taking a free house from a developer.
The practice also goes unpoliced because the agency in charge is the toothless State Board of Elections. The board has summed up its attitude about such abuses this way: "Unless you out-and-out stick it in your pocket and walk away, it's legal." (Some allege that reformers lifted this quote from a character in one of William Kennedy's Albany novels. Untrue. It was provided by a top elections-board official and published in the Albany Times Union in 2005. Look it up.)
Unfortunately, there is always someone who has to spoil a good thing, and in this case, it is Spitzer's blunder-prone successor, David Paterson, who admitted dallying with women not his wife at low-budget hotels. This got the press poring over everyone's campaign expense accounts, and there has been hell to pay ever since.
Last month, Common Cause, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, and the New York Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to the governor and legislative leaders urging them to seize the moment and prohibit the "personal use" of campaign contributions. This would help "counter growing public cynicism about Albany," the groups wrote.
This is one of those well-meaning efforts that could have disastrous unintended consequences. Exactly how many lawmakers do you suppose are going to want to truck 150 miles up the thruway to hang out with the likes of Joe Bruno and Shelly Silver, and then spend the night at the Quality Inn, if they can't even spend their campaign cash the way they want?
To get a strong counter-argument to the good-government types, we turn to State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn.
Kruger is a product of one of New York's last and best-functioning political machines, the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club in Canarsie. He launched his political career the proper way, as an aide to one of the club's proudest sons, former Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink. When the local state-senate seat became vacant in 1994, Kruger got the nod. He is now so popular that Republicans don't even bother running against him. In his last race, he got 95 percent of the vote.
Despite that electoral comfort zone, Kruger has banked some $1.6 million in his campaign kitty, much of it from city real-estate moguls who appreciate his support. This is more money than even the senate's mighty leader, Joe Bruno, has in his own war chest. Kruger's campaign coffers earned so much interest last year that he had to pay the IRS $22,000 in taxes.
Asked last week why he needed so much campaign money, the senator had a ready answer, one all voters can understand: "It is always good to have money in the bank," he said.
There is also "always the potential of a race," he added. Moreover, the senator said he fought a daily political battle. "I consider every day I get up in the morning a tough race," he stated. Again, a circumstance appreciated by all citizens.
He was also asked about his campaign spending habits. In 2007, the senator's filings show, he spent more than $19,000 on meals and assorted small expenditures.
As per the election board's rules, he listed all of those that were over $50. For instance, he dropped $250 at the wonderful Palm Steakhouse in Manhattan, $307 at the posh Tribeca Grand downtown, $315 at the elegant Glen Sanders Mansion near Saratoga, and $162 at the landmark Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend. There were also numerous tabs from the Barnsider, a cozy surf-'n'-turf joint in Albany; Sammy's Noodle Shop, a Village favorite of the senator's; and the appropriately named Good Times Lakeview Restaurant overlooking Ballston Spa Lake, where he enjoyed a $200 meal last July 25, the same day that he spent $227 at the Saratoga racetrack.
That was opening day at Saratoga, and Kruger was there with his Republican friend Joe Bruno, the track's biggest fan. Last year, Bruno gave Kruger a powerful committee chairmanship, the only Democrat so honored. This made the men especially close. Reporters were present to ask Bruno about his red-hot feud with then-governor Spitzer, and they watched as a beaming Bruno kissed a baby in a carriage. Kruger then offered this gem to the media: "That's the difference between them. Bruno kisses babies. Spitzer spits on them."
Kruger uses a campaign credit card to pay his tabs, and, in September alone last year, he pulled it from his wallet 13 separate times for meals. His dining choices that month ranged from the plebeian Floridian diner on Flatbush Avenue in Marine Park ($81), to Burton & Doyle Steakhouse in Great Neck ($318).
The senator said he was in Great Neck to meet with a campaign contributor who lives in nearby exclusive Sands Point. "I have a couple people out there who have been significant contributors," he said. This gets to the heart of why his restaurant tab might seem large, the lawmaker explained. Unlike other pols, Kruger doesn't have his contributors come to big fancy fundraisers. Instead, he goes to them. "This is the only way I have to communicate with my supporters, contributors, and political people," he said. "I use these small, intimate one-on-ones." The get-togethers, he said, provide input "about politics and the kinds of things I am doing or should be doing."
Presumably, these sessions helped flesh out some of the senator's recent legislative initiatives, including one that drew national attention last year when he proposed to outlaw listening to iPods and cell phones while crossing the street.
Still, the care and feeding of campaign supporters can be expensive. When one valued donor passed away in Florida, Kruger paid $434 to have Boston Market send over food to the family. In July, he forked over $500 at a golf shop to buy a gift card for a "major supporter's" birthday party. "He is an avid golfer," said Kruger.
Less clear is the final destination of $11,000 of campaign funds that are listed simply as "unitemized." Kruger said that he didn't have documentation at hand, but that it was a safe bet that it consisted mostly of breakfasts and doughnuts for his staff. "We bring the staff up; we do Dunkin' Donuts," he suggested.
His filings contain a few other odds and ends, such as the $315 monthly insurance for his 2008 Cadillac, and the $600 spent last January for a new GPS device. There was also the time last summer when he drove down to Washington to catch a performance at the Kennedy Center. On the way back, he and an associate whom he declined to identify ("Someone from the neighborhood—a contributor") stopped off in Maryland to grab a quick bite at a Ruby Tuesdays ($62). There was a Home Depot next-door, and he popped inside to buy $79 worth of merchandise. "I have to scavenge around for the office," he said. "Might need a toolset or something."
Bottom line, the senator explained, is that his mighty war chest is used exactly as intended: "To advance my political goals."
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