News & Politics

Spitzer Plays by the Book

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Moments before the Democratic gubernatorial candidates
took the stage for last night’s debate at Pace University,
NY1 political director Bob Hardt walked up to the podium
labeled “Tom Suozzi” and snatched a thick vellum binder
from it. Up in the balcony where the press corps was
parked, one scribe cracked to another: “Look, Hardt just
stole Suozzi’s playboook.”

Actually, as was learned later, that’s exactly what
had happened. And while it might not have been the news-
break of the evening (that was probably the haymakers
thrown by Nassau County executive Suozzi at Spitzer’s
sheriff of Wall Street reputation), it was certainly the
most intriguing exchange. Before the debate, Attorney
General Spitzer angrily objected that Suozzi’s binder was a
violation of the rules which barred the use of props of any
kind. The rules were an effort to avoid the kind of hijinks
staged in 2000 when Republican Rick Lazio stalked over to
Hillary Clinton with a piece of paper he demanded she sign
on the spot pledging not to use soft money campaign
expenditures.

But according to Suozzi, Spitzer threw a royal tantrum
over the presence of the multi-tabbed book of talking
points, threatening to walk out on the debate then and
there if it wasn’t removed. “He got very hostile. He was
really yelling,” Suozzi told reporters later. Suozzi was
still marveling at what he insisted had been his rival’s
over-reaction when he walked over to a Beekman Street pub
crowded with supporters where he stood on a chair to
address his troops. “He was really freaking out,” said a
clearly delighted Suozzi.

Spitzer’s camp did little to counter that take.
Campaign manager Ryan Toohey refused to talk about the
incident, saying he wasn’t present. Indeed, other than the
candidates, the only other witness was NY1 political
director Hardt, a co-host and sponsor of the event, who was
the soul of discretion. Saying only that “the rules are the
rules,” Hardt insisted the exchange was covered by an
implicit agreement that all debate negotiations were off-
the-record. In the post-debate media spin room, Hardt had
to fend off media colleagues who insisted that Spitzer’s
reputation for temper tantrums made the exchange fair game.
Of course, if that were true, as Hardt pointed out, he’d
have to give up every other pre-debate conversation he had
with the candidates, which he rightly wasn’t about to
do.

Still, the incident is fairly revealing. A day before
the debate, a Siena Research Institute survey put Spitzer
at a whopping 78 percent among likely Democratic voters,
with Suozzi registering an anemic nine percent. So why
would a front runner enjoying such a 69-point romp in the
polls get hot and bothered about a rival in single-digits
sneaking a cheat sheet into the test?

The answer is that lightning can strike anytime, and
Suozzi, as much as he’s been ignored so far as a hapless
long-shot by most of the media, is capable of making a
compelling case for his candidacy, as he showed last night.
Like an underdog boxer bent on winning quick respect, the
good looking 43-year-old wasted no time on debating
niceties.

“Mr. Spitzer has embraced the status quo,” Suozzi said
in his opening volley. “You will be replacing a Republican
with a Democratic governor who will tinker around the
edges. We need wholesale reform. Both parties are rotten to
the core.”

That’s not the usual rhetoric employed by those trying
to score with the party faithful in a tough primary, but
the analysis is core to Suozzi’s outsider vs. insiders game
plan.

“He didn’t even take time to say thank you to the
host, NY1,” commented Christopher Malone, professor of
political science at Pace. “He just went right in. He
finally got to go toe-to-toe. That was a victory in and of
itself, though Spitzer did a great job defending himself.”

Suozzi’s chief thrust was to portray himself as a
tried and true government executive who turned around what
he calls “the worst-run county in the nation,” while
portraying Spitzer as a prosecutor who had chosen as
attorney general to focus on corruption in Wall Street, the
record business, and big insurance firms.

Those blows, however, were fairly easily parried.
Spitzer jabbed back that he had revived a “moribund”
office, going after polluters, pharmaceutical company
abuses, and government waste. “And yes we took on those
companies on Wall Street that were violating their trust to
us by squandering and wasting our pension dollars and our
savings.” The prosecutor was glad to wear his battle
ribbons from those campaigns: Twice during the debates he
reminded listeners that Time Magazine had called him
“Crusader of the Year.”

Suozzi dented Spitzer’s liberal armor when he said
that he opposed the death penalty while the attorney
general supports it, albeit, as he couched his answer, only
for deserving fiends like terrorists and cop killers. On
the other hand, Suozzi caught sharp hisses from the crowd
when he said would extend civil rights and benefits to gay
couples but not the bonds of matrimony. “In my religion,
marriage is a sacrament between men and women,” said the
Roman Catholic from Glen Cove, as Spitzer — Jewish from
Manhattan — said he would introduce a gay marriage bill in
his first days in office.

Remarkably, when asked during the “lightning round” of
yes or no answers demanded by moderator Domenick Carter,
both men put themselves out of step with some 80 percent
of their fellow Demorats in the state when they both
insisted they would not set a date for withdrawal from
Iraq. There was no follow-up to the question, but the
answers mean that liberal New York will definitely have two
pro-war candidates at the top of the statewide ticket this
November, unless Hillary Clinton has a sudden change of
heart.

Suozzi peppered several of his answers with demands
that “we need to keep talking,” and, “That’s why we need
more debates.” Indeed, debates may be the only hope Suozzi
has left. Up against Spitzer’s $16 million bankroll, and
the TV ads now rolling out off the tube for the favorite,
Suozzi’s odds are more than steep. (Spitzer’s latest ad, a
pro-kindergarten ad featuring a lilting voice singing “This
Little Light of Mine” over portraits of angelic kids, is
nothing short of a Madison Avenue triumph.)

Malone, the Pace political analyst, said that while
the publicity from last night’s debate could give Suozzi a
10-15 point bump, that still won’t be nearly enough. “He’ll
need to get up to 30 or 40 points in the polls before he’ll
get Spitzer to do more debates,” said Malone.

In fact the best indicator of how well Spitzer is
doing with the electorate was on view this week in a
Republican campaign ad: Jeanine Pirro, the Republican
candidate for attorney general, cited Spitzer as a role
model for the job she wants to do if elected.

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