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Questions, answers with Gov. Spitzer
February 14, 2007
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Star-Gazette Albany Bureau


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ALBANY -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer sat down Tuesday for a question-and-answer session with editorial writers and reporters from Gannett newspapers. Here are some excerpts.

SPITZER: Let me just make some observations about where we are, how the first six-and-a-half weeks have gone and then it will spark some inquiry. It's actually been a remarkably affirmative six-and-a-half weeks and when you cut through some of the haze of disagreement, which there's been obviously, and we'll talk about it, what I think we've managed to do is begin the process of redefining the culture of Albany and in the inaugural address and the State of the State and less in the budget, but in the three major addresses I have made thus far I always begin with that cultural shift because it is necessary to wise decision making in the long-term.

It doesn't mean every point along the shift will be a successful one where there'll be agreement but we've begun a much more genuine debate about where we have to go.

It manifested itself to a certain extent statutorily with an agreement on how we would pick the comptroller. Of course that had an unhappy ending from my perspective but there was a conceptual agreement that was very affirmative.

There was a budget-reform bill that was a good bill. And there was an ethics bill that although didn't give everybody everything they wanted, really was a very good bill. There was a total gift ban, a ban on honoraria, a ban on participation in public-service announcements, a closing of the revolving door...

Then in the budget we laid out fundamental pivots in education finance, health care, property-tax cuts that will be done the right way, infrastructure investments, investment in cities that are distressed; a series of substantive pivot points that will take the state in a new, and I think overwhelmingly affirmative, direction. Now, a budget is an initial document that will have to make its way through the legislative process and that will be a give and a take.

Now I'm not ignoring the 800-pound elephant in the room. We've had a disagreement about the process relating to comptroller. It is a disagreement that laid bare some of the real fissures in perspective perhaps. But it has also added some clarity to the discussion. I hope that as we go forward, and inevitably we must and we will, and I've said from the very first that I'm paid here by the taxpayers to make government work and we will do that, people now will see where people stand...

I think the public has responded to this issue with a certain clarity and there are not issues all the time that emerge that permit people to say "wait a minute, this has something that approaches a right and a wrong." I don't want to overstate it but I think we all remember reading Kant and moral imperatives. I think that you could almost craft the argument that there was a moral imperative to this debate and there was a utility to using it as a way to galvanize support for the continuum effort of reform, and it is a continuum effort. It isn't something that is accomplished over night.

I use the metaphor of the Wall Street effort .... The thing to remember there is that in each case you had a failure of government.

In one case a private-sector government where you had CEOs enriching themselves, violating the trust of shareholders and employees, enriching themselves with pay packages, overriding shareholder democracy, and subverting their fiduciary duty.

In the public sector we have the same thing: legislators, I would suggest, who have used redistricting and gerrymandering just as executives use shareholder-voter gimmickry. Legislators using, just as executives use boards of directors who are supposed to be the check, the ethics committees that are supposed to be the check ... Member items, "stipends," there were other things that sort of reinforced a system of self-perpetuation rather than loyalty to the shareholder or the voter.

So it takes a while, and I don't want to sit here and say we won the Wall Street effort, but we illuminated the problem, brought cases that moved things and I think just in that similar way we're beginning to do that in Albany.

Now some people have said "Gee, were you too hard on some of the individual electeds?" and here's the thing that I hope they understand. I get along great with them on a personal level. This is not a personal issue, this is not an ad-hominem attack.

But nonetheless, the public needs to understand that at a certain point, there needs to be accountability for votes. And so, what I want the public to do is hold legislators accountable for votes that I believe to be contrary to the reform effort we're involved in and the only way you can hold individual legislators accountable is by saying, "Legislator X voted the wrong way."

And therefore it has been up to me, and I think it's my job, to say that.

Some people have said that it violates the rules of etiquette. Well, you know what, I violated the rules of etiquette when I told the truth about Wall Street also. Sometimes the rule of etiquette are nothing more than a way to perpetuate the status quo and things have to be said that may be a little uncomfortable, but the uncomfortable is what is most important.

So anyway, do we get beyond this, of course we do. Do we move on and deal with education and property taxes and the environment and brownfields and the whole range of issues? This is where we go, it's a process, and after six weeks I don't think anyone would disagree that Albany is a more interesting place than it was two months ago and that isn't the metric we used necessarily but we're working on these things.

Q: You start out by mentioning that you thought there was a difference in perspective with (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan) and then on the other hand you're saying there was a lack of integrity and you think it's the wrong vote (on comptrol
A: I didn't say it was immoral, I said there was a moral imperative. In a Kantian sense I think there was a right and wrong. I don't mean to say it in a way that says "as government leaders, we'll never work together again." That doesn't work and it's not what the taxpayers want out of us. I do believe there was a right and a wrong and I'll explain why, if you want me to.

Q: Well the question is, you're saying (Silver) violated your trust and can you deal with a person like this?
A: I guess the answer I'd give is: I have to. And it strains the relationship. But why do I have to? He's an elected official and as long as he is the speaker, my job is to deal with the Legislature and not to leave and go back to my office in a huff and say "I won't take your phone calls." That doesn't work for the voters. We have a duty to work with each other. I have a duty to do a couple of things: one is to explain to the public why I think what (the Assembly) did was wrong because that is what will push the reform agenda, and the other duty is to say "now we've got issues to deal with." And you do all of them simultaneously, which is what makes them messy.

(Silver marshaled Assembly votes to give Long Island Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli the win for comptroller; Spitzer opposed DiNapoli because he'd been rejected by a candidates' screening committee.)

Spitzer (continued): I like DiNapoli, he's a very decent guy and a friend and I've always said just because you're a friend doesn't mean you're qualified for a job. I spoke to Tom yesterday and I wished him not only well but great success because we need that, it's critically important. People know how legislators voted and I think they should ask them a simple question: Do you really believe that vote reflected your determination about who was best for the job or was it something else? I think my views have been clear on this, I haven't changed them. Now I'm saying let's deal with property taxes and the economics of (the state), which is an enormously important issue that I care deeply about.

Q: You mentioned that it's going to be hard to work with Silver after what happened. Do you think he should be replaced and will you look to replace him as speaker?
A: I don't think it is the best approach for me to be saying that or to undermine individuals who have an office.

Q: It wasn't surprising that you criticized the legislative leaders for breaking the agreement, but the words you used to describe DiNapoli right out of the gate, basically "unqualified," were noteworthy. You said you have a long-standing relationship wit
A: I'm not going to retract anything. He is a friend. He is a very decent individual of great integrity. That litany is not that the totality of qualifications that one would seek. When I said he wasn't qualified it's because in my view, you wanted somebody with a deep financial understanding because this is the sole trustee of the $145 billion pension fund. So while there's an edge that, ... it wasn't a critique of him as a person or a challenge to his integrity or decency.

Q: But how could that not be?
A: Because if someone asked me if I was qualified to be an astronaut, I would say "no way." There are many jobs out there that I'm not qualified for. That doesn't mean I'm not a decent, good, reasonable person. There are many jobs for which Tom DiNapoli is superbly qualified for and I hope he performs brilliantly in this job and does everything that he needs to. So I'm not withdrawing the statement by any stretch ....
 
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