Monday, May 07, 2007

Our Albany Observer: Spitzer names names, lawmakers gasp



Times Herald-Record May 07, 2007
Psst, want to know the big secret about the three men in a room who run state government?
The three men in a room, as the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader get called whenever they go behind closed doors to cut deals, don't actually run state government.
Sure, the governor and the twin legislative leaders, who, for the last decade, have been personified by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, each hold enormous power in New York. With the flourish of a pen, they can make or break legislation, spend or save billions and reward or punish subordinates.
The legislative leaders in particular hold far more power than their counterparts in Washington. Whether Silver, D-Manhattan, and Bruno, R-Brunswick, personally like a policy weighs heavily on that policy's chances of becoming reality.
But the "three men in a room" slogan has helped us forget that these guys aren't hereditary peers. They serve at the pleasure of scores of majority-party legislators, who serve at the pleasure of us.
So, when "Sheldon Silver" steamrolled Spitzer's comptroller pick and elevated an assemblyman to the job in February, Assembly members Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, and Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, were in on the decision.
And, when "Joe Bruno" derailed Spitzer's campaign finance reform plan two weeks ago, Sens. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope; Bill Larkin, R-Cornwall-on-Hudson; and Tom Morahan, R-New City, were helping him pull up the tracks.
In fact, the governor's aides say Spitzer thought he had a deal with Bruno until the Senate leader returned from a closed-door powwow with his members.
This is what makes Spitzer's decision to blast majority-party legislators in their own backyards so interesting — and controversial.
As much as lawmakers say they resent the perception that "three men in a room" run state government, it works in their favor whenever the Legislature must do battle with a popular governor.
In this way, Silver and Bruno, who have few worries of losing re-election themselves, act as heat shields for less secure members. The press compounds this by focusing on the big three for the sake of simplicity or drama.
But Spitzer tears down the time-honored defense when he — as he did during both the comptroller and campaign finance fights — travels the state to name rank-and-file opponents. When the governor shows up, the local media turns out to carry his critical quotes to the unlucky legislator's hometown voters.
"Bill Magnarelli is one of those unfortunate Assembly members who just raises his hand when he's told to do so," Spitzer told the Syracuse Post-Standard after the Central New York Democrat opposed his comptroller pick. The Legislature gasped.
Now, there are reasons why governors usually shy away from this kind of blood sport. For one, it burns bridges with the very legislators the governor needs to make his agenda state law. Public opinion could also swing against Spitzer if he picks the wrong issue or appears to bully a beloved lawmaker.
How would you feel if the governor swung through town to challenge Cahill's independence or accuse Larkin of maintaining the status quo? We might find out soon enough.

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