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Let’s all get along: Sheldon Silver.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

New Day One

Steamroller Out, Facilitator In

Key Democrats in the New York State Legislature are cautiously optimistic about their prospects for restoring function to state government—and winning back the Senate—under Gov. David Paterson

By David King

 

‘It’s been a very tough week, although it seems like three months,” says Assemblyman Ron Canestrari. “But it’s important that we dispel the gloom, end this nightmare, and work with the new team to get this behind us as soon as possible.”

It has been only three days since the news about Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s alleged involvement in a prostitution ring was revealed, and only one day since Spitzer formally tendered his resignation, effective Monday, March 17, at noon. Canestrari, along with the rest of the Capitol, has been coming to terms with the new realities of politics in Albany.

The “nightmare” Canestrari (D-Cohoes) refers to is the Spitzer prostitution scandal, but for some in Albany the real nightmare was the entire 14-month term of Spitzer’s governorship—a term characterized by confrontations and battles with politicians both inside and outside his party, as well as such political mistakes as his plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and his alleged attempt to bring down Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) in “Troopergate.”

But last week, in a matter of a few days, the man elected with 70 percent of the popular vote was felled by a prostitution scandal that left the New York Democratic Party’s future uncertain. The shock still haunts New York’s Democrats, but they are beginning to see a brighter—or at least more civil—future under recently sworn-in Gov. David Paterson.

“I’ve had a headache since Monday,” says Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany), who was a steadfast supporter of the former governor. Unlike some of his colleagues, who openly voiced concerns about Spitzer’s ability to play nice with other politicians, Breslin was nothing but optimistic publicly about Spitzer’s goals. But now, Breslin says there is no better man for the job than Paterson. “David and I served together for 10 years. I was part of the group that made him Senate leader, and I know he is going to do a wonderful job. And he is perfect at this point, as he is totally disarming.”

According to Breslin, despite Spitzer’s scandal and the ill will the governor had built up with politicians on both sides of the aisle, Paterson will be able not only to function, but also to patch holes created by the Steamroller.

“I think our problem this year is that we have an increasing deficit that grows day by day, and it’s going to take some hard decisions,” says Breslin. “David will sit down with Sen. Bruno and Speaker Silver, and he will be able to be, in part, a facilitator, and he will not be a lightning rod. It will be much easier for the three of them to agree on basic principles of a good, on-time budget.”

Somewhat modifying Breslin’s enthusiastic predictions, Canestrari says that it is important to keep expectations reasonable, as the Democratic Party has been dealt a blow by Spitzer’s downfall. It’s clear, he says, that the party must rebuild trust while delivering results.

“Paterson has a reservoir of good will on both sides of the aisle,” says Canestrari. “He worked as a member of the Senate with Sen. Bruno and this could only help getting his agenda enacted into law. But we have to be realistic. The year of good feelings only goes so far, and strong philosophical differences with the Senate can not be overcome with a smile and a wink. Our expectations, unlike when Spitzer was elected, should be more realistic this time around.”

Canestrari notes that Spitzer was making a concerted effort this year to repair bridges to alienated politicians while working on an effort to flip the Senate. “Things did not go very well with Eliot Spitzer and the state Legislature, almost from the beginning,” he says. “I am confident that will not occur with this new governor. I also have to say that in the last few months, Gov. Spitzer changed his inner circle and was reaching out to us.”

But as pundits have pointed out all week, Spitzer’s greatest effort in the last few months of his term as governor—flipping Senate control from Republican to Democrat—may have been put in jeopardy by the his personal actions.

Canestrari and Breslin have different opinions about the effect of Spitzer’s resignation on capturing Senate seats. “I think these are separate issues,” says Canestrari. “Elections are decided more locally than globally. It’s so close, anything can tip the balance, but the mere fact that there was a change in governor . . . I don’t think it will affect that contest at all, really.”

Breslin says he actually sees a brighter picture with Paterson in charge.

Spitzer’s approval rating, even before the scandal hit, was hovering somewhere around 20 percent, and Republicans were able to paint the governor as a bully with bad ideas. Now, Breslin predicts, Paterson will give the Democrats a boost in their tightest races.

“I’ve sat down to talk to a couple of people about that recently, and, honestly, I think we are in a better position,” says Breslin. “Once people see David Paterson and how impressive he is, I think the two seats in Queens, the two seats in Long Island and in Rochester— having David in as governor will assist us in winning there.”

Both Breslin and Canestrari expect Paterson to continue to deliver on a number of promises made by Spitzer, including improving the upstate economy, and campaign-finance reform. Breslin believes that, regardless of the events of the past week, state Democrats may still be on the verge of a legislation renaissance of sorts. “Next January, when both houses are controlled by Democrats with David as governor, I think you are much more likely to see campaign-finance reform, legislative reform measures, and just a fixing of the health-care and educational systems in ways we haven’t done before.”

His optimism be damned, Breslin admits that he has been shaken to his core, and healing must take place before it’s back to politics as usual in Albany.

“This has been the most wrenching week of my life,” says Breslin. “Eliot Spitzer had so much promise and gave us so much hope, and at this time I just feel very sad for him and his wife and three children. We can only hope that in some way he gets the help he needs.”

dking@metroland.net

The Sex Ain’t the Problem

Spitzer’s real crime was hypocrisy

By Miriam Axel-Lute

A little-known tragic part of the whole Spitzer saga is that he wouldn’t have had to pay for what he was looking for. “I would have done it with him for free just for his support of reproductive rights,” says Carol Leigh, sex worker, author of Unrepentant Whore, and a founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA and the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network. “A lot of [sex workers] would have for the contributions he’s made politically.”

But, of course, Eliot might not have known that. Because when he wasn’t actually making use of their services, he kept his interactions with sex workers limited to prosecuting escort services, not listening to them or their advocates.

In fact, in developing New York’s “anti-trafficking” law, he pushed through increased penalties for clients of all sex workers, despite objections of advocates who work directly with victims of human trafficking and with sex workers who were afraid the penalties would discourage people from coming forward with stories of abuse, notes a press release from the SWOP-NYC.

For New Yorkers, this was Spitzer’s crime: flagrant, arrogant hypocrisy. Not being a client of professional sexual services.

Why am I more concerned about Spitzer busting prostitution businesses than his patronizing them? Because when it comes to prostitution, “prohibition is the most harmful for the people involved,” to quote Susan Lopez, co-director of the Desiree Alliance, a network of organizations advocating for sex-worker rights. From a human-rights and public health standpoint, the arguments for decriminalizing prostitution are many and compelling. Put simply: When sex work is a crime, sex workers can be murdered, beaten, robbed, underpaid, and extorted with near impunity because they can’t go to authorities for justice nor organize openly for better working conditions. Though our screwed-up attitudes about sex and gender certainly are in play, the exploitation we think of when we think of prostitution is in very large part actually driven by its illegality. Moralistic arguments about sex work being inherently dehumanizing are patronizing at best in the face of a growing cadre of articulate, empowered sex workers who say otherwise.

So are arguments about how the families of clients are automatically “victims.” Certainly whenever there is lying and cheating, that’s true. In this case, that’s an issue for the Spitzers to resolve. But Leigh points out that it’s quite common that wives (or girlfriends or partners) know and don’t mind. Often, she says, there’s something particular their husbands want that “they would prefer not to do themselves.” And, adds Lopez, it can be far less disruptive to families than an affair with a secretary. People almost never get a divorce to marry their call girl.

If we stop trying to impose religious ideas about sex on consenting adults, then criminalizing prostitution can start to look a little silly. As Lopez says, “I can’t think of anything else in the world that’s legal when it’s free and illegal when it’s paid for.”

Now I don’t think that Spitzer—even the late, lamented, Day One, knight-in-shining-armor Spitzer—could really have pulled off decriminalizing prostitution in his first term, or even should have spent precious political capital trying. But he could have refrained from actively increasing penalties for it. He could have weighed in on the national debate about trafficking and suggestions to broaden the Mann Act to include intrastate transportation as well as interstate. He could have condemned the so-called anti-prostitution “loyalty oath” that refuses U.S. global anti-AIDS funding to organizations willing to work with sex workers in any capacity other than “rescuing” them, including providing them with condoms and health care.

If he’d taken that sound policy approach, then I’d have said his personal sexual proclivities and the state of his marriage don’t affect his ability to govern and are none of our business.

But that’s not what he did. Instead, he actively prosecuted businesses of the type he was patronizing.

And so, even Lopez thinks he should have resigned. “He went after all these financial companies,” she says. “Is he taking something on the back end of that, too?”

That Spitzer employed a call girl was not particularly unusual. In fact, especially for the wealthy and the powerful, it was completely run of the mill. But I don’t buy that it was inevitable. Given prostitution’s continued and even increasing illegality, Spitzer should have kept it in his pants out of deference, at least, to the people who elected him to do some good things in the state of New York. Unlike Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, who seems to think men are completely incapable of delayed gratification, I believe it would have been within his power to do so. (But if Fleiss is right, here’s some advice from Lopez to those pols who want to have their cake and eat it too: “He should have gone with an independent escort.”)

Of course, as much as this scandal is about Spitzer and what he should or shouldn’t have done, the intense, immediate, over-the-top reaction says more about us as a society than it does about him. Though I disagree with the applicability of the phrase “crime against humanity,” it’s hard to explain the larger hypocrisy at work here better than Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, did. After cataloging a long list of moral outrages committed by politicians of all parties currently in office, from the war in Iraq and the lies that got us into it to escalating child poverty to our refusal to repudiate torture, he writes: “That there is no outcry for these government officials and corporate leaders to resign immediately or be impeached, that there is no moral outrage at the entire system that produces this impact, is America’s ethical perversity. Instead, the only crime against humanity that the media takes seriously and the politicians fear is being exposed for personal sexual immorality.”

He’s right. All public figures who were more ready to call for Spitzer’s resignation than they were to call for Bush’s impeachment should be ashamed of themselves, and be forced to utter a public apology with an uncomfortable spouse at their sides.

Photo Credit (Spitzer): Martin Benjamin


Who’s the steamroller now?: Joe Bruno.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Whodunit

Eliot Spitzer screwed up—but why was the federal government listening in?

By Chet Hardin

 

As the country obsessed over the tattoos and singing chops of a call girl named “Kristen,” another, darker story was beginning to take form, a political thriller about the silencing of a lone crusader and of the powerful, exacting retribution against a flawed nemesis—a story that takes place in an America where powerful governors and senators, even presidents, can become the target of concerted efforts by shadowy inside dealers, Wall Street power brokers, and partisan, bureaucratic hatchet men. In this story, our fallen hero, the former governor of New York state, Eliot Spitzer, was victim to more than just his own sordid extramarital proclivity.

The story begins with a pugnacious attorney general making his reputation by chasing down and prosecuting high-profile and powerful corporate crooks. Some of the more notorious of these Wall Street tycoons: former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso, who came under Spitzer’s fire after walking away from his post with a $139 million deferred compensation package; and Kenneth Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, who, through his NYSE committee chairmanship, signed off on Grasso’s sizable retirement bonus and, in doing so, drew Spitzer’s prosecutorial interests.

Langone declared war on the attorney general, telling New York magazine, “One way or another, Spitzer is going to pay for what he’s done to me and the havoc he’s caused in the New York business climate.” He, in large part, bankrolled Spitzer’s primary gubernatorial opponent Tom Suozzi, exclaiming in the same interview that he intended “to make sure everyone knows that Eliot Spitzer isn’t fit to be governor of New York state or any other office, for that matter.”

“We all have our private hell,” Langone enthused after Spitzer’s connection to the Emperor’s Club broke. “I hope his private hell is hotter than anybody else’s”—a sentiment shared by most in the Wall Street business world. It was no surprise that the trading floors have followed every break in the Spitzer scandal with cheers and applause.

As governor, Spitzer continued his dogged attacks on presumed enemies. His notorious steamroller threat to Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) was followed by a full-on, months-long brawl with the powerful Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick). Bruno called for and received investigations into the “political espionage” surrounding Troopergate. Those investigations, undertaken by both New York’s attorney general and Albany County District Attorney David Soares, turned up nothing especially actionable. Close Spitzer appointments resigned as a result, but the battle between Spitzer and Bruno continued, taking an ugly turn when allegations broke that Bruno’s political hit man, Roger Stone, had called and threatened Spitzer’s father, Bernard.

Stone resigned over these allegations but continued, he claims, his war against Spitzer. On Dec. 6, 2007, Stone cryptically, and, as it turned out, presciently, told radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish that ‘‘Eliot Spitzer will not serve out his term as governor of the state of New York.’’

When asked recently about his involvement in the Spitzer investigation, the ever-coy Stone told Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, “No comment,” but added, “I will say that I knew it was coming.”

How did he know? To whom was he talking?

“Even though there’s no evidence he sent the governor to a hooker or made the Bush Justice Department follow up on a banking tip,” Henican wrote, “he’s been energetically working to undermine the governor.”

Which leads to Spitzer’s most powerful enemy, the perfect villain in any thriller: the administration of George W. Bush.

On Feb. 14, Spitzer issued what would be one of his last official salvos in that battle through an op-ed published in the Washington Post titled, “Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime.”

Several years ago, Spitzer wrote, “predatory lending was widely understood to present a looming national crisis. This threat was so clear that, as New York attorney general, I joined with colleagues in the other 49 states in attempting to fill the void left by the federal government. Individually, and together, state attorneys general of both parties brought litigation or entered into settlements with many subprime lenders that were engaged in predatory lending practices. Several state legislatures, including New York’s, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices.”

“Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers,” he wrote, “it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye.”

The Bush administration had filed its own lawsuits to block Spitzer’s efforts, investigative journalist Greg Palast pointed out in his March 14 radio report for Air America. It appears that Bush and Spitzer’s enemies in the banking world were teaming up.

“Bush’s banking buddies,” Palast wrote, “were especially steamed that Spitzer hammered bank practices across the nation using New York State laws.”

Spitzer used these laws to attack the “predatory enablers in the investment banking community,” Palast wrote, and these powerful banking interests made it clear “to Bush’s enforcers at Justice who their number one target should be. And it wasn’t Bin Laden.”

“Do I believe the banks called [the Dept. of] Justice and said, ‘Take him down today!’” Palast wrote. “Naw, that’s not how the system works. But the big players knew that unless Spitzer was taken out, he would create enough ruckus to spoil the party.”

On Feb. 14, Spitzer testified before Congress about predatory lending, but his personal fate had already been sealed. During the two days prior, more than a dozen phone calls and text messages from Spitzer to a prostitution ring allegedly were captured by a federal wiretap, as well as evidence of Spitzer’s infamous encounter with a prostitute.

Federal authorities, the IRS, and state lawmen, as it has been revealed, had been watching Spitzer for months. How did the relatively innocuous money transfers—totaling $80,000—of a multimillionaire lead to a full-blown federal investigation, with wiretaps and a sting operation?

The investigators have claimed that they suspected the transfers could have been bribe payments, a claim that Scott Horton called absurd in his March 12 article in the New Republic. The money was moving out of Spitzer’s account, not in. If they had suspected that the governor was being bribed, why didn’t they just ask him?

“Several reports about this case have suggested that it is somehow routine for prosecutors to go through the financial records of public officials to look for evidence of corruption,” Horton wrote. “But in the absence of specific grounds justifying the investigation . . . prosecutors have no such authority. In this case . . . the investigators do not appear to be looking into a crime, they appear to be investigating Spitzer in the hopes of finding something compromising.”

It wasn’t the money transfers that drew the attention of the authorities, Horton continued, it was the man who made the transfers.

Famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote in the Washington Post that “federal money-laundering statues criminalize many entirely legitimate and conventional banking transactions . . . to give prosecutors wide discretion in deciding which ‘bad guys’ to go after.”

And the decision to go after the bad guys, under the Bush Department of Justice, has illustrated a clear partisan agenda. Within the Public Integrity Section, which is called upon whenever an investigation could have political implications, Horton wrote, 5.6 cases of investigation into Democrats have been initiated for every one into Republicans.

“Considering that the official account shows this was a ‘routine’ examination of bank records, the level of resources allocated to it, including investigators and prosecutors, was lavish,” Horton wrote. “This again suggests a political prosecution. Political direction is rarely overt. It usually takes the form of generous allocation of resources for political targets, and constriction of resources for persons who are politically protected. Clearly, moving the case against Spitzer had become a priority.”

Did the Bush Justice Department zealously go after Spitzer, as Horton, Palast, and Dershowitz wonder? Was there a partisan agenda behind the investigation? A use of the most powerful police agency in the country to crush an inconvenient and voracious opponent? If this is a political thriller, and there was an acknowledged effort to bring down Spitzer at all costs just to please powerful interests, have the villains gotten away the perfect crime?

chardin@metroland.net


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