Despite a certain tabloid report to the contrary, Mayor Bloomberg insists he does not want to be governor. "No, thank you. I have no interest whatsoever," he told reporters last week. True, politicians, our mayor included, don't like to go around spilling their private ambitions, but in this particular case, one trusts that Mr. Bloomberg was as sincere as a cup of tea. Can you blame him? While it might be good to be the king, it's horrible to be the governor of New York.
As a reporter covering Albany, I have, at least in respect of this dimension to the story, developed sympathy for Eliot Spitzer. It's not just that he has to spend half his time in a mostly uninhabited tundra that, when it's not frozen, is swarming with mosquitoes. The man has an impossible job. For Mr. Spitzer, being governor has been a series of Catch-22s. He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.
When he was elected in November with 69% of the vote, the mandate was clear. Voters wanted a governor who would fix state government by taking on a Legislature subsumed by labor unions and other special interests that have conspired to drive up taxes and spending. During the campaign, critics of Mr. Spitzer — among them a fellow Democrat, Thomas Suozzi — alleged that Mr. Spitzer was too chummy with the inside-Albany establishment and wouldn't dare to go to war with the entrenched power structure.
Mr. Spitzer did just that. He barnstormed the state, accusing both Republican and Democratic lawmakers of displaying, when they anointed one of their own comptroller, a "stunning lack of integrity." During budget negotiations, he pounded Senate leader Joseph Bruno for trying to stuff hundreds of millions of dollars in extra health and education spending. The steamroller approach has actually done more harm than good for the governor. His relationship with the Legislature is in tatters. Lawmakers have dismissed him as an arrogant bully and now seem to take pleasure in stalling his agenda.
When Mr. Spitzer decides to break bread with the Legislature, he's criticized for being weak. To please all of the editorial boards and civic groups that howled whenever Albany missed a budget deadline, Mr. Spitzer made it a priority to get an on-time budget, rushing out a compromise hammered out with Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mr. Bruno behind closed doors. In return for being punctual, he's pummeled in the liberal press for negotiating in secret and in the conservative press for failing to hold the line on spending.
Not even on campaign finance can the governor catch a break. Before taking office, he voluntarily swore off individual, PAC, and limited liability company contributions larger than $10,000 and said he would no longer take advantage of a loophole allowing wealthy donors to circumvent restrictions by establishing multiple LLCs.
These self-restrictions are not minor; the governor is forgoing a lot of cash. When Mr. Spitzer proposes that other elected officials adhere to similar standards, he's mocked as a hypocrite for not completely denying himself the ability to raise money he needs to replenish coffers that were emptied to finance his budget battle against the mother of all special interests, Local 1199 of the service employees. The governor decides to bring a knife to a gunfight, and all people can talk about is that he's still holding a knife.
When the governor breaks away from bickering with the Legislature to focus on big-picture planning for the state, he's completely overshadowed by the mayor of New York City. Mr. Spitzer learned this the hard way when last month he unveiled his ambitious plan for reducing energy consumption. Unfortunately, no one remembers anything about it. Everybody is too busy talking about Mr. Bloomberg and congestion pricing.
Part of the public relations problem for Mr. Spitzer is that he has to get people to believe that all New Yorkers are playing for the same team. "We rise and fall together as one people," as Mr. Spitzer put it. In reality, the concept of "one New York" exists only on maps. New York has three warring factions: upstaters, suburbanites, and the eight million people who live in New York City. The Empire State is the most sectarian state in the nation.
New Yorkers have a strong connection to their local leaders but only vaguely identify with their governor. Mr. Pataki led New York for 12 years, and he can walk into a bar in New York City without having to worry about being recognized. Granted he wasn't the most charismatic leader, but the fact is most people take an interest in state government only when they're paying taxes.
It is true that the governorship of New York can be a springboard to immortality. The names of Roosevelt will never be forgotten. But not a lead pipe cinch, as others have learned. Before leaving office, Mr. Pataki left Mr. Spitzer a note of advice on the desk in his executive chamber. While both politicians refused to share the contents of it, I wouldn't be surprised if the note could be summarized in four words: "It isn't worth it." Lucky for Mr. Bloomberg, he already got the memo.