Bruno  vs.  Spitzer

by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

for the Sunday Gazette


Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty…

                                          Winston Churchill, speech at Harrow School, October 29, 1941

Churchill’s immortal words, spoken in the dark days of the World War II, are widely admired. But what, pray tell, can be done when they are figuratively tattooed on the foreheads of two stubborn adversaries who ooze with hubris. In one corner, we have Governor Eliot “Steamroller” Spitzer, he of the sharp elbows, and in the opposite corner, Senate Majority Leader Joe “Whirlybird” Bruno. And counting for knockdowns at the bell, we have—the general public. Have our state leaders been drinking Kool Aid? Just what is it that makes each want to destroy the other rather than work together for the common good? Let’s see what this is all about.

Eliot Laurence Spitzer, a 48-year old Democrat, inherited great wealth and superb genes from his parents. As evidence of the latter, he scored 1590 out of 1600 on his SAT exam and a perfect score on his Law School Admission Test (LSAT). He was elected Governor of New York last year by garnering 73% of the vote. He is very, very smart and not used to losing at anything.

Joe Louis (would you believe it?) Bruno, a 78-year old Republican, was a champion light-heavyweight pugilist while stationed in Korea in 1954. He is the child of immigrants, one who trod the storied Horatio Alger path from rags to great riches, principally through the sale of a telecommunications company that he founded. He, too, is very smart, a bit less anxious than Spitzer to prove it, but equally adamant not to lose at anything. His Senate district, the counties of Saratoga and Rensselaer, contains 14 towns and two cities, each of which contains at least one structure named for Joe Bruno—not by himself, but by grateful constituents who enjoy the lavishness of the “member items” showered upon them. The Rensselaer train station will be his greatest legacy, and I admit to greatly admiring it. Now all we need are the more frequent trains commensurate to its capacity and willingness to let a few of them come to and get there from Schenectady.

Despite all his campaign rhetoric about Day One, the Governor must have realized that he was unlikely to achieve any important goal so long as Senator Bruno served as Majority Leader, fervently wishing that the adjective he loves could be reduced to ”Minority.” Mr. Bruno, of course, would like to retain his title until he is at least 80, two years from now. If only Mr. Spitzer had been content to wait for one more statewide election, next year for the Legislature, the matter would surely be taken care of through natural electoral processes; a Democratic gain of just three Senate seats out of 62 would provide the needed power switch.

There have been three recent episodes that generated Spitzer-Bruno controversies. The latest was Senator Bruno’s disdain for the Governor’s plan to stabilize the horse racing industry. I think giving NYRA control until Joe is 108 may be a bit much, but the general outline of the plan has received pretty broad editorial support. Mr. Bruno’s counter plan, however, is bizarre to the point of absurdity. Either the Governor will win that round, or there will be no racing in New York next season.

As Carl Strock has pointed out, “Troopergate” should be called something else; the appellation has been recycled from completely unrelated scandals of the past. Travelgate or Heliogate would be more appropriate because it would highlight the reason that the Spitzer administration, just as the Pataki administration did before this one, was concerned about Joe Bruno’s propensity to ride state helicopters to New York City to attend fundraisers with only a scintilla of attention given to state business while there. All political leaders should retain a wise advisor who can warn her boss, not of incipient illegality—an instinctively honest politician (which is not an oxymoron) never commits patently illegal acts—but rather of something that so many leaders find it hard to guard against: the mere appearance of impropriety.

By far the worst brouhaha that has arisen is over the Governor’s executive order to implement something that he said he would do when he campaigned for the office: allow properly documented illegal aliens to obtain the drivers’ licenses they need to insure the cars that they are going to drive anyway.

If, last year, Mr. Spitzer’s opponent John J. Faso criticized this proposal, I do not recall it and can find no evidence of it on the Web. And contrary to conventional wisdom, one does not need a driver’s license to board an airplane; any form of photo ID will do. Ours would not be the first state to allow this. At one time, eleven states did so. But some have revoked the practice, and in one case, California, Governor Gray Davis was recalled because of this inflammatory issue.

There are two points relevant to the licensing fracas that I haven’t seen in the press. One is the lack of discussion that I would think would occur to all of us, namely, when people show up at a motor vehicle office and admit that they are illegal aliens (or cannot disprove that they are), why are they not detained until the FBI is called to whisk them off as a prelude to swift deportation?

There is a two-fold answer: first, there are at least 12 million illegal aliens already in the country, more than are here legally. Even if it would cost a mere $40,000 to deport one, that would amount to $480 billion, or roughly the cost to date of the Iraq War. Second, the enormously influential business community does not want this to happen en masse; the country couldn’t get its work done without them. As the venerated Republican president Calvin Coolidge said in the 1920s, “The business of America is business.”

The second point is one that apparently hasn’t occurred to the plethora of Republican County Clerks. Our federal constitution, through the framers’ failure to anticipate the invention of the automobile 100 years later, reserves motor vehicle regulation to the states, and our state constitution grants to our governor the right to set administrative policies that are not contrary to established state law. Thus County Clerks that refuse to implement a perfectly legal Gubernatorial edict would be in violation of their oath of office, to wit: “I solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of New York, and the Charter of my county, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of County Clerk to the best of my ability.”

Now, I close with the confession that I left out the ending of the Churchill quote with which I began. Joltin’ Joe and Elbows Eliot take note:never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” We anxiously await the advent of those last two words.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.