COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
By JAMES FREEMAN
January 19, 2008
Memo to politicians: If you think media scrutiny is tough in New York City, try Albany.
A year ago Eliot Spitzer, the most feared man on Wall Street as New York's attorney general, became the state's governor. After a landslide victory, and with an adoring media trailing him from Manhattan, Mr. Spitzer arrived in Albany.
That's when he became eligible for coverage by one Fredric U. Dicker, state editor for the New York Post. (The Post is owned by News Corp., which owns Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.) A veteran of more than two decades covering state politics, Mr. Dicker had tormented Republican Gov. George Pataki. So perhaps Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat, expected more favorable treatment. Perhaps he thought that kind words from Mr. Dicker during the campaign signaled a permanent ally. Or maybe the new Gov had just never read the 2005 New York Observer piece in which Mr. Dicker described himself as an "equal-opportunity [expletive deleted]."
Speaking of expletives, Mr. Dicker uncovered a particularly colorful moment soon after Mr. Spitzer's inauguration. In a January 2007 telephone call, Republican State Assemblyman and minority leader Jim Tedisco complained to Mr. Spitzer that he had been shut out of discussions on a new ethics law. According to Mr. Dicker's report, Mr. Spitzer then screamed into the phone, "Listen, I'm a [bleeping] steamroller, and I'll roll over you and anybody else." Continuing his telephonic tirade, Mr. Spitzer shouted, "I've done more in three weeks than any governor has done in the history of the state."
Mr. Dicker broke the story, and public perceptions of the new governor began to shift. "A few times in my career I've had some sit-down moments, when I hear something so incredible that even I can't believe it," says Mr. Dicker. "And I'm prepared to believe almost anything around here."
Looking back almost a year later, Mr. Dicker adds, "I'm still amazed by it. The governor almost seems kind of proud of it. It was consistent with what was being alleged about Attorney General Eliot Spitzer . . . when Spitzer was in the AG's office. The claim was that he was browbeating, menacing, bullying people and I think a lot of people were skeptical without seeing proof of it. Here was the governor himself, describing himself as a [bleeping] steamroller."
Mr. Spitzer is not the first pol to find out that when it comes to media scrutiny, New York City can feel like Triple-A ball compared to Mr. Dicker's Albany. Mr. Dicker sits in an office adorned with a mock New York Post with the headline, "Dicker Quits -- Cuomo Declares Holiday." The dummy front page hangs on his wall next to an actual front page with a picture of a sprawling Mr. Dicker. A state official, so incensed by Mr. Dicker's aggressive questioning, had just thrown him to the floor of a statehouse hallway.
A '60s radical who led chapters of the fringe Students for a Democratic Society in college and graduate school, Mr. Dicker long ago abandoned left-wing politics. He remains an idealist. Though raised in the Bronx, his passion now is the upstate. And he's had it with rich governors based in Manhattan and Westchester who occasionally venture north when duty requires it. He displays a zero-tolerance policy for corruption.
Still, as a journalist, doesn't he enjoy the spectacle of politicians misbehaving and failing? "From a journalistic point of view, it's terrific," he says. "But I've got to tell you, I've been doing this a long time. As a citizen of this state, as someone who's watched politician after politician promise to address New York's problems while I've watched New York's problems get worse and worse and worse . . . it's a sad thing to see."
New York has trailed the national averages in job and population growth for decades. Despite -- or because of -- heavy government spending, the economy remains moribund in many upstate areas. New York is second only to Alaska, with its unique transportation challenges, in per capita spending by state and local government. Its total tax burden, including both personal and business taxes, is second only to Connecticut.
Mr. Dicker insists on giving a visitor to Albany a tour of the city's blighted areas, while listing the state's myriad problems. "A million citizens leaving the state, collapse of our manufacturing industry, tensions between upstate and downstate getting worse than ever, and a lot of the upstate population being sort of driven into penury, being turned into . . . vassals for big money, second-home people from New York City who come up and sort of lord it over them."
An attempt by the Spitzer administration to gain the upper hand on the Republican leader of the state Senate led to Mr. Dicker's next big scoop. Last summer, an Albany paper reported that the state police had found information suggesting that Senate President Joseph Bruno had inappropriately employed state aircraft for personal use -- a charge later debunked.
"I took one look at that story," says Mr. Dicker, "and it smelled to me like a setup. This was something that was not normal. The state police would not be gathering information that the story in the Albany paper claimed they had gathered on Sen. Bruno. And if they had gathered it, that information would never have been made public."
So Mr. Dicker started calling around. "I have sources at the state police and in other places in government and I was told, "Yes, this was a setup, with the governor's people trying to nail Sen. Bruno.'" Mr. Dicker broke the story and the "Troopergate" scandal has hounded the governor ever since, as he and his staff have stonewalled efforts to investigate Mr. Spitzer's possible involvement.
A July report, by Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, slammed the actions of Mr. Spitzer's staff. Mr. Cuomo then told the press that several members of the governor's staff had refused to be interviewed under oath. Separate investigations by the Albany district attorney and the state's Public Integrity Commission continue. "We don't know what [Mr. Spitzer] has hidden, if anything, that he's been fighting seemingly so hard to keep secret," says Mr. Dicker. His sources close to Mr. Spitzer say privately that "he's a hands-on manager who privately wouldn't have allowed something like this to go on without his knowledge."
Mr. Spitzer's hardball tactics have turned off lawmakers of both parties. "I'm sure Eliot Spitzer is loved by his dog and his family, but when it comes to politics and the world that I inhabit in the state capital, he has very few friends," says Mr. Dicker.
Turning his mind from the scandals of the moment as he strolls the halls of Albany's Capitol, Mr. Dicker can barely contain his enthusiasm when talking about the magnificent architecture of the place that was, at the time of its 19th century construction, the most expensive building ever constructed in the United States.
"This building reflects the great economic achievements of New York, the intellectual achievements of New York, that led to the wealth that allowed a building like this to be built. New York was once the empire state. We were looked to at one time by the nation as a place that would originate great ideas."
Then his smile fades. "Now, Albany is a backwater, dysfunction junction. The way people liked to laugh at Trenton, New Jersey and Providence, Rhode Island, they now laugh at Albany, New York."
Mr. Dicker isn't necessarily betting on an improvement in the political climate. "2008 may be World War III when it comes to the New York state political scene. [Mr. Spitzer's]' going to do everything he can to defeat Republicans."
Still, recent events suggest the potential for positive changes in Albany. Before making his recent State of the State address, the governor stopped by Mr. Dicker's office to appear on his local radio show. No shouting, no accusations of unfair reporting, no bitter assaults on his enemies. On the air, Mr. Spitzer is self-effacing and complimentary of Mr. Dicker. The governor makes clear, in his comments to Mr. Dicker and later to the assembled legislators, that he wants to work with people, even his opponents, with "openness" and friendly cooperation.
Is this a new Eliot Spitzer? While some have expected him to move left and shore up his Democratic support by becoming even more partisan, Mr. Spitzer says on Mr. Dicker's local radio show that while he favors various new programs, "We must nonetheless control spending, control Medicaid, and not raise taxes." Later, he unveils a plan to cap taxes funding education, suggesting he has some sense of the state's problems, and, one would hope, an understanding that higher taxes and spending won't solve them.
"I think it's fair to say that everybody, even people within the governor's administration, has a healthy degree of skepticism about how genuine his claimed willingness to change really is," says Mr. Dicker.
"I know people close to him who doubt it, with one telling me after the speech, 'Eliot can't help himself. Once a prosecutor always a prosecutor.' From the perspective of the good of the state, however, I think all people of good will hope that the governor will, in fact, be able to work collegially with lawmakers."
So Mr. Dicker is still hoping for the best from politicians. In the meantime, Albany's last idealist will be watching them very closely.
Mr. Freeman is the assistant editor of the Journal's editorial page.