March 12, 2008 / 9:35 PM / 12 years ago

New NY gov could further Spitzer's reform agenda

Albany, NEW YORK (Reuters) - Disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s stillborn crusade for government reform may move ahead under his successor, whose collegial style may help quell the spats that taint state politics, top officials said on Wednesday.

Political battles, particularly a bizarre one between Spitzer and the state’s top Republican, Joseph Bruno, helped doom the outgoing governor’s self-described quest to introduce more fairness and transparency to state government.

Lt. Gov. David Paterson, a longtime legislator who represents Harlem, becomes governor on Monday when Spitzer steps down amid a scandal over a high-priced prostitute.

Paterson “can hit the ground running,” said Democrat Sheldon Silver, state Assembly speaker.

“He has the intellectual capacity, he has the ability, the humor, the charisma and the personality to be one of the finest governors New York has ever had,” Silver said.

Spitzer, who as state attorney general waged high-profile probes of alleged financial malfeasance on Wall Street that earning him wide publicity and deep resentment, was elected governor in 2006 on a vow to reform state government.

Whether he even came close to that goal in his aborted term in office is debatable, observers say.

“The reformer isn’t the reformer we thought he was,” said Republican state Sen. Betty Little, who acknowledged that Spitzer helped push through laws to help the state meet budget deadlines and force agencies to reveal more information.

One success Silver pointed to was Spitzer’s reform of the state’s workers compensation program.

Spitzer’s tenure was characterized by a feud with political nemesis Bruno, the state Senate Majority leader, culminating in charges by the Republican that Spitzer used state police escorts and helicopters to spy on him.

Dubbed “Choppergate,” an investigation by the attorney general cleared Bruno of any wrongdoing in his use of state helicopters for trips but was highly critical of the conduct of Spitzer’s administration in investigating Bruno’s travels.

Ironically, Bruno now assumes duties of lieutenant governor and will serve as acting governor should Paterson go out of state or become incapacitated.

On Wednesday, Bruno extended an olive branch to the incoming governor. “It’s now time for us to move forward,” he said in Albany, adding, “I have an excellent relationship with David.”

LAX CAMPAIGN FINANCE LAWS

Ripe for reform by the new governor are the most lax campaign finance laws in the nation and an oft-criticized method of selecting judges. Spitzer’s bid to reform campaign finance was derailed by his battles with Bruno, legislators said.

Spitzer also fumbled with a proposal to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, which met with vast opposition. The proposal had repercussions in the U.S. presidential campaign when Hillary Clinton, a U.S. Senator from New York, was seen equivocating on whether she supported the idea.

Soft-spoken and low profile, Paterson may accomplish more than Spitzer, often seen as a brash, arrogant grandstander.

“His personality reaches out to others in a different way, but I think it will accomplish very much on behalf of the people of the state of New York as well,” Silver said.

Paterson, who would be the state’s first black governor, was elected in 1985 as a state senator for Harlem and rose to minority leader nine years later.

Despite his collegial style, Paterson has plenty of political fight in him, observers said.

“You don’t come up in the rough and tumble of politics in Harlem and Albany without being a tough guy,” said Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Philip Barbara

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