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LAST IMPRESSIONS

The once-mighty King Joel has fallen.

He fell on the sword of serial blunders. The largest among them was a red budget that left him red-faced, ignited a taxpayer revolt and humbled the colossus of county government.

The boyhood pauper from the West Side projects had a meteoric political rise, jumped party fences at a single bound, awed and inspired his subjects with bold remedies to dissolve civic borders and conquer economic malaise.

His vast popularity for a time made him a law unto himself -- bigger than his political party and ruler of a county empire whose honeyed patronage sap fed friends, family and a chauffeur. Alas, he was undone by arrogance and populace-pleasing property-tax cuts that weren't balanced by slashes in pork, perks and spending.

His ambitions for an Empire State empire have likely been dashed on the rocks of budget implosions, Highway Department high jinks, furniture deals to the favored and a failure to work and play well with others. Kings often make poor diplomats; he alienated those he should have wooed and proved better at birthing grand plans than bringing them to reality. The king didn't realize that reform begins with the reformer.

The people's choice became the man without a country -- absent of allies, dubbed a Judas by Democrats he left behind and an interloper by Republicans whose party he invaded. He evokes little sympathy but retains plenty of fight, evidenced by bare-knuckles battles with his fellow-Republican comptroller and a relentless frontal assault on Albany lawmakers over Medicaid excesses.

His crown is askew; he is bloodied but -- with nearly three years left to rule -- unbowed. Dreams of resurrection dance in his head as he vows, against the odds, to be not just the once, but the future king.

-- Donn Esmonde

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