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On Spitzer, a rigged game and balloons

I know that he is gone and all but forgotten. I know that his image morphed in light speed from "crusader" to "hypocrite." I know he was temperamentally unsuited to be governor, even before his taste for high-priced prostitutes undid him.

But the unmasking of the predatory lending that burst the housing bubble, led to the demise of Wall Street brokerage houses and consequently took an ax to countless retirement accounts underlined a basic truth: Eliot Spitzer was right.

As attorney general, Spitzer railed against Wall Street's excesses and abuses. His targets included subprime lending abuses, as well as bid-rigging by the now notorious AIG -- the insurance giant that just got an $85 billion taxpayer bailout. Spitzer also found that AIG pumped up its stock value by hiding losses.

Spitzer was not the only attorney general who sounded a warning bell. But by going after abuses by the financial industry centered in his Manhattan backyard, Spitzer carried the flag for truth, justice and what ought to be the American way.

The guy's personal behavior ended his political career. But as recent events remind us, "Client 9" was on the case when it came to Wall Street's abuses. His actions as attorney general did him -- and his office -- proud.

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As a believer in open government, I can't agree with challenger Dennis Delano's refusal to debate in the Cheektowaga-based State Senate race. But I cannot work up a lot of sympathy for incumbent Bill Stachowski, or for any state legislator who -- against all odds -- actually finds himself in a competitive race.

This is Stachowski's first real contest in 27 years in office. He is not the exception, but the rule. The system is rigged to protect incumbents. The odds are so stacked that most legislators seldom face more than a token challenge. Their re-election rate hovers above 95 percent, and it is not because voters are happy. Albany is widely regarded as the nation's most dysfunctional, taxpayer-unfriendly state government.

State lawmakers protect their flanks in numerous ways. They draw their own district lines -- no, I am not kidding -- and stuff them with same-party voters. That is why, for instance, there are twice as many Democrats as Republicans in Democrat Stachowski's district. In a lot of districts, the partisan imbalance is even worse.

It does not stop there. An incumbent gets hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to spread throughout the district -- which is as close as it gets to vote-buying. Taxpayer-funded mailings amount to "free" campaign advertising for officeholders. And on and on.

Despite those disadvantages, Delano is leading in the polls. Why?

Because his reputation as a well-known hero cop levels the playing field.

Stachowski, unlike most state lawmakers, had the bad luck to come up against the rare circumstance of a challenger with a name recognition. That is why, for the first time in 27 years, he faces a competitive race instead of a coronation. Now that the tables have turned, it is tough to sympathize with Stachowski's unanswered calls for debate and protests about the unfairness of it all.

Even so, it is just one race. Even if Delano bucks the odds, the bigger picture stays the same. One state legislator may fall, but the system that protects the other 211 remains in place.

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I do not want to raise the terrorism threat level to orange, or heighten anybody's anxiety level. But if all it takes to knock out power at a pro football stadium is a few wayward helium balloons, Homeland Security has a lot bigger job on its hands than I thought.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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