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For Spitzer, the challenge begins Changing Albany to be no easy task

Eliot L. Spitzer now faces the hard part: governing.

After eight years as attorney general, a post that gave him subpoena power and other legal weapons to attack Wall Street fraud and corporate abuses, Spitzer takes over today as governor of New York comparatively unarmed. Yet he has promised to move an entrenched Legislature and special interest community that is often loath to change.

The incoming governor says reforming how Albany works -- from campaign finance to lobbying to budget creation -- is at the top of his agenda. But Spitzer can look to a long line of previous governors who found their grand ideas upon entering office discarded by a recalcitrant Legislature.

And while he won by historic margins during his campaign against Republican John J. Faso, Spitzer's claims of a mandate will be tested most within the first months of his new administration.

"He might say he has a mandate to change how Albany works, but there's a lot of pressure to keep the status quo in how Albany works. The Legislature is not going to turn over power to the governor because he won a big electoral victory," said G. Oliver Koppell, a former assemblyman from the Bronx who served as an interim state attorney general in 1994.

Spitzer's team knows the first months of his administration can set the tone for his four-year term.

Conversely, how much he bows to appease the Legislature, or its traditional allies, could show his weaknesses to forces that might want to stop or at least curtail his policy wish list.

"It's really a different venue than being a prosecutor," said Richard Nathan, co-director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany.

"The only people that like change are wet babies," Nathan said.

> Spitzer needs allies

Being governor of New York means developing coalitions and getting allies to push through policy initiatives -- responsibilities that prosecutors don't have to worry about, said Nathan, a member of Spitzer's transition team charged with helping develop government reform ideas.

Nathan believes Spitzer -- by virtue of the political diversity he put together in his transition team and his reaching out to state lawmakers before he took office -- understands the challenges of governing.

But the state government expert also said Spitzer's first days in office will be crucial. "It's a very important time. You've got the momentum. There's excitement. People are expecting things and watching closely. It's the moment where you have the most going for you," he said.

> 'New brand of politics'

Spitzer formally took the oath of office last night at the Governor's Mansion in Albany. Today, a ceremonial swearing-in will take place, weather permitting, outdoors in a park next to the Capitol.

In excerpts from his speech to be delivered this afternoon, Spitzer recognizes the enormity of the challenge to keep the campaign promises to reform Albany that helped him become the state's 54th governor.

"The reform we seek is substantial in size and historic in scope," Spitzer plans to say, according to brief portions of the speech his aides provided Sunday. "It will require a new brand of politics -- a break from the days when progress was measured by the partisan points scored or the opponents defeated. No longer can we afford merely to tinker at the margins of the status quo or play the politics of pitting one group against another. We must replace delay and diversion with energy and purpose in the halls of our capital."

One of the first tests for Spitzer will be the selection of a new state comptroller to fill the post vacated by Alan Hevesi, who resigned in order to avoid jail for defrauding the state.

Spitzer made clear, through aides, that he does not want a state lawmaker to get the job -- even though several have floated their names -- because he views them as political insiders.

He will have to deal with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who wants the Legislature to control the process and plans to hold hearings on the empty post.

Silver has publicly talked of his desire to work with Spitzer, but he made a telling comment in a recent article in New York magazine. "Spitzer doesn't control the situation," Silver told the magazine.

"He's dealt with assistant attorneys general whom he appointed. He's dealing in a different league, a different climate, a different dynamic now. He's dealing with individually elected officials. He never had to do that before," Silver added.

> Albany's waiting game

Those who know how Albany works know the waiting game in which the Legislature's leaders often wait for a governor to fold or relinquish some key part of a policy proposal. And that could be among Spitzer's biggest challenges.

"As governor, things aren't going to move as fast as he wants them," said Anthony Masiello, who has seen Albany from the perspective of a state senator, mayor of Buffalo and now lobbyist.

And delay can be a chief executive's most frustrating experience at the Capitol, especially if he thinks he has latched onto a great idea to resolve some pressing problem of the day.

"I don't like to use the word bold, but you've got to be," Masiello said. "How do you deal with the Legislature? You make them act, and act quickly. The longer things linger, the longer you're going to have getting the things done."

> Serious problems to face

Spitzer faces serious problems that he has acknowledged -- runaway health care spending, rising state debt, a moribund upstate economy, soaring property taxes, school funding needs and a future state budget deficit brought about by planned spending and tax cut mandates.

Instead of reaching plea deals with corporate executives under threat of prison, Spitzer will be negotiating a state budget with legislators who have been at the fiscal dance for decades.

"These are not easy people to deal with. He can't accomplish anything if he can't work with Bruno and Shelly," said Koppell, the former attorney general, referring to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Silver.

While people outside the Capitol may believe Spitzer will face his biggest run-ins with the Republican-led Senate, legislators and lobbyists agree the new governor, as chief executives before him, will find members of his own party in the Assembly vexing him the most.

One need only go back to the conflicts former governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo had with Democrats in the Assembly for recent history lessons.

> Silver is key player

Koppell said he sees Silver being the kind of Assembly leader under Spitzer that Stanley Fink and Mel Miller were during the Carey and Cuomo years: more than ready to fight if need be, even in public, with a fellow Democrat in the governor's mansion.

"If I was Shelly, I'd say Democrats were in control of the Assembly and we picked up seats and if people are dissatisfied with how the Assembly was run, why did they elect more Democrats?" Koppell said.

So, where's the mandate?

"I give him credit for being a good attorney general the past eight years," Koppell said. "But this is a very different kind of job. He's a very smart man, but it takes very different skills and very different talents to be a good governor."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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