Assembly Democrats huddled in private for more than six hours Tuesday, trying to decide whether to break with Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and back one of their own as the state's next comptroller.
Lawmakers, fuming over a process that they say cut out all candidates from the Legislature for the top fiscal watchdog job, were unable to rally around a single candidate by Tuesday night. If lawmakers do back someone other than one of three finalists selected recently by a panel of former comptrollers, it would be the formal start to a bitter battle among Democrats and an embarrassing rebuff to the new governor.
"There is a list sent up to the Legislature. I fully expect that they will choose from among the members on that list. That's it," Spitzer said Tuesday.
Following the resignation last month of Alan G. Hevesi, the disgraced former comptrol ler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Spitzer agreed on the process to replace Hevesi: Three former comptrollers -- Edward Regan, H. Carl McCall and Harrison Goldin -- selected the three finalists from a field of more than a dozen, and the Legislature, dominated by Democrats, would then make the final choice.
The finalists are businessman William Mulrow, who is close to Spitzer, New York City Finance Commissioner Martha Stark and Nassau Comptroller Howard Weitzman.
The Legislature Democrats, however, claim their understanding of the deal was that five finalists would be chosen -- with two from their ranks making the cut. Spitzer believes the deal called for as many as five.
After one closed-door session, one legislator joked that the consensus was to name Kenneth Langone, the Home Depot founder who has had a series of major feuds with Spitzer over the years.
Assembly Democrats have made no final decision whether to defy the governor. If they do, then they face the prospect of choosing from among four of their fellow Assembly Democrats -- another difficult task. Several Democrats were already floating a none-of-the-above possibility: choosing someone not on the panel's list nor any of the legislative candidates.
"People believe . . . that legislators are blacklisted," said Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, D-Rochester, one of the Legislature candidates for comptroller. He said the panel process turned out to be "not a fair and open process."
"I certainly don't think that the governor ought to be involved in this. The job of the comptroller is to be the auditor of state agencies under the governor's control -- and so I think that the governor would rightfully understand that he not be involved in the decision-making," Morelle added.
Regan recently said Spitzer did not lobby the panel.
Aides to Spitzer have raised concerns about a member of the Legislature -- which has seen its share of scandal the past several years -- replacing Hevesi after his ethical problems chased him from office.
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