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Legislature repudiates Spitzer on comptroller Chooses one of its own, Assemblyman DiNapoli

Dealing a sharp rebuke to Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, state legislators Wednesday selected one of their own members as the new state comptroller, a move the new governor ridiculed as "a stark reminder of all that is wrong with our Legislature and its leadership."

In a whirlwind day of soaring rhetorical warfare between the Democratic governor and Democrats in the Assembly, Nassau County's Thomas P. DiNapoli, a 20-year veteran of the Assembly, was tapped by his colleagues to fill the vacancy created following the corruption scandal involving the former chief fiscal watchdog, Alan Hevesi. DiNapoli, 52, will serve through 2010.

The open defiance by legislators came a day after the governor scored a political victory by helping to reduce the margin of control by Republicans in the State Senate by one seat -- to 33-29 -- with the victory by a Democrat in a special election on Long Island.

During a joint session of both the Assembly and Senate, legislators of both parties not only praised DiNapoli but criticized Spitzer for what some described as a heavy-handed approach to try to influence the selection of Hevesi's replacement.

"Reform is not abdicating my responsibility as a legislator -- and ceding power to the executive," Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-Brooklyn, told his colleagues.

But Spitzer lashed out at what he said was the reneging on a deal reached last month with legislative leaders to use a panel of former comptrollers to narrow down a list of finalists from which the Legislature would make a choice. When none of four Assembly Democrats vying for the post appeared on the final list, lawmakers called the process tainted.

Within an hour of the vote -- DiNapoli received 150 votes to 56 for Martha Stark, the New York City finance commissioner who was on the list of finalists -- Spitzer unleashed a legislative tongue-lashing that exceeded any of his previous attacks on the Legislature in the past couple of weeks.

He called the vote "an insider's game" that confirms every New Yorker's worst impressions of what goes on in the Legislature. He said too many legislators "ask not what is right for the public or ethics or governance but, 'How will this affect me? How will it affect my re-election?' "

"The Legislature let politics and cronyism overwhelm sound judgment," the governor said.

Spitzer saved his most pointed criticisms for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and for Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno. He accused both of breaking a deal when the outcome they wanted -- a legislator as comptroller -- did not materialize.

Silver and Bruno, he said, "showed a stunning lack of integrity that is deeply troubling."

The battle lines promise to set the stage for mass gridlock just as the real work of Albany -- including the passage of a new budget -- is getting under way.

Silver, who has shied away from personally attacking Spitzer during the dispute, let his angry rank-and-file lawmakers do the talking.

"I hope we can move on with the business of the people," he said after the vote.

Bruno, fresh from the loss of the Long Island Senate seat to the Democrats, said Spitzer should use his time for things other than bashing the Legislature. "It's really time to govern," he said. "This 'who's the most macho,' I think, clearly has run its course."

The job of comptroller is vast.

Besides approving every dollar spent by the state, the comptroller is responsible for auditing state and local government agencies. Overnight, DiNapoli also became one of the world's biggest Wall Street investors in his role as the sole trustee of the $145 billion state and local government pension system.

This year, a new power has been added to the office: budget referee.

The comptroller will break the tie if Spitzer and legislative leaders are unable to agree in the coming weeks on how much money is available to spend in the state budget.

Several potent labor unions -- including those with members enrolled in the state's pension system -- rushed to praise DiNapoli.

DiNapoli, meanwhile, sought to remain above the fray. He talked of being an independent auditor but also "an important partner"' with Spitzer.

Asked of his concerns about relations between Spitzer and lawmakers, he said, "Right now, I'm more concerned about the relations between the governor and the comptroller's office."

The State Constitution gives the Legislature the power to fill a vacancy in the comptroller's job.

Legislators bristled at the power originally handed three former comptrollers in the selection of what was supposed to be a binding list of finalists. They insisted the deal ended when the former comptrollers -- Edward V. Regan, H. Carl McCall and Harrison Goldin -- left off any legislators from the finalists' list.

"I choose to follow the Constitution," Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, said in defense of the Legislature's actions.

Most Western New York lawmakers, who did not speak during the floor vote, backed DiNapoli.

It remains to be seen how the souring relations will affect the remaining five months of the legislative session. While he hammered, and then hammered again, legislative leaders on Wednesday, Spitzer tossed aside a question about whether he thought Silver and Bruno should be replaced.

But, the governor said, the Legislature's move "confirms the public's worst image of what this Legislature does when it's given discretion to make a decision." He called the day a "turning point." To what? "We'll see," he added.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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