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Spitzer uses his cash for TV ads on health cuts $500,000 countered anti-reform efforts

It turns out that for Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, this winter's battle over cutting state funding to hospitals and nursing homes was personal. Really personal.

The wealthy governor proved it by spending $500,000 of his own money to help finance a series of television ads pushing his proposed cuts.

Spitzer's ads were launched to counter a campaign by Local 1199, an influential health care union, and the Greater New York Hospital Association, a mostly downstate trade group whose members include Kaleida Health.

"When the issue of the health care reform was on the agenda, it was important to me that I continue my message in a way I thought would be heard by the public, and I did what I believe was appropriate," Spitzer said in an interview Thursday when asked whether the use of his own money made it a personal fight with the two health groups.

Besides the $500,000 of his own funds, Spitzer used an additional $2.5 million from his gubernatorial campaign account, aides said.

After paying for the health care ads and spending $1.5 million from the account to pay for his inaugural activities, the campaign account was nearly depleted, though Spitzer will have no trouble refilling it in the months ahead.

Spitzer noted that he did not have to use any of his personal funds during last year's campaign, in which he easily defeated his underfunded Republican opponent, John J. Faso.

During January and February, the two health care groups spent at least $4.6 million, which is the initial round of expenditures they reported in a recent state lobbying agency filing, opposing Spitzer's plan to cut $1.3 billion in health care spending. In the end, the final budget adopted Sunday restored more than $400 million in various cuts to hospitals and nursing homes.

Beyond helping to get some of the health care cuts restored, the ads by the two health care groups contributed to the drop in the governor's job-approval rating in recent polls.

Officials with the 1199/Greater New York group declined to comment on the Spitzer spending.

What would drive such personal spending by Spitzer, whose family wealth comes from New York City real estate investments by Bernard Spitzer, the governor's father?

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at New Paltz State College, said the health spending issue came at a critical time for the new governor.

"You have to give consideration to the way people use resources with their relative value," he said. "Here, perhaps losing this fight in the framework of an initial test of his will and capacity was a high-stakes proposition, and money counted less for him than that."

Indeed, the governor's fight with 1199 became highly personal. For the governor, the union served as his metaphor for the entrenched Albany special interest. Losing that battle decisively -- in this case, both sides declared victory after the budget -- would have tarnished Spitzer's image early in his administration.

Benjamin said the last governor to use family wealth in a similar fashion was Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose family financed many of his campaign activities. Benjamin recalled Rockefeller coming under intense scrutiny during his congressional confirmation proceedings for vice president because of his practice of spending family money on gifts for state employees.

"People use the assets and resources they have to maximize efforts, and every governor has different assets," Benjamin said.

Joseph E. Persico, a best-selling author who served for years as Rockefeller's top speechwriter, said his former boss, besides using family money to outspend opponents by as much as a 10-1 ratio, also turned to personal wealth to bring and retain a number of top advisers. In one case, he provided loans totaling nearly $700,000 to an aide to keep him from leaving his state job for more lucrative private-sector work.

"He was subsidizing the administration to hold onto people he might not otherwise have been able to keep," Persico said.

While some old Albany hands recall that Rockefeller might have purchased television time early in his administration to promote his agenda, Persico said that this would have been before he joined Rockefeller.

Asked why Rockefeller used his own wealth for state purposes, Persico said, "The principal reason was he had the money and wherewithal to do it."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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