Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Slipping on Blood: Lessons for Blumenthal

Now that Governor of New York Elliot Spitzer has been hobbled by scandal, are there any lessons to be learned in the Spitzer mess for our own crusading Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is said to be seriously considering a run for governor?

The template for the successful attorney general here in Connecticut was fashioned by once attorney general, now senator, Joe Lieberman, who took a sleepy office and transformed it into a major indignation outpost. In the colonial period, the attorney general was the King’s lawyer; but the modern office, first under the hand of Lieberman and now Blumenthal, has been transformed into a consumer protection agency with subpoena powers.

When Spitzer, as attorney general, wanted to set right defective businesses, he would direct his sprawling office to examine all the records he had gathered through his subpoena powers and, having found a chick in the armor of the business, there he would thrust his lance. Pre-prosecution publicity, the death knell for businesses that rely upon the good will of the public, often would be enough to cause the business under scrutiny to agree to arrangements made by Spitzer’s office. The deal generally would involve a correction of the malignant business practice and a hefty fine, a portion of which would be used to defray tax collections used to finance Spitzer’s office.

Blumenthal employs the same methods and often boasts that his office “pays for itself,” since he turns backs into the general fund more money that is used to cover the costs of his office.

When Spitzer became governor, he carried with him into his new position work habits and personnel that had served him well as attorney general. His personnel also carried with them into their new position habits of mind and methods of discrediting their targets that had served them well in the past.

But a governor is not, Spitzer now realizes, an attorney general. And when Spitzer’s staff successfully planted stories in a New York newspaper intended to discredit Bruno, a political obstacle in the way of Spitzer’s ambitions, other newspapers – happy to be of service to Spitzer in the past, when he was employing them to place the hook in mouths of businesses – took note and cried “Politics! We though White Knights were above that sort of thing!”

Spitzer now finds himself “under close examination,” so to speak, and is struggling to get out from under the microscope he so successfully used as attorney general to pressure businesses to come to terms with his old office, now occupied by Andrew Cuomo, the son of former Governor Mario Cuomo who, some New York commentators think, would like nothing better than to displace Spitzer as governor.

That’s politics for’ya.

Of course, Spitzer, a bright guy who dismissed one of the two staffers who got him into this pickle – the governor himself insists his hand are clean -- will no doubt emerge from the fiery furnace a wiser, more saintly governor.

But the chief lesson here appears to be: When you move into a new house, get rid of the old furniture, and hire staff in your gubernatorial office that knows something politics. The second lesson, no less important than the first is: The media does not like to be used for political purposes by anyone other than the attorneys general.

Blumenthal, no doubt, will learn from Spitzer’s mistakes.
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