Within minutes of the news breaking about Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s involvement with prostitutes, Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, was telling the press that the governor should resign if the New York Times report was true.
The next day, Tedisco was calling for Spitzer’s impeachment if he did not step down — as the governor agreed to do on Wednesday.
The impeachment threat, as it turned out, wasn’t just the posturing of a powerless politician. Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, D-Cohoes, confirmed Thursday that a number of Democrats told him they would be prepared to support impeachment if Spitzer didn’t go, and Canestrari declined to say how he himself would have voted.
Tedisco’s effective political instincts also were on display last year, when he immediately went on the offensive against Spitzer’s proposal to let illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses. He became the Republicans’ point man on the issue, appearing repeatedly on the Lou Dobbs show and other cable TV news venues, until Spitzer finally withdrew the proposal.
In both cases, Spitzer’s retreats had more to do with loss of support from his fellow Democrats than anything Tedisco and other Republicans did. U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, who lives in Columbia County and represents the 20th District, took the same position as Tedisco on driver’s licenses and, this week, on the need for Spitzer to resign. But she was much more restrained in her opposition than the Republican minority leader.
No one would call Tedisco restrained when he is in full throttle. “He’s well known for playing to the press and the galleries,” Canestrari said. “At times I think it’s over the top. … He’s obviously very emotional and that comes into play as well.”
Early in the driver’s license debate, Tedisco earned the enmity of Spitzer by saying Osama bin Laden and other terrorists could benefit from the policy. The governor denounced fear-mongering. But Tedisco also raised security concerns about the Spitzer policy that were echoed — without the Osama references — by others.
Tedisco noted in an interview Thursday that he wasn’t always fighting Spitzer. He recalled how in last year’s public budget negotiations, he on occasion sided with the governor on restraining spending when Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, was pressing for more aid to hospitals and nursing homes. Tedisco puckered his mouth to imitate the kiss Bruno blew at him at the end of one of the sessions, mocking his support for the governor.
This year, Tedisco supports Bruno’s proposed 4 percent cap on state spending increases.
Tedisco’s conference this week proposed budget amendments, some of which would have spent more money (including for free health clinics, which could have benefited Schenectady’s). Other Republican amendments called for cuts in state operating costs and eliminating the Thruway Authority and Office of Real Property Services, with their services to be taken over by other government agencies.
The amendments were defeated. However, Bill Spolyar, director of the Schenectady Free Health Clinic, said he remains hopeful the Assembly will eventually pass funding for his clinic.
“I honestly look forward,” Tedisco said, to working with the incoming governor, David Paterson, whom he will meet with privately today. Paterson gives him a hug when they meet, Tedisco said, but Spitzer was not the hugging type.
Paterson, Tedisco said, will not use Spitzer’s questionable tactics in going after Bruno, and, as a former Senate minority leader, understands Tedisco’s position.
But on some issues they will disagree, he said, mentioning legalization of same-sex marriage, which Paterson (like Spitzer) supports and Tedisco opposes.
Unlike the Senate Democrats, who may be poised to overthrow Bruno’s rule at the next election, Tedisco’s Republicans hold only 42 of the 150 seats in their chamber, meaning they couldn’t even sustain a gubernatorial veto. But unlike the Senate Republicans, who lost a seat upstate last month, Tedisco’s conference picked up a Democratic seat last year, when George Amedore was elected to represent Schenectady and Montgomery counties.
While Tedisco’s position gives him little actual power, it does afford him access to the media, where he can generate publicity. “He’s pretty good at it,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a longtime observer of Albany politics. And as a legislative leader, he noted, “You’re first in line” for the pork barrel.
Shortly after Tedisco’s reference to bin Laden in the driver’s licenses debate, Spitzer withdrew several hundred thousand dollars worth of member items that the minority leader and his members had been counting on for their districts. The governor restored the member items earlier this month, not long before the prostitution scandal broke.
Tedisco, like other legislative leaders, allocates for his own distribution a disproportionately high share of member items, which has benefited his district in Schenectady and Saratoga counties since he became minority leader in late 2005. He said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has not yet informed him how much member-item money would be allocated this year to the minority conference.
Tedisco, like almost everyone at the Capitol, is focused on the budget, which is due April 1. As for the political future, he said John Faso, the former Assembly Republican leader whom Spitzer defeated in 2006, and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg are potential GOP candidates for governor in 2010.
Would he be interested in running for lieutenant governor with Bloomberg? “Certainly I’d think about that,” Tedisco responded.
Dan Weiller, Silver’s chief spokesman, declined to comment about Tedisco. The minority leader does have a way of getting under the skin of Democratic members, who often sound resentful at his publicity-generating ways. On Tuesday, even as he was strongly implying that Spitzer should resign, Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, expressed impatience with Tedisco’s call for impeachment, saying scornfully it is something he would have expected him to come up with.