Eliot Spitzer looks for political redemption in New York City

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer is running for New York City comptroller. He spoke about his campaign on CBS.

Have New York City’s racy tabloids ever had it so good? Not one but two sex-scandal-tainted Democratic politicians will be testing the city’s capacity for forgiveness this election season, with former governor Eliot L. Spitzer on Monday launching his campaign for a new life in politics.

Beyond the fact that both men are trying to move past disgraceful chapters that had been thought to spell the end of their political careers, there are few similarities between Spitzer’s situation and that of former congressman Anthony Weiner.

While Weiner is seeking New York City’s biggest political prize — the mayor’s job — Spitzer is running for city comptroller, a relatively modest post that has been regarded as something of a political backwater.

Not that Spitzer sees the job that way.

“There’s substantial authority here that I think can be used in exciting ways,” he said in an interview as he scrambled to gather the 3,750 valid signatures he must produce by Thursday to be placed on the ballot for the September primary.

“I have looked voters in the eye, walked on the street, and I think people are willing to give me a shot,” Spitzer added. “And I think it is based on the record I built when I was attorney general, when I was governor, when I was assistant district attorney, a prosecutor of organized crime.

“Not everybody knows every piece of this, of course,” he conceded, “but I think there’s a sense of somebody who fought, who fought hard and tried hard.”

In some ways, Spitzer’s move marks a return to his roots in public life.

As a scrappy state attorney general, he took on investment banks, polluters, gun manufacturers and employers that did not pay minimum wage. His expansion of that office’s previously limited role catapulted him to a landslide victory in the 2006 governor’s race and fueled talk of a run for president.

Instead, Spitzer’s fortunes came crashing to Earth in 2008, when the New York Times reported that he had been caught on a federal wiretap arranging to pay a high-priced prostitution service.

Practically overnight, the man once lionized as “the sheriff of Wall Street” became known as “Client 9,” which was how he was referred to in an affidavit in the investigation of the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. ring. Spitzer resigned within 48 hours of the revelation and has spent the past five years building a new public image as a columnist and television pundit.

Seeking second chances

In their public comments, neither Spitzer nor Weiner has directly addressed the obvious comparison between them.

Weiner hopes to find political redemption after being forced to resign two years ago amid a scandal over sexually explicit communications he had sent to women online.

But unlike Spitzer, who has been elected three times statewide, Weiner is asking for support from voters whom, with the exception of those in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, he has never represented. In his 12 years in Congress, Weiner left little by way of legislative achievement and was known mainly for his verbal sparring on cable news channels.

One thing Spitzer and Weiner have in common: Neither man’s reemergence has been welcomed by New York’s Democratic establishment.

“The question with both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer is, what have they done to earn this second chance?” said another mayoral candidate, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “I don’t think we see all that much from either of these men that would put them in a position where they would have earned a second chance — redeemed themselves from their selfish behavior and earned a second chance by New York’s voters.”

Until Spitzer’s announcement Sunday night, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had been considered a sure thing to succeed Comptroller John Liu, who is also running for mayor.

But in retrospect, there were a few clues that Spitzer was eying a job whose duties include managing the city’s pension funds, auditing its operations and overseeing its budget.

In December, after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., Spitzer wrote a column in the online publication Slate arguing that pension funds should use their investing clout to pressure corporations such as gunmakers to act in the public interest.

New York City’s comptroller, Spitzer said in the interview, is “a significant player in terms of the pension funds and how those shares are voted. And when I speak with folks about corporate governance, the missing link in all of this has been ownership.”

“Ownership trumps regulation,” he added, offering what sounded like a campaign rallying cry. “And yet we haven’t seen shareholder activism. We have not seen shareholders stand up and collectively say: ‘Wait a minute. We own the companies. Let’s see if we can not just rein in [chief executive] compensation, which is a piece of it, but also more importantly, make wise decisions about management and participation.’ ”

The comptroller’s audit function, he said, “is hugely important, not just auditing in terms of how many paper clips were delivered but whether the policies are working.”

In office, ‘a steamroller’

That sounds much like the philosophy he brought to the attorney general’s office, to which he was elected in 1998, with the assistance of his family’s real estate fortune, after finishing dead last in the Democratic primary four years before.

At the time, it was seen as an incompetent, crony-fed operation; the office’s top lawyer had flunked the bar exam seven times.

Spitzer recruited lawyers from the most prestigious firms and dusted off obscure laws — such as the Martin Act of 1921, giving the attorney general broad ­powers to investigate securities firms. He found, for instance, that Wall Street brokerages were giving their clients bad investment advice because they were angling to win business for their investment-banking operations.

Spitzer’s combativeness, however, was not so effective a trait in his next job, as governor. He boasted of being “a steamroller” but was often the one who got run over in Albany’s bruising political culture.

Spitzer has already served notice that he plans to fund his own campaign, rather than running within the city’s campaign finance program, which means he can spend an unlimited amount.

Borough President Stringer’s office issued a statement accusing Spitzer of trying to “buy personal redemption with his personal fortune.”

In an interview with WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer, Spitzer dismissed that criticism as “petulant.”

“He’ll be spending your money,” Spitzer said. “I’ll be spending my own.”

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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