Wednesday, March 12, 2008; 2:00 PM
Governing Magazine staff writer Alan Greenblatt, who writes the magazine's Observer column, was online Wednesday, March 12 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, the prostitution scandal that brought him down,and what's next for the government of New York.
The transcript follows.
Alan Greenblatt: Hello, I'm Alan Greenblatt, a reporter at Governing Magazine. We're located here in Washington -- just across the street from the Mayflower Hotel, in fact -- but cover politics and government nationwide. We cover everything that doesn't happen here in Washington -- states, cities and counties.
I've written about Spitzer several times -- including a look at his resignation and career that's up now on our site -- so let's get started.
Orangeburg, N.Y.: What is the line of succession in New York State?
Alan Greenblatt: Let's start with the housekeeping question.
Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who was elected in 2006 as part of a ticket with Spitzer, will be sworn in on Monday. The state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican, will keep his current position while assuming the duties of lieutenant governor.
St. Simons Island, Ga.: It seems that nobody, Democrat or Republican, came to the governor's defense. Is it because of scandal fatigue, or because the governor has no friends?
Alan Greenblatt: This would be tough for anyone to defend. But it's true that he had no reservoir of support (especially since his once tremendous approval ratings had slipped badly, well before this scandal).
Spitzer was more of a feared than loved sort of leader. He tried to use the same sort of intimidation and public shaming tactics that had worked for him as a prosecutor. But politics is a different game and he never won over the legislature, to say it mildly.
He stumbled right away, going to the home districts of legislators who dared oppose him and threatening them in Albany. He told James Tedisco, the Assembly Republican leader, that he was an "[expletive] steamroller" and, a la James Taylor, was going to steamroll all over him. Can it come as any surprise that Tedisco was leading the calls for impeachment yesterday, if Spitzer didn't step down mighty quick?
Athens, Ohio: I don't understand why his wife has to always stand beside him during the embarrassing announcements. This guy has been soliciting hookers for eight times in the past year, which means he probably left no gas for his wife, considering his age. Why should she support a husband who cheated?
Alan Greenblatt: I'd refer readers to The Post's story yesterday about the humiliation and debasement rituals followed in these situations -- which the must be steaming mad spouse is cordially begged to take part in.
I asked my wife whether she'd show up at the news conference if I ever cheated on her. She declined.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Does Elliott Spitzer spend the rest of his years in private legal practice? Is there any possible scenario in which he returns to politics?
Alan Greenblatt: This is tough to come back from. He conceded as much in his resignation statement this morning, saying that he would try to serve "outside of politics."
It's hard to know what Spitzer does. He's smart and still in his 40s, but he's a nationwide punch line. He wasn't happy when he was with a big private firm and loved politics.
His family is wealthy enough that they can set up a think tank or foundation for him, even if no one will hire him. But someone probably will. Other politicians who endured sex scandals are making good money right here in this town.
Spitzer's problem, though, is that his whole reason-to-be was crusading, reform, good government, incorruptible. That's not an act that people are going to buy from him now.
Helena, Mont.: So, how does this impact upcoming special elections for New York's Senate? I understand there was chance for Democrats to either gain a majority or reduce the number of Republicans in the State Senate.
Alan Greenblatt: It can't help the Democrats.
If you don't follow NY State politics, the brief history is that Democrats have held the Assembly since the 1960s, while the GOP has held the Senate since then.
Democrats won a special Senate election last month, putting the margin at 32 Republicans to 30 Democrats. It seemed likely that Democrats could get the one or two votes they need for control, especially if New York Sen. Clinton is at the top of the ticket. Once Democrats do gain the majority, they'll have it forever -- it's a blue state and redistricting is coming up and they'd be sitting pretty.
Spitzer will cloud the race, for sure. One of the strongest arguments against one-party government is corruption. You want someone else minding the store. Spitzer's scandal is personal in nature, but I imagine Republicans will make the argument that putting Democrats wholly in charge could be a recipe for trouble.
Great Neck, N.Y.: How can the budget be finished in time?
Alan Greenblatt: It never is. That's one of New York's hallmarks.
When it is finished, it's always "three men in a room" -- the governor, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker. Paterson will be fully prepped when the time comes and is likely to have more cordial relations with the legislature -- particularly GOP Senate leader Bruno -- than Spitzer.
But they've got big budget problems there -- $4.4 billion shortfall, and counting.
Greenbelt, Md.: I have seen it said that one potential charge against Spitzer has to do with transporting someone across state lines for prostitution. Does the statute really cover paying for the travel costs of a consenting adult? I guess I always have heard that charge in connection with minors, or coercive situations.
Alan Greenblatt: It's the transporting, not the Amtrak ticket.
Remember, that's how they got Chuck Berry.
Tonawanda, N.Y.: Spitzer's political demise is largely the result of distaste for his hypocrisy, rather than the actual acts themselves. I'd like to see a public discussion as to why hypocrisy in sexual matters is such a killer to political ambition, but is considered par for the course in most policy areas -- calling for earmarks while deploring them, etc. Examples abound on both the liberal and conservative sides, yet we simply assume it is normal for politicians to be hypocritical in such areas.
Alan Greenblatt: Sex scandals are easy to understand. Most policy matters are more complicated. (The "Bridge to Nowhere" was an earmark scandal everyone could understand.)
Let me get up on a different high horse and do the obligatory media self-bashing. There's no way this isn't a big story. Spitzer was an important figure in a major state and someone who had clear national ambitions. His downfall -- and the particular circumstances of his downfall -- were bound to play as big news.
He also was a media hound who knew how to get reporters attention -- how to cast Wall Street tycoons as villains, and himself as the white-hatted populist hero. Part of the reason he had no support is that he created a morality myth around himself.
But the media only seems to focus on politicians when they get themselves in trouble. How many people had heard of Larry Craig before he struck his unfortunate "wide stance" at the Minneapolis-St. Paul men's room? Or Mark Foley, before his text messages revealed his prurient interest in House pages? Or Gary Condit, or Bob Packwood, or...
We don't do a good enough job writing about politicians who are doing worthwhile things. Or at least trying to do a decent job most of the time. Politicians will sometimes complain that they can't get coverage unless they're indicted or caught in a sex sting, and sometimes I believe they're right.
I'm not saying that there aren't lots of crooked politicians. But if stories like Spitzer's is all the public will hear about state politics from the national media this year, what else can they think but that the whole system is a wreck?
York, Pa.: Well, Mr. "I'm the police of Wall Street" has gotten his. Justice has been served. It's embarrassing to the people of New York that they even elected this bozo. Now I hope he's been stripped of his superdelegate status. I'm sure the Clintons wish he would have held on until after the Democratic convention.
Alan Greenblatt: I've been wondering, inevitably, about the fallout for national politics. It's hard for me to believe that anything that is happening now in March will matter in presidential politics even, say, next month.
It's true that the Spitzer story has shifted the focus away from what had been obsessive coverage of the presidential race, particularly on the Democratic side. But we'll return to that story after this brief, titillating interruption.
I think The Post's story today about how this affects Hillary sums that up reasonably well. There are the obvious reminders of President Clinton and his sexual escapades and the return of the question of "standing by your man."
She also loses a superdelegate -- Paterson was already a superdelegate for her, so I don't believe there will be a replacement for Spitzer.
I loved Peter Baker's line in the piece: "Spitzer has been a bad-luck charm for Hillary Clinton up to this point."
But I don't buy the idea that Spitzer's driver's licenses for illegals proposal and Clinton's inartful response to same, in and of themselves, were the beginning of the downward spiral for her campaign heading into Iowa. The media was at that time ready to switch away from the prevailing narrative that she was inevitable, and that small stumble was overplayed because it served the purpose of reframing her chances. But that's an argument for another day, I suppose.
As for Obama, I can't decide whether it makes any real difference to him to have another prominent African American politician on the scene. It's been so striking to think that Obama has a real chance to be president, when there have only been three black governors, pre-Paterson, and Obama himself is only the third post-Reconstruction black US Senator (and just the fifth overall. But I don't think Paterson will have been in office long enough to convince doubters to become more comfortable with the idea of African Americans holding serious political power.
Alfred, N.Y.: Was it determined how much money he paid to the prostitution ring, and over how many months?
Alan Greenblatt: There should be a Web counter someplace, because this is a number that just keeps climbing (as it would, at $5,500 per hour). Yesterday it looked like $40,000, today $80,000, tomorrow who knows.
There appears to be evidence of "activity" dating back at least to last summer. This was not a one-time fling, as I'm sure you're all aware by now.
Queens, N.Y.: He should be indicted and sentenced to serve a jail term -- let him have a taste of what he did to others, to the full extend of the law.
Alan Greenblatt: Spitzer's lawyers walked him into the news conference. They're not the advance men politicians generally want.
US Attorney release says: In response to press speculation, Michael J. Garcia, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said: "There is no agreement between this Office and Governor Eliot Spitzer, relating to his resignation or any other matter."
There's no question there's a lot of schadenfreude right now.
Spitzer haters -- and there were quite a number out there well before Monday -- are gleeful, either cheering publicly or in the comfort of their own homes. They feel like pride goeth before the fall, that Spitzer was taken down by the same sort of zealous prosecution he used to engage in himself -- and he made some of the same mistakes that the targets of his own investigation used to make (see this amusing Slate piece).
Montgomery Village, Md.: It was exactly four weeks ago tonight that the tryst took place -- at least the incident most cited. Hard to believe if you are Gov. Spitzer how quickly your life unraveled. What triggered the sudden pursuit and filing of charges against the operators of Emperor's Club and hence the implication of Gov. Spitzer?
Alan Greenblatt: Remember, the prosecutors weren't targeting the Emperor's Club, but Spitzer. In order to pay his big bills, he was transferring money. Banks have to report payments over $10,000 to the IRS -- or amounts sent to the same recipient in smaller batches designed to come in just under $10,000.
Spitzer knew this. That's why he was "careful" about sending under $10,000 amounts -- and tried, unsuccessfully, to get his name off the transfer.
That's part of what makes him look so dumb. He knew this was a way to get caught.
Hell, even Carmela Soprano knew. Remember when she stole Tony's money out of the bin by the poll and then set up a bunch of $9900 account for herself?
Rockville, Md.: I have transferred on occasion sums above $10,000 to my accounts overseas ... is my phone wiretapped? Am I being watched? And is the fact that I have transferred such sums relevant to my questions?
Alan Greenblatt: Banks have to report but the feds can't follow every transaction (a good thing to remember in these paranoid times...)
They thought Spitzer was either paying blackmail or engaged in some sort of corruption. Following the money led them to the prostitution ring.
I've noticed some chatter on the Web that this investigation was somehow politically motivated, that Spitzer's enemies on Wall Street or among Republicans must have tipped off the feds. I don't buy this. By all accounts, it was Spitzer's own suspicious money transfers that caught the attention of bank officials and the feds.
And, let's not forget, this was not a case of entrapment. There's no indication that Spitzer was anything but a willing, repeat client of this prostitution ring. What he did was clearly illegal and, more important in political terms, just plain stupid and wrong.
Still, investigations like this are inevitably political. Would these kinds of resources have gone into wiretapping and staking out a high-rolling john who wasn't in public office?
McLean, Va.: Spitzer has been a public servant for a number of years now. Where does somebody on a government salary come up with the kind of cash we're talking about here?
Alan Greenblatt: Remember that his dad is a hugely wealthy Manhattan real estate developer. Spitzer's got plenty of money -- there are still questions about whether he used state resources in terms of travel or police, but no one has suggested he took the money out of petty cash.
Because Spitzer had such a reformer, good government, straight arrow image, people were especially shocked by this. But this worked against him -- he turned into a morality tale. Don't pretend to be a saint when you're secretly a sinner.
Hartford, Conn.: I think the long-term impact on what is largely a personal failing has been greatly overstated in the heat of the moment. As a former upstate resident with ties to the area, it seems clear that the trends in place -- slowly depopulated Republican areas, demographic trends in New York and its surroundings, the top of the ticket in the fall, Bush's record -- all point to a Democratic sweep if they're smart enough to field relatively honest candidates who keep their pants on.
Alan Greenblatt: This is sensible. I think this is a big enough story, though, that it remains a problem for Democrats -- at least in New York, at least this year.
Remember when Glendening had his affair while Maryland governor. It wasn't Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's fault, but I think there's pretty near-universal agreement that Glendening's peccadillo hurt her when she ran for governor in 2002, among other factors in that race.
New York: What will happen now with the New York State budget, which must be passed by March 31?
Alan Greenblatt: I took at a swing at the budget question previously, but want to use this as a jumping off point to speculate more broadly on what happens next.
Incoming Gov. Paterson presents the right temperamental change from Spitzer in this context. By which I mean, he has a sense of humor about himself and he's more conciliatory by nature than Spitzer (although that's true of almost anyone).
Paterson had a good relationship with Joe Bruno (and pretty much everyone else) when he served as minority leader. That alone is a big change -- as is the simple fact that Paterson has been a legislator and understands that branch's culture.
Spitzer clearly hated the legislative culture, having to listen to these guys go on and on. He just wanted to steamroll his stuff through, beat up on Albany, bend it to his will. That doesn't play well in state capitols -- at least, once your approval ratings drop 30 points as Spitzer's did.
Ogden, Utah: NPR had a great segment on this morning that said the $10,000 limits on reporting you are discussing no longer are operative -- new rules after Sept. 11 from the Patriot Act and as required by investigations from a very aggressive prosecuting attorney in New York mean that, now, every transaction is tracked and run through software looking for anomalies, and politicians are given extra-special close looks. Who was the prosecuting attorney who set a lot of this up? Herr Spitzer. Hoisted on his own petard!
Alan Greenblatt: I'll put this up and admit I don't pretend to know the law better than Carmela Soprano. Still, this seems to be what alerted attention.
Virginia: So, who'll be the next lieutenant governor in New York?
Alan Greenblatt: I've answered this question already but, again, will act like a politician and answer the question I want to answer, even if it's not the one you asked.
Lieutenant governors who come in following a scandal benefit from "the Jerry Ford effect." Their states are ready to put the bad news behind them and are generally willing to extend a lot of goodwill to the new person. The ones who have stepped up following recent resignations have had successful times in office themselves.
I spoke with Mike Huckabee about this today. He first became governor of Arkansas a dozen years ago when Jim Guy Tucker was convicted in the Whitewater case. "There's a sense of the state feeling collective embarrassment and rage and a lot of emotions," Huckabee told me. "The first obligation you have is to restore some sense of calm without exploiting what is already a sensitive issue."
I also spoke with Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, who had served as John Rowland's lieutenant governor until Rowland "pulled the plug" on his career in 2004 in the face of corruption charges. You can read that interview at governing.com.
Washington: I just have a comment: Gov. Spitzer needs to seek help with his problems. For him to have engaged in this activity for such a long period of time (if true) signals he needs professional help. I hope his children survive this scandal.
Alan Greenblatt: I'm guessing counseling will be in order at the Spitzer household. It's almost inevitable when something like this comes to light.
I wonder whether Spitzer will be open to treatment -- it seems like those who are counseled have to be ready to admit they have a problem, like alcoholics, before anyone can help them.
How could you suffer a national, career-ending humiliation like this and not recognize that you have a problem. But what is his problem, at this point -- that he liked sex with women who weren't his wife, or that he railed against human failings that he himself harbored?
Total two-cents psychology. Everyone must feel bad for the daughters.
Chicago: Respectfully disagree with Tonawanda -- many politicians are punished for nonsexual wrongdoing. Most of Alaska's leading politicos are in trouble right now for that. Spitzer's problem isn't his sexual activity, it's his blatant disregard for the law he himself has applied zealously to others in his capacity as law enforcer. That's unacceptable.
Alan Greenblatt: Again, it was the money, not the sex, that got him into trouble, I believe.
But it was the sex that makes this such a big story. When was the last time you saw any of those Alaska politicians on CNN all day?
I agree that that is, in kind, a more important story. But I also agree that the hypocrisy angle drove the Spitzer story as well.
Nantucket, Mass.: One can understand if Spitzer's state police detail turned a blind eye to this sort of thing once -- but seven or eight or more times? It may be minor in the overall scheme of this "affair," but aren't they law enforcement officers?
Alan Greenblatt: I've heard stories of other governors sneaking out of their hotel rooms or houses and then calling their security detail: "It's 10 o'clock -- do you know where your governor is right now?"
I've been watching "The Tudors" on DVD lately with the new season coming up. (I'm trying to make this into a TV chat, even through Lisa de Moraes does such great work on that.) Anyway, it's striking that Henry VIII's guards were on duty -- at the foot of the bed! -- during his adulterous acts.
Remember that Arkansas state troopers did rat on Clinton. But not so quickly.
I say all this not knowing anything about where Spitzer's troopers were. Although I was fascinated by today's Post piece that said they weren't aware of FBI agents staking out the governor, even with the FBI agent in a room across the hall, peeking out and holding the door open a crack.
New York: Belated advice for Gov. Spitzer -- 18 United States Code 2421 provides: "Whoever knowingly transports any individual in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or Possession of the United States, with intent that such individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both."
Lesson: When you are out of state and in need of servicing, hire local talent; do not import playmates from back home, however much you might ache to stimulate your own state's economy.
Alan Greenblatt: Spitzer's mistake -- one of them -- is that he must have thought he was safe working with the folks from New York, as opposed to taking a change on a local escort service down here.
Ames, Iowa: What is your take on Paterson? From what little I have read, he sounds interesting. Now that he that he is governor of a major state, he has the opportunity to shine.
Alan Greenblatt: Paterson's elevation obviously has historic importance. He's the first blind governor in U.S. history and only the fourth African American governor. (Of the only two modern examples, Deval Patrick is obviously still serving in Massachusetts, while former VA Gov. Doug Wilder is now the mayor down in Richmond.)
Like most lieutenant governors, Paterson has been fairly obscure. He had represented Harlem in the state Senate (as had his dad). He's liberal, favoring gay marriage and opposing the death penalty.
There are a couple of questions. One: He's never been tested. The minority leader of New York doesn't really have any power (and neither does the Lt. Gov.). Two: On some issues he's a bit to the left of Spitzer, especially on criminal justice issues such as the death penalty. He fit well for his Manhattan district, but will he move to the center as governor?
The New York Observer ran a not-super-flattering profile two years ago when Spitzer picked him as running mate. The complaint seemed to be that Paterson had gotten himself a sinecure in the Senate through his father's connections. The story also took it as a negative that he got along well as minority leader with Joe Bruno, the Senate GOP leader. But what looked like a negative two years ago should now be seen as a strength.
Here's a profile my colleague Josh Goodman wrote for our Web site.
Nashville, Tenn.: I have read that one of Mr. Spitzer's achievements was busting a prostitution ring. Is there now, or will there likely be, an investigation into whether his involvement with a rival prostitution ring influenced his prosecution of that prostitution case? That type of official misconduct is, I believe, one of the larger societal dangers of having our leadership doing things for which they can be blackmailed.
Alan Greenblatt: I think it was two rings. Prostitution was not a major focus for Spitzer.
He made his name working on Gambino crime family cases as an assistant DA.
But let me go all poli sci on you right now. Traditionally, state attorneys general mainly presented themselves as tough on crime. The thing is, it's the cops and the DAs who actually prosecute most crime.
State attorneys general over the past dozen years of so have expanded their briefs, becoming much more consumer-protection oriented. There had always been some of this, but remember that the state attorneys general banded together to force settlements with the tobacco companies a decade ago originally thought to be worth $246 billion over 25 years. (It fluctuates with tobacco sales.)
There's been a lot of this sort of thing. Spitzer was a particularly aggressive type, inserting himself into regulation of Wall Street because he believed the Securities and Exchange Commission wasn't doing his job.
He was a populist and his meat was policy and regulation, not prostitution cases.
New York: Apparently, Spitzer tried to keep his job late last night, but was convinced he would face impeachment. This got me to thinking: What are the procedural differences in New York State versus the U.S. Senate, where David Vitter faces no threat of impeachment? Or are Republicans just two-faced hypocrites?
Alan Greenblatt: Another take on hypocrisy.
Notice that they haven't been able to force Larry "Intend to Resign" Craig out, either. Is that the party's fault, or the difference between being a senator and being a governor?
Senators' votes count, no matter how disgraced they are. Governors have to convince legislators to get with their program. And Spitzer would have had it harder than most, since his whole thing was reform, good government, etc. What credibility would he have.
Note that not all gubernatorial sex scandals end in resignation. Glendening finished his term, as I mentioned. So did Bob Wise, over in West Virginia.
Both of them work with public policy groups -- Glendening on smart growth, Wise on education. Again, what does "Mr. Clean" Spitzer pick as his after public life pursuit?
I'd refer you to our friends at Stateline.org for their roundup of gubernatorial sex scandals:
Alan Greenblatt: Thanks for the great questions. Sorry I couldn't get to them all, but I think we covered most of the major points people seemed interested in. This is a story that feels like it's reached its end, but its impact is still unfolding.
Please visit our Web site, governing.com, for coverage of state and local government. And please check out our politics blog, governing.com/ballotbox, for coverage of state and local elections you won't get anywhere else during this presidency-fixated year.
I'm a big fan of the post.com chats and so I was especially glad to have the chance to answer questions here today. I used to write a jazz column for this site some years ago -- I hope they'll have me back again sometime to talk about happier things!
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