Eliot Spitzer (Brendan McDermid/Reuters) Eliot Spitzer (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Rightly or wrongly, everyone is comparing Eliot Spitzer's comeback plans to seek the office of New York City comptroller to Anthony Weiner's bid to become the city's mayor.

It's understandable: Both the former New York governor (Spitzer) and former U.S. congressman (Weiner) are attempting to return to politics following a sex scandal. Both are seeking local offices in the city of New York. And both are politicians seeking to restore their sullied reputations through redemption in the public's eye.

But the real comparison should be between Spitzer and Mark Sanford. Weiner, who had a gift for communication with the press but few legislative accomplishments, is running for a notably higher office than the one he left behind. It's on the local rather than national level, sure, but the chief executive job of a very large and complex city would be a step up on the career ladder for even the most ambitious of politicians. (See Emanuel, Rahm.)

Sanford's and Spitzer's rehabilitation efforts are different, meanwhile, in that they are both seeking lower-ranking offices than they previously held. Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who was having an extramarital affair, successfully returned to politics in May by running as a local representative to the U.S. Congress. Spitzer is stooping even lower, seeking out the down-ballot role of comptroller, a sort of chief financial officer for the city. He may have ambitious designs on the job—“It is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction," he told the Times—but it still a decidedly less glamorous role than governor, attorney general or even U.S. congressman.

How much does a willingness to swallow one's pride and seek a lower office matter to voters? Who knows. Sanford, pundits say, succeeded in winning not because of his modesty but because of the political leanings of his district, his communication skills, the quality of his campaign team, and the approval of high-profile establishment types. Spitzer, meanwhile, is projected to do well because of his deep financial pockets, his name recognition, and his credibility as a tough cop against Wall Street executives.

Still, I believe the step down in the office sought will help his chances. We voters may be a merciful sort, but not to everyone. Forgiveness costs a pound of penance, and those leaders who, like Spitzer, exited quickly, stayed away for a little while, and then began their redemption with baby steps rather than arrogant leaps of faith are likely to fare a little better.

There may be plenty of boldness in Spitzer's choice to seek elected office again, but he also appears chastened. Pride may go before the fall, but it's easier to get back up without it.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

David Petraeus, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and the art of the comeback

The return of Eliot Spitzer

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