On a recent afternoon in the heart of Chinatown here, Scott Stringer sat in a Greek diner talking about his dreams.
“I wanted to be a pro quarterback for the New York Jets,” Stringer, the doughy and bespectacled Manhattan borough president, said between appeals to a waitress for Sweet’n Low. “People don’t realize this, but I was a bruising kid. I wasn’t that big or that strong or that talented. But I got in the middle of things.”
Stringer is now in the middle of something he had hoped very much to avoid: a tight race against Eliot Spitzer, who is bringing a lot of money and attention to the usually sleepy city comptroller’s race.
Spitzer, the former New York attorney general who became nationally famous as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for aggressive prosecutions of the rich and powerful, won the hearts of the media and the state’s voters on the way to a landslide victory in the race for governor in 2006. He began his stint in Albany by calling himself a “steamroller” who would crush all who stood in his way, and even enjoyed talk of becoming the first Jewish president. But less than a year later — a year filled with setbacks and spying controversies — he resigned in disgrace upon being caught in a prostitution scandal.
The city comptroller oversees $140 billion in pension funds and is viewed as a launching pad to higher office. But most significantly for Spitzer, it is his chosen portal back into public life, and Stringer is the one standing in his way.
After years of reacquainting voters with his lantern jaw and considerable political chops as a television personality, Spitzer announced his candidacy in July. The climate seemed favorable. Anthony Weiner, no stranger to career-stunting scandal, had considered the comptroller’s race himself before opting to take his talents to a higher-profile stage of celebrity rehab in the mayoral contest. Weiner rode his so-sue-me-I-sext attitude to unexpectedly high poll numbers, blazing a trail for Spitzer’s return. But just as the emergence of Carlos Danger imploded Weiner’s candidacy, it has left the former governor with burns.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I hope you beat Eliot Weiner,’ ” Stringer said of his opponent. “It’s crazy.”
On Monday night, the two candidates faced off in their second nasty debate. “You resigned in disgrace,” Stringer told Spitzer, adding that the former governor was absent from city issues “because you left during a federal investigation.” At a Friday morning debate, Spitzer had sought to put the controversy behind him.
“My personal failures have been before the public,” said Spitzer, asking voters to look at the totality of his record.
When the former governor referenced his reputation for toughness by saying sometimes a leader has to break eggs, Stringer shot back, “You broke your own eggs!”
In the comptroller’s race, Spitzer is using his family’s vast real estate fortune to blanket the airwaves with compelling television ads. Last week he aired spots urging New Yorkers not to listen to the political establishment, the press, the unions, the — really anybody, because he’s on the side of the regular guy. And while Spitzer runs against the elite media as part of the establishment that is trying to keep him down, he said in the debate that “the editorials time and time again” admired his record as attorney general.
Recent surveys show Spitzer with a lead, which his campaign portrayed as a validation, though pollsters pointed out that Spitzer’s near-universal name recognition made him the equivalent of an incumbent, rendering his advantage less impressive and far from insurmountable in the weeks before the Sept. 10 election.
And the media appear to be doing their part.
The New York Post, which must be making daily offerings to the tabloid gods, on July 30 ran the front-page headline “Pot Meet Kettle. Spitz: Weiner Too Pervy to Be Mayor.” (The paper’s readers still consider one of the past decade’s 10-best covers to be the “Ho No!” headline scrawled across the then-governor as he stood next to his wife, Silda, in a news conference tableau that inspired “The Good Wife.”)
The New York papers, none of which will conceivably endorse Spitzer, have not let up. The Post’s Page Six gossip section reported that Silda no longer lives with the candidate and is planning divorce. A Spitzer spokesman protested that they are “still a couple,” prompting reporters on the trail to ask him if he had a girlfriend. “I am so tired of the personal attacks,” Spitzer told reporters, in a noted non-denial outside a Brooklyn subway station, “and I’ve answered all those questions.”
Amid intense media interest about his personal life, Spitzer has essentially gone into hiding. His campaign, run out of the gilded Fifth Avenue offices of his family’s real estate empire, gives short-notice alerts about his rare appearances. (Through a spokesman, Spitzer declined an interview for this article.) Last Wednesday, after weeks of ducking, he finally let a New York Times reporter see his tax returns, which included more than $2 million in earnings from CNN, much of which was paid after the cancellation of his short-lived talk show. The following day, after typically short notice from his campaign, Spitzer sat in a Brooklyn church to be serenaded by, and accept, the endorsement of black pastors. Like Weiner, the former governor has hemorrhaged white voters since the height of his career, but African Americans have held steady.
That is a problem for Stringer, who will likely have every conceivable elected official, union and editorial page, including that of the highly influential New York Times, behind him. But Stringer — a career politician not known for his courage or magnetism — still has to get voters to know and like him.
Last week, he employed some star power, attending a fundraiser thrown in his honor by Scarlett Johansson, a longtime supporter and sister of a former Stringer aide. He was feted at the event by Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO show “Girls.” Dunham is a good friend of Stringer’s spokeswoman, Audrey Gelman, who has herself appeared on “Girls” and dates fashion photographer Terry Richardson. On Thursday, Stringer and Gelman hit the streets of Chinatown — she in Dalmatian-print flats, he with a visible tear in the top of his dress shoes.
Standing under a statue of Confucius, a community leader introduced Stringer and told him “you got the Chans, you got the Lees, you got the Wongs” behind you.
“Let me tell you how we’re going to win,” Stringer said at the podium. “We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way!”
While Spitzer plays hide-and-seek with the press, Stringer is essentially begging for coverage. Stringer’s lack of funds, even with a consortium of Spitzer-hating super PACs running ads in the race, gives him little alternative. After the Chinatown event last week, Stringer strolled a few blocks to a nearby diner. Inside, he slid into a booth next to Gelman, who vetoed certain menu items.
“Not the BLT or the buffalo wings,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, explaining that he was trying to slim down before shooting commercials the following week.
Spitzer, by contrast, views eating as an inconvenience and is the political personification of the “lean and hungry look.” Born into rare privilege, he graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law before joining white-shoe law firms. He prosecuted mobsters in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Wall Street tycoons as attorney general and attacked lawlessness in Albany before breaking the law as governor.
Stringer took a more meandering, if lifelong, path to the race. His father worked for Mayor Abe Beame in the ’70s, and his mother served in the City Council. Both received criticism in their time for benefiting from patronage appointments.
Stringer first campaigned for his cousin, the legendary congresswoman and feminist Bella Abzug, as a 12-year-old. At 16, he was appointed to a community planning board by the then-Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and received a disorderly conduct summons for putting up campaign posters at 19. He later became chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler.
When Nadler moved to Congress in the early ’90s, the powers that be selected Stringer to fill his assembly seat. Since then, Stringer, with the exception of a couple of electoral slips, has climbed steadily up the ladder. As a creature of the Democratic clubs, he rolled with an eccentric posse of supporters. At home, his neighbors often heard the squawking of his pet parrot, Otis, whom he had taught to say “vote for Scott.” (Stringer declined to describe the rest of the parrot’s vocabulary. “Our private discussions stay with us,” he said.)
In the 2006 election, while Spitzer coasted to a gubernatorial victory, Stringer campaigned for and won the Manhattan borough presidency in 2006. Once a position of great power, that post is now considered little more than a potential launching pad to something better.
That something better seemed at first to be this year’s mayoral race.
“I really thought about running for mayor,” Stringer said in the diner, over his half of a chicken wrap. But he ultimately concluded that the comptroller contest was “a much more winnable race.” That was before Spitzer jumped in. Stringer said he learned of the development as he was putting his young son, Max, to bed on a Sunday night. His phone started beeping with text messages from supporters: “I’m with you all the way” and “I’ll be there for you.”
“So I thought, it’s Twitter time,” Stringer said. He saw the news of Spitzer’s decision and said that within two minutes his phone rang nonstop. One call was from his mother. “She called me up and went, ‘Oy,’ ” he said.
With his easy path to higher office now blocked by a political giant, Stringer hasn’t hesitated in using his family as a contrast to the Spitzer saga. Stringer, 53, married Elyse Buxbaum in 2010, and the candidate frequently makes reference to his 20-month-old and 10-week-old children. One member of the family whom he is reluctant to mention is Otis, the parrot, who now lives with a 10-year-old niece in New Jersey.
“It became an issue,” he said, explaining the parrot-or-wife choice he faced, though he allowed for the “possibility for a late Otis campaign appearance.”
Stringer has used his family’s day care, diaper changing and rent responsibilities in his effort to cast Spitzer as a rich, out-of-touch politician who, instead of repenting for his failure as governor, thinks he deserves office out of a sense of privilege.
“You know there is this group of people — Weiner, the guy, the congressman, Mark Sanford, these guys had issues and they missed the game,” Stringer said, adding of Spitzer, “Nobody’s for him.” Asked if it helped that so few people in New York politics seemed to like Spitzer, Stringer erupted, “Yes!”
But enough people still seem to like Spitzer for the former governor to be leading in the polls. With time running out, Stringer is doing his best to project confidence. “A lot of people will say in the national media this guy beat this gladiator,” he said after the waitress finally delivered his sweetener. “We’re going to sit back and say, ‘We knew we had it.’ ”