Reflections of a Spitzer Survivor

Yes, I am.

I worked on Eliot Spitzer’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, his post-election transition and in his administration, first as Deputy Chief of Staff at the New York Liquidation Bureau and then as Special Counsel to the Superintendent of Insurance.  I was never personally close to Eliot or part of his inner circle, and I only had a modest amount of substantive interaction with him in my various roles.  I did, however, respect his intellect and other talents and held his accomplishments as attorney general in high regard.

It was quite a shock when the news broke that March Monday afternoon.  The public, and we Spitzer appointees, were bitterly disappointed at the news that he patronized prostitutes and was ensnared in a criminal investigation.  The resulting disorienting whirlwind quickly led to his departure.  There was some karmic justice; an elected official who indulged in high-horse attacks brought down by his own tawdry conduct.

Who Eliot had sex with, and the circumstances, never really mattered to me, however.  I was more disappointed at the failures in his short-lived administration, particularly his failure in dealing with the state legislature.  He failed at truly transitioning from attorney general to governor, and was mostly stymied by a legislature that he held in low regard and expected to simply accept his demands.  By March 2008, 14 months into his term, he had no political friends.

Here are a few incomplete, and somewhat contradictory, observations on his bid for New York City comptroller:

  • It’s the right office, if he runs for any office, for Spitzer.  It has strong similarities to the attorney general’s office, which Spitzer transformed.  It depends on it’s occupant executing clearly defined executive duties, while not requiring substantial legislative interaction.  Spitzer has long thought about the comptroller’s office and it’s powers, and appears to have developed some significant plans for transforming it.
  • For many, his time as attorney general was a major success.  He remade that office, investing it with an expanded purpose and record of accomplishment.  His two successors have used the office he left to them.  Neither has changed it in a similarly marked way.
  • Spitzer has an extensive record as attorney general and governor.  It’s filled with major legal accomplishments, as well as some failures. Whether or not you judge his victories as wise and ultimately beneficial for New York, it’s indisputable that he has a long, relevant record on which you can judge him and evaluate whether you want him to be comptroller.
  • Even before he gets on the ballot, the first major battle of an actual campaign is underway:  whether his candidacy is defined by his time as attorney general, presumably Spitzer’s goal, or by his time as governor.
  • After he resigned, he avoided the sine qua non of public image rehabilitations – disappearing for a while.  His almost immediate reappearance grated on me and, I think, on many others.  I never watched either of his TV shows, purposely avoiding them as I had no desire to watch him pontificate.  “Go away, please…”, was the overriding sentiment.
  • His ability to attract enormous media coverage (watch our coverage of his campaign appearance Monday in Union Square here) plus an ability and willingness to self-fund make him an instantly credible, and even front-running, candidate.  Assuming he gets on the ballot, that is.
  • His Union Square appearance demonstrated a striking ability to handle the media onslaught.  He stood solo, sweltering in a sea of dozens of reporters and cameras, calmly answering repeated rounds of mostly predictable, and sometimes demeaning, questions.
  • He’s not a particularly likeable candidate, however.  Credible and experienced, with major accomplishments and four statewide campaigns behind him, but not really likeable.  At his best, you want to hire him as your lawyer, but his stilted, lawyeristic constructs instantly mark him as not-the-guy-next-door (assuming that you don’t live in a dorm at Harvard Law School).  That’s an immediate challenge, as it’s much easier for voters to forgive personal behavior of someone they like.
  • Sex outside his marriage, and sex with prostitutes was wrong, tawdry, destructive to those around him and resulted in his resignation in disgrace.  If sexual conduct (assuming consenting adults …) is a legitimate test for public office, however, both the public and the press should expressly ask those questions of all candidates.
  • It’s hard to see how Scott Stringer’s 13 years in Albany as a state assembly member and 7 years as Manhattan Borough President qualify him to be comptroller.  Maybe he’ll convince me and the broader public by September 10th, but a competitive race that makes him have to do so seems like a positive.  His stealth, unopposed candidacy, apparently enabled by his former mayoral competitors who were glad to get him out of that race, is bad for democracy.
  • Assuming that he gets on the ballot, will I vote for Eliot Spitzer for comptroller?  I have to think about it.

~     John Kenny

Update:  Here is a link to our coverage of his campaign debut on Monday.