Eliot Spitzer, the hard-charging former New York Governor and onetime “Sheriff of Wall Street,” who resigned five years ago in a spectacular fall from grace following a prostitution scandal, is returning to New York politics. Spitzer, a Democrat who called himself a “steamroller” for his aggressive brand of political combat, said Sunday that he’s running for New York City comptroller, an important but under-appreciated city office that presides over the management of $140 billion in city pension funds. In this role, Spitzer, 54, could exert considerable influence over New York City’s financial health.
Spitzer’s pursuit of the comptroller’s office may seem like a step-down for a man who was once mentioned as a potential U.S. presidential candidate, but it’s also a shrewdly restrained goal for a famously ambitious politician seeking public forgiveness. Before resigning in disgrace in 2008, Spitzer had been a major figure in New York – and indeed national — politics, first as New York’s attorney general, and then later as the state’s governor.
“I would not be in this race if I did not think I could win,” Spitzer told the New York Observer Sunday evening. He told the New York Times, which first broke the news, that he believes he can transform the low-profile city comptroller’s office into a more powerful and influential force. “The metaphor is what I did with the attorney general’s office,” he told the paper. “It is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction.”
As attorney general, Spitzer waged an aggressive crusade against white-collar crime and securities fraud, by targeting some of the biggest financial institutions and personalities on Wall Street, including former New York Stock Exchange CEO Richard Grasso, whom Spitzer sued in 2004 over Grasso’s $140 million pay package. There remains no love lost between the two men. Spitzer may view the comptroller’s office as a way to return to his signature political issue: financial regulation and oversight.
After eight years as attorney general, Spitzer was sworn in as Governor of New York on January 1, 2007. He immediately began rubbing statewide politicos the wrong way. New York state politics is intensely hide-bound and parochial, and lawmakers objected to Spitzer’s abrasive style. In one famous episode, after just three weeks as governor, Spitzer reportedly threatened a Republican state lawmaker who had crossed him. “Listen, I’m a f—ing steamroller, and I’ll roll over you and anybody else,” Spitzer told New York State Assembly member James Tedisco.
By then, Spitzer’s penchant for hardball politics was well known. In another memorable episode, Spitzer launched a tirade against John Whitehead, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs and an influential Big Apple power broker. “Mr. Whitehead, it’s now a war between us and you’ve fired the first shot,” Spitzer reportedly said. “I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done.”
In March of 2008, The Times reported that Spitzer, who was married with three daughters, had been a client of a New York-based escort service called Emperors Club VIP. Spitzer had apparently been conducting clandestine trysts over a period of several years with women who worked for the service, including a call girl named Ashley Alexandra Dupré. The New York City tabloids went wild – the Post even gave Dupré her own column – and Spitzer resigned shortly after the revelations. He was never charged with a crime in the scandal.
Spitzer’s quest for political redemption following a messy sex scandal mirrors that of New York mayoral contender Anthony D. Weiner, the married former U.S. congressman from New York who resigned after sending lewd photos to a number of other women. The political fate of both Weiner and Spitzer will test the appetite of New York voters to forgive fallen politicians. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness, I am asking for it,” Spitzer told the Times Sunday evening.
(MORE: Was Spitzer Destined to Fall?)
Following his political downfall, Spitzer has written columns for Slate and worked as a television host on Current TV and CNN. In recent years, he has worked in the office of his father, a wealthy New York real estate developer. Spitzer told the Times he will pay for his campaign out of his own pocket, which means he won’t be bound by the city’s public campaign financing system, although he told the paper that he would use the system’s spending caps as a “guide.”
To qualify for the ballot, Spitzer must collect at least 3,750 signatures from registered Democrats by Thursday. “I am going to be on the street corners,” Spitzer told the Times. “We will be out across the city.” His entry into the race sets up a political battle with Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who is the leading Democratic candidate to become the next city comptroller.
In an ironic twist of fate, another candidate seeking the New York City comptroller’s office is Kristin Davis, the so-called “Manhattan Madam” who was linked to the Spitzer prostitution scandal. Davis is running on the Libertarian ticket. “Happy birthday to me! What a great present — a chance to confront Eliot Spitzer,” Davis tweeted Sunday night.
Shortly thereafter, Stringer’s campaign issued a statement responding to Spitzer’s entry into the race: “Scott Stringer has a proven record of results and integrity and entered this race to help New York’s middle class regain its footing,” said the statement. “By contrast, Eliot Spitzer is going to spurn the campaign finance program to try and buy personal redemption with his family fortune. The voters will decide.”