Spitzer Rejoins Politics, Asking for Forgiveness
Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of New York five years ago amid a prostitution scandal, is re-entering political life, with a run for the citywide office of comptroller and a wager that voters are ready to look past his previous misconduct.
In a telephone interview on Sunday night, Mr. Spitzer, 54, sounding restless after an unwelcome hiatus from government, said he had re-envisioned the often-overlooked office and yearned to resurrect the kind of aggressive role he played as New York State’s attorney general. He said that after consulting with his family and taking the temperature of the city’s electorate, he believed New Yorkers would be open to his candidacy. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness, I am asking for it,” he said.
His re-emergence comes in an era when politicians — like Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina and the New York mayoral contender Anthony D. Weiner — have shown that public disapproval, especially over sexual misconduct, can be fleeting, and that voters seem receptive to those who seek forgiveness and redemption.
His decision startled the city’s political establishment, which is already unsettled by the rapid rise of Mr. Weiner, who also plunged into a campaign without party elders’ blessing.
Mr. Spitzer batted away a question about whether the reception enjoyed by Mr. Weiner, who is running neck and neck with the front-runner Christine C. Quinn, factored into his decision, but said he was approached regularly by New Yorkers who say they would support him if he ran for office again.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “People who walk with me on the street say, ‘People really do want you to get back in.’ ”
Mr. Spitzer, who built a national reputation as a zealous watchdog of Wall Street while attorney general, imagines transforming the comptroller’s office into a robust agency that would not merely monitor and account for city spending, as it does now, but also conduct regular inquiries into the effectiveness of government policies in areas like high school graduation rates.
Such a reading of the office, which would significantly expand its scope, could put Mr. Spitzer, a Democrat, into conflict with the city’s next mayor, much as his tenure as attorney general put him at odds with federal regulators of Wall Street.
“The metaphor is what I did with the attorney general’s office,” he said. “It is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction.”
Since Mr. Spitzer’s resignation as governor, public surveys have shown little appetite for his run to elective office. So instead, he has worked as a television commentator on CNN, Current TV and NY1. None of them seemed to satisfy his thirst for political combat. Asked if he missed the frenetic pace and power that comes with a public platform, Mr. Spitzer responded readily, “Yes.”
The son of a wealthy real estate developer, Mr. Spitzer said he would pay for the campaign himself, forgoing the city’s public financing system. The race is expected to cost several million dollars.
Mr. Spitzer has little time to waste: To make the primary ballot in September, candidates for citywide office — mayor, comptroller and public advocate — must collect at least 3,750 signatures from registered voters from their political party by Thursday.
With Mr. Spitzer’s name recognition and three million Democrats in the city, this should not be a difficult task, but he plans to flood the streets and supermarkets with some 100 signature gatherers starting on Monday.
“I am going to be on the street corners,” he said. “We will be out across the city.”
Mr. Spitzer’s entry promises to shake up a comptroller’s contest that had been viewed as an all-but-certain victory for Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president who has been embraced by the city’s unions and Democratic establishment. The office of Mr. Stringer, an amiable former lawmaker who was previously squeezed out of the mayor’s race, released a statement on Sunday night after being caught unaware by Mr. Spitzer’s news.
“Scott Stringer has a proven record of results and integrity and entered this race to help New York’s middle class regain its footing,” Sascha Owen, Mr. Stringer’s campaign manager, said in the statement. “By contrast, Eliot Spitzer is going to spurn the campaign finance program to try and buy personal redemption with his family fortune.”
Other Democrats will most likely suggest that Mr. Spitzer simply wants a new pulpit for his considerable ego and lacks the even temper needed to govern in a fractious city.
Mr. Spitzer, who was once viewed as having a chance to become the first Jewish president, resigned as governor in March 2008, after The New York Times reported he had patronized a high-end prostitution ring called Emperors Club V.I.P.
He said he had recently been reflecting on his work fighting Wall Street abuses, and writing an e-book about his experience as attorney general, which he said would be something of a template for his vision of comptroller.
A Marist College poll taken nine months ago suggested few wanted Mr. Spitzer back: Asked if they wanted him to run for mayor, 30 percent of city voters said yes and 57 percent said no. It is not clear whether they would be more accepting of a run for a less prominent office. Mr. Sanford, for example, sought a House seat rather than statewide office when he returned to politics.
Mr. Spitzer said he had not conducted any polling before deciding to run based on his gut reading of ordinary New Yorkers. He described an encounter on Sunday afternoon, when he was sitting on a park bench after a run near his Upper East Side home. He said he was approached by a woman, who began talking to him about her own experience aiding the homeless.
“I appreciate what you did when you were in office,” he said she told him. “Nobody is perfect; I hope you run again.”
As he weighed whether to run for office this year, he said, he talked in depth with his wife and daughters, who he indicated signed off on the decision. His three daughters, who were young when he entered public life, are now adults, ranging in age from 19 to 23.
“They are mature, they are grown up,” he said. He added: “They have lived through a lot.”
One group that is unlikely to celebrate Mr. Spitzer’s entry into the field: Wall Street, where firms endured costly and creative litigation at his hands throughout the early 2000s. The investment firms have regular business with the city comptroller, through the office’s oversight of pension funds. Mr. Spitzer wants to bring more shareholder activism to the pension funds.
“I have always enjoyed chatting with the leadership of Wall Street,” Mr. Spitzer said. “We haven’t always agreed.”