“If Allstate has accident forgiveness, we have second-chance forgiveness,” one Manhattanite called out to Eliot Spitzer.
Forgiveness seemed to be the theme in Union Square today — among the few people who could squeeze through the press throng surrounding the former New York governor, and from a purportedly reborn Spitzer himself, who spent an hour today in a media crush to kick off his campaign for New York City comptroller.
In 2008, Spitzer, just a year into his gubernatorial term, was discovered to have been Client No. 9 of Emperors Club VIP, an “international escort agency” that Spitzer patronized to the tune of $80,000 over two years. Within a week of the revelations Spitzer resigned in disgrace.
Five years later he is back, hoping to collect 3,750 signatures by Thursday to qualify for the September 10 primary ballot. “New Yorkers are forgiving,” said Spitzer. If today is any indication, it seems he may be right.
For many, it seems, the public service Spitzer rendered as both attorney general and governor of New York outweighs his personal failings. As attorney general Spitzer was widely praised for taking on a bevy of industries and interests, from gun manufacturers to predatory lenders to the federal government. As governor he pushed for same-sex marriage in New York and issued an executive order granting illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. At today’s event he argued that state and federal actions over the last half-decade have shown that his policies, which were controversial at the time, were simply ahead of the curve.
Those policies generated a base of support that, five years later, has not dried up. Several people were present to voice their support, most saying, “We forgive you, Eliot,” or “Everybody deserves a second chance.” A particularly vocal critic (“You betrayed your family, your wife, the state of New York. Why should we vote for you?”) was shouted down.
Spitzer said emphatically that Anthony Weiner’s run for New York City mayor had no influence on his decision to seek office — but surely Spitzer can spot a pattern: Weiner’s success (so far) follows that of former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who finished out his second term in 2011 despite an extramarital affair in 2009 that made national headlines. In May of this year Sanford was elected to the U.S. House in a special election.
If Weiner and Sanford indicate a trend, it is toward an increasing dissociation among voters of the personal and political. And while most supporters today stressed the need for second chances, at least one argued that Spitzer’s qualifications exceed those necessary for the job: No New York governor has ever been New York City comptroller.
Spitzer has maintained a public presence since his resignation from the governor’s office. Since 2008 he has co-hosted two television shows—CNN’s In the Arena and Current TV’s Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer—written a regular column for Slate, taught at the City College of New York, and penned an upcoming book, Protecting Capitalism, Case by Case. His name-recognition far outstrips that of his opponents, among whom the front-runner is Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer. The debates will be fun: Also running is Spitzer’s former madam, Kristen Davis.
Spitzer says that while he has no plans to seek higher office, he wants to make the city comptroller’s job “bigger,” like he did for the position of state attorney general. If that sounds ominous, page through Ramesh Ponnuru’s June 14, 2004, National Review cover story, “The Litigation Devil” (which, by the way, Spitzer took a moment to bash during today’s festivities). Spitzer may no longer be “the most destructive politician in America,” but his hints about exploiting the elasticity of an office on the first day of a campaign should suggest that his crusading days may not be over.
If that is the case, large-hearted New York voters would do well to forgive Spitzer his personal misdeeds — but then make clear that it’s his politics that are irredeemable.