It looks as if the only thing standing between Client #9 and his control of New York City’s five pension funds is a last-minute effort by African-American officeholders to convince their constituents that Eliot Spitzer’s abuses of power make him unfit to be their city’s comptroller.
Eliot Spitzer has spent millions from his family fortune to build a lead in the September 10 Democratic primary, which would make him a clear favorite in the November election over the Republican, Wall Street executive John Burnett.
In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, Spitzer leads Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer 56 percent to 37 percent in the Democratic primary, with all of his lead coming from his 68 percent to 21 percent edge among African-Americans. Among white voters, Stringer leads by ten points. “Everyone seems to be against former governor Eliot Spitzer except the voters, especially black voters,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Spitzer is all over the TV screens, building on his better name recognition.” Tellingly, a July Quinnipiac poll found 66 percent of white voters thought Spitzer’s scandals were a legitimate issue in the race, as opposed to 43 percent of black voters.
There are lots of theories for Spitzer’s strong black support. One is that Stringer has been largely invisible until lately. Another is that “the African-American community tends to support people who are under attack,” as former New York governor David Paterson, who replaced Spitzer after his prostitution scandal, put it this month. He has nonetheless endorsed Stringer.
Jelani Cobb, an African-American history professor, wrote in The New Republic last week that another reason is, “crucially, a deep suspicion toward the media and political establishments that have publicized the candidates’ failings.” Indeed, former governor Paterson says of the media; “The more they bash Eliot Spitzer, the more they bring out votes for him.”
That’s why Stringer’s campaign has been careful to steer away from Spitzer-bashing. Instead, it has recruited a dozen black and Hispanic lawmakers to record robocalls with positive messages about Springer. The roster is impressive: members of Congress Charles Rangel, Yvette Clarke, Nydia Velazquez, Gregory Meeks, and Jose Serrano, among others.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be anyone recalling Spitzer’s dark side. I’m told that independent expenditures do more than merely remind voters that his prostitution scandal involved more than just spousal and family betrayal, along with poor fashion sense involving black socks. Spitzer laundered money under a false name to pay for his trysts; he used a state plane to fly to Washington to see a prostitute; and he made himself vulnerable to blackmail while he was New York State’s top law-enforcement official.
And that’s not even half of his record. As the self-styled Sheriff of Wall Street, Spitzer abused his power as state attorney general from 1999 to 2007 to pursue a variety of figures, many of whom were acquitted or never saw charges brought against them. As governor, he used state police to spy on and smear political opponents.
There is evidence that the sheer weight of his scandalous past may finally be catching up with Spitzer. This month, one of his few prominent African-American political backers bailed out on him. Floyd Flake, a former congressman and senior pastor at the Allen AME Cathedral of Queens, said he could no longer support Spitzer. Outraged members of his congregation are said to have played a role in the decision.
The polls also may be overestimating Spitzer’s lead. A poll taken for a labor coalition opposing Spitzer called Progress NYC found that the former governor has only a six-point lead, with a whopping 28 percent of the electorate still undecided. “Public polling is inaccurately measuring the few voters who are likely to come out — and among the so-called super-prime voters, Stringer is doing far better,” a Progress NYC polling memo states. “Stringer also leads by 14 percent among those who have ANY opinion on both candidates (positive or negative) — indicating that Eliot Spitzer’s lead is very much a measure of higher name recognition.”
A Spitzer victory would represent more than just a deplorable reward for bad behavior. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “If he becomes overseer of the city’s five pension funds, Mr. Spitzer has made it clear that he intends to use the funds’ ownership stakes in public companies to pursue his political agenda and seek changes in corporate governance.”
Should Spitzer win the Democratic primary, there is one more hurdle he has to clear — a general election in which he would be opposed by Republican John Burnett. In a city that’s 7 to 1 Democratic, that race would normally be a cakewalk, but Burnett — with the help of city matching funds to buy ads — could make a race of it.
Burnett isn’t your ordinary Republican. Born in 1970, he grew up in East New York. He got his undergraduate degree at New York University by taking night classes while already working on Wall Street, and then got an MBA from Cornell. His Wall Street experience includes everything from work as a margin analyst at Dean Witter to a job as a global wealth portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley. He is also a member of the board of the Urban Resource Institute and has served as treasurer of New York’s subcommittee of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.
As an African-American who has overcome adversity, Burnett might stand a chance to break into the black vote, appeal to Stringer supporters, and have a chance at victory. It’s good that black politicians have come out in a united front to stop Eliot Spitzer, but what will they do if he wins the primary anyway? Will they support Client #9 in November or break ranks and endorse of at least nod favorably toward John Burnett? As John F. Kennedy once observed, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.” Isn’t the prospect of Eliot Spitzer returning to high office one of those occasions? If not, what is?
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.