Eliot Spitzer could be that rare politician whose career is saved by a sex scandal.
The former New York governor recently told a crowd of nearly a thousand New Yorkers that returning to government could be “exciting.” He has dramatically increased his media presence. And his friends reportedly have said that he’s thinking about running for state comptroller. Or even the Senate.
Meanwhile, interest in Spitzer’s personal life remains intense: two new books, plus a documentary based on one of them, examine the behavior that forced Spitzer out of office. Playboy offers its own explanation, in the form of a nude pictorial of his preferred consort.
Spitzer had better hope that New Yorkers remain focused on his sex life — for his record in office couldn’t withstand similar scrutiny. The tawdry personal revelations obscure a more embarrassing fact: Spitzer was a lousy governor.
Though private foibles cost Spitzer his job, his short tenure was defined by a series of public missteps. Three major errors reflect the poor judgment for which Spitzer would eventually become notorious.
Spitzer’s first big legislative effort was campaign finance reform. Good-government groups have long viewed New York’s lax campaign finance laws as corrupting the political process in Albany. As governor, Spitzer positioned himself as a campaign finance reformer.
When first a candidate for attorney general, however, he engaged in a questionable campaign finance scheme. Campaign rules prohibited Spitzer, the son of a multimillionaire real-estate developer, from unlimited access to his father’s fortune. So Spitzer instead funded his 1994 campaign largely through bank loans. He then repaid those debts by borrowing money from his father at more favorable terms. Though not illegal, the arrangement violated the spirit of the state’s campaign contribution limits.
When the state Legislature killed the campaign finance reform bill, Spitzer blamed Albany’s culture of self-preservation. But his credibility was already compromised by his earlier flouting of campaign finance law. Spitzer squandered valuable political capital on a fight he wasn’t equipped to win.
In abandoning campaign finance reform, Spitzer acceded to Joseph Bruno, then-majority leader of the state Senate. Bruno’s power rivaled Spitzer’s, and the two repeatedly clashed.
But efforts by the new governor’s administration to turn the tables on Bruno led to a serious lapse in judgment. In a scandal later called Troopergate, Spitzer’s office had the state police investigate Bruno’s use of official aircraft for political purposes — and then leaked the information to the press.
Bruno was hardly an exemplar of ethical behavior — he has recently been convicted of corruption — but the governor’s office cannot use state troopers for surveillance on political rivals.
Troopergate had practical effects, too. When uncovered, there was no longer any pretense that Spitzer and Bruno, constitutional partners in state government, would be able to work together. Albany went from dysfunctional to nonfunctioning.
In September 2007, one day after Albany’s district attorney released a report on Troopergate, Spitzer announced a plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. There was enormous public opposition, and Spitzer, plummeting in the polls, was forced to drop the plan two months later.
But at his weakest, Spitzer courted controversy instead of consensus. Such indifference to political reality is not courageous. It’s reckless.
Spitzer has claimed that toughness is required to take on powerful interests. On this count, Spitzer compares himself favorably with Andrew Cuomo, his successor as attorney general.
Yet aggressiveness alone doesn’t guarantee results. On two important issues — executive compensation and the influence of money in politics — Cuomo has been more effective than Spitzer.
Cuomo last year released a report detailing the large bonuses paid by banks that received federal bailout money. By providing useful data, his findings brought a level of transparency to the debate over financial services reform.
Spitzer’s own landmark executive-compensation case, against former New York Stock Exchange head Richard Grasso, was dismissed for lack of standing.
More notably, Cuomo’s investigation of pension-fund fraud, which has already implicated some of New York’s most powerful political players, will very likely do more to change Albany’s pay-to-play culture than anything Spitzer proposed — much less accomplished — in his nine years as attorney general and governor.
Finally, Spitzer failed as a manager. His personal lapses and consequent downfall left many loyal staffers heartbroken — and unemployed. Spitzer betrayed the men and women who had devoted their professional lives to his advancement.
New Yorkers are cynical about government. Maybe that’s because so many of our elected officials disappoint us.
If Spitzer is given a second act in New York, he becomes a beneficiary of standards lowered by his own conduct.
Spitzer has profited already from a disaster of his own design. He now owes much of his reputation’s rehabilitation to the shortcomings of his handpicked successor, Gov. David Paterson.
Even before his personal failings came to light, Spitzer was failing the people of New York. As we consider Spitzer’s political future, studying his character should not take precedence over examining his record.
David Parker, a political consultant, has written about politics for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.