A Sad Good-Bye to Eliot Spitzer

Like most political New Yorkers I tuned in to the news last night to see the likely winners of yesterday’s primary election, then got up to read the results in more depth this morning, not just to see what they say politically, but to try parsing out things I didn’t know about the vast city. The Chinese-American mayoral candidate John Liu, for example, took only 7% of the vote, but I see by the mayoral map that he won a swath of districts around Jackson Heights, making me wonder if there’s a fourth Chinatown in the city that I didn’t know about.

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I won’t bore the readers from outside the area with a (probably fruitless) attempt to explain city politics, but lost in the suspense about the future mayor was another close, citywide race for comptroller, between two decent center-left candidates, Scott Stringer and Eliot Spitzer. Stringer was the front-runner by a mile, until Spitzer joined the race in April.

Spitzer, of course had to resign as governor when he got busted hiring a prostitute. I voted for him this week, along with 47% of Democratic primary voters, not quite enough, and his career in public office seems done.

“Dude, you’re a feminist. How can you vote for Spitzer?” asked a friend of mine, and it’s a fair question.

First, part of my reasoning was straight-up realpolitik. The comptroller’s office is only as meaningful as the political muscle behind it. Scott Stringer has been the Manhattan borough president, no pushover as politicians go, but Spitzer’s widespread name recognition and ability to get headlines meant he would have brought public shame into play as a political tool whenever he announced any investigation into city financing.

Secondly, a paranoid part of me has always sympathized with Spitzer, since his demise back in 2008 had the stink of a political hit about it. When Spitzer hired a prostitute to meet him at his hotel in Washington, he was there to testify about the effects of the coming financial crisis on the municipal bond insurance market.

I’m politically tuned in and not afraid of a page of text, and I can’t get my head around this crap to save my life, but Spitzer said, “If we do not take action, this could be a financial tsunami that causes substantial damage. The Bush Administration has looked the other way as this crisis moved from the financial markets into the entire American economy. This will affect the cost of college loans. It will affect museum budgets. It will affect state and local taxes. A collapse of bond insurers will adversely affect municipalities, investors and, if unchecked, many average Americans.”

Then he went to the famous Mayflower Hotel, just one flight up from the room where FDR wrote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” He registered his room, without telling him, to a wealthy old friend of his named George Fox – a detail I’ve always found heartbreaking: why not ask Fox to make it happen for you? – bought a classical music CD in the gift shop, and had sex with a $4,000 hooker.

In other words, Spitzer was among the first to ring the alarm about the Wall Street crisis, which everyone knew was coming and wasn’t saying, and its effect on government budgets, which is still a leading cause of the economic stupor we’re in. Wall Street was going to keep gambling till the creditors came to shut the lights out, but governments, Spitzer was saying, needed to start planning for the collapse. Of all the specious wire transfers paying for prostitutes that day, that’s the one that federal agents were monitoring. Which might be a coincidence.

Most importantly, Spitzer’s 2013 campaign seemed to me like a blueprint for political comebacks. We are so hard-wired to understand people via their stories as opposed to their ideas, that we constantly ask “What is his/her story?” In politics we respond to a biography more than a platform. Nationally, Obama, Bush, and Clinton have been 18 straight years of small majorities (or in 2000, a large minority) voting for a compelling one sentence narrative. A poor boy from Arkansas works hard and makes good; a prodigal son finds Jesus and joins the ranks of his well-regarded father; etc. So, what does happen to the sinners banished to the political wilderness?

Spitzer attempted to show a way forward by taking a demotion. Six years ago he was the governor of the second largest state. This year he was willing to take a job as New York City Comptroller. A six year political exile, followed by a severe demotion, seems reasonable to me. He was unfortunately sharing front pages with Anthony Weiner, whose shorter exile he was trying to follow with a promotion.

Stringer’s victory might say something good about New York primary voters: to a degree unheard of in national politics we respond to long-term commitments more than headline-grabbing sensations, but I still feel the blues for Spitzer today. It’s telling that I publish this only after the election. I guess I didn’t have it in me to go out and actually campaign for the hypocrite. It sure would have been nice if he won, though.

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