Eliot’s Black Problem

Back in 1998, when Eliot Spitzer was a little-known longshot candidate for Attorney General, Virginia Fields was one of the very few elected officials to back him early.

But after we reported that Eliot was set to endorse Freddy Ferrer for mayor, and Eliot decided to make it official with a phone call to the Times, the Attorney General didn’t bother giving Virginia a heads-up. And that slight seems to have crystallized a quiet disaffection with Eliot that’s been building for months on the city’s African-American political scene.

“Virginia was very insulted,” a senior aide to Mrs. Fields told us. “He should have at least had the courtesy to pick up the phone and call her.”

Spitzer’s move has had black politicians grumbling for weeks, and it tops a litany of complaints. One is the number of African-Americans he has on staff at the Attorney-General’s office, though Spitzer’s spokesman, Darren Dopp, showed us numbers that had the percentage of black lawyers and staff up sharply in his tenure. Then there’s the fact that his campaign staff is without a seasoned black operative. Another complaint is his decision — Spitzer would say obligation — to defend the State in its fight against the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Another is his handling of the Black United Fund case; though not all his critics defend that non-profit’s financial operations, there was a sense in Harlem that the black establishment wasn’t even consulted, exacerbated when the Attorney General appointed a new board made up of people from Long Island.

The list goes on, and Spitzer’s office offers a point-by-point rebuttal that’s worth listening to. One advisor to Virginia, Joe Mercurio, also said she looks forward to Eliot’s endorsement in the run-off or general election.

But the bottom line is that the anger at the golden-boy attorney general from this quarter is real. (Amazing how hard it is to hold together that Democratic coalition, no?) In a cold electoral calculation, it may not matter: Hispanics, not blacks, are traditionally the swing voters in New York State, and Eliot’s been working harder on that front. (See Ferrer, Fernando.) We don’t doubt, though, that Randy Daniels, the black Republican candidate, will make all he can of this rift, and that some of his old friends in Harlem will enjoy every minute of it.

And if/when Eliot’s governor, this can’t be a good thing. The chairman of the State Party, key figures in the state assembly, and the dean of the Congressional delegation, are all vital to his success. As some sage once said, he may not need them to win, but he’ll need them to govern.

One elected official willing to talk on the record about this was, of course, Charles Barron.

“Eliot Spitzer has major problems in the black community,” he told us. “I don’t think he should get the black vote based up on what he as done so far. I don’t think he deserves it.”