He remains so radioactive that a candidate in the Democratic primary for Manhattan district attorney was forced to cancel a fundraiser with him this summer. So, naturally, Eliot Spitzer is thinking … political comeback.
Well, at least according to Thursday’s New York Post, which has Spitzer—who lasted half as long as a governor as Sarah Palin did—mulling a bid for state comptroller next year.
Let’s suppose he is. His chances of winning would be small, and further embarrassment—for himself and for his family—would be almost certain, but as one elected official put it on Thursday, “The guy’s nuts, so who knows?”
Still, the broad consensus among political insiders is that the filing deadline will come and go next year with Spitzer still on the political sidelines.
The simplest reason is that it’s just too soon. Spitzer inflicted considerable trauma on the state when he was forced (or felt forced) to quit the governorship 14 months into his term. And now, before that term is even over, he wants to jump back in the game and seek another statewide office? His stint in political purgatory just hasn’t been long enough.
Plus, he’d run with no support from the Democratic establishment, which he alienated during his time as governor. In a ’10 campaign, establishment Democrats wouldn’t even have to pretend to like him. It could get very ugly very fast.
And if he somehow secured the Democratic nomination—which would be an uphill fight, with an incumbent (albeit an unelected one) in the comptroller’s office now and with Andrew Cuomo looking put his own man (or woman) in the job—Spitzer would be supremely vulnerable in the fall.
The best thing that down-ballot Democratic candidates in New York usually have going for them is their anonymity; knowing nothing about the candidates, voters blindly check off the Democratic nominee. But they know Spitzer’s name, and not for nice reasons.
Moreover, with unemployment high and Democrats running Washington, 2010 will be a stronger-than-usual year for Republicans in New York (and elsewhere), further eroding that partisan advantage.
That said, no one doubts that Spitzer is aching to return to politics—and that he’s very much pleased that his (possible) political future is suddenly being discussed and very anxious to gauge the reaction.
The word in Democratic circles for months has been that Spitzer was making it known—passively and indirectly—that he’d be willing to run for office in ’10, maybe for comptroller, maybe for attorney general, maybe even for the U.S. Senate. And he’s been eagerly accepting political talk show invitations, hoping that voters might learn to see his face and not instinctively think of the sex scandal. Thursday’s Post story is a logical piece of this evolution.
Comptroller would be the most logical (or least illogical) office to shoot for in ’10. Governor, obviously, is out of the question, and Kirsten Gillibrand’s Senate seat is over his head, too (and that’s not even getting into the terrible politics of a man who was ensnared in a prostitution scandal trying to push a female senator aside). Attorney general is probably too much as well—again, selling a guy who trafficked high-priced hookers across state lines for New York’s top law enforcement position just doesn’t work.
Comptroller, though, is lower-profile—the bottom-rung statewide office, a better symbolic starting point for a scandalized politician on the comeback trail. And while those who know Spitzer say he lacks the patience for the accounting nitty-gritty that would come with the job, he could argue that his “sheriff of Wall Street” credentials would make him a good steward of the public’s money.
And then there’s the fun part: revenge. To win the Democratic nomination, Spitzer would have to take out Tom DiNapoli—the same man he called “thoroughly and totally unqualified” back in 2007, when the Democratic Legislature infuriated and embarrassed Spitzer by choosing DiNapoli for the open comptroller’s job.
Plus, if he were to win the office next November, Spitzer would have the green light to embarrass Andrew Cuomo (who, presumably, will be elected governor) with audits—delicious payback for Cuomo’s pursuit of the “Trooper-gate” scandal that helped stall Spitzer’s governorship in 2007.
But all of this, almost certainly, will never move past the realm of the fanciful. The kind of comeback that Spitzer yearns for may be impossible—but even if he can pull it off, it will have to be a process, one that plays out over a period of years.
The example of Gary Hart comes to mind. Hart was 50 when, in the spring of 1987, his front-running White House campaign was jolted by revelations of an apparent extramarital affair (something that seems rather tame compared to Spitzer’s story). Thinking he had no choice, Hart quit the race—a decision he began trying to undo within months.
In December ’87, he jumped back in the presidential race, but no one took him seriously and he was wiped out in Iowa and New Hampshire. A few years later, he toyed with running again for the Senate in Colorado, but the party establishment wouldn’t touch him. He even flirted with running for president again in 2004—but found very few takers. There was no undoing the original sin of quitting—it ensured that he’d always be defined by scandal.
Hart probably still wonders what would have happened if he’d just tried to ride out the storm in May of 1987—and probably still regrets that he didn’t. Spitzer, who is now 50, may have a similar future in store: No matter how many times he tries to get back in, the lurid headlines of March ’08 will be there haunting him.