article

12.10.09

Vote for Client No. 9

Take heart, Tiger: There is life after sex scandals. Benjamin Sarlin reports on Eliot Spitzer's possible return to the political stage—and why Ashley Dupré was the least of his problems.

Eliot Spitzer’s going through a good patch. The former New York governor’s wisdom on financial matters is increasingly in demand on cable-news outlets and online magazines—where his populist outrage over bailed-out banks reminds viewers of his reputation as the scourge of Wall Street during his tenure as state attorney general. His political archrival—former state senate leader Joe Bruno—was convicted on corruption charges this week. And the Tiger Woods bimbo eruption has made Spitzer’s tabloid turn as Client No. 9 look like a day at the beach. By week’s end, rumors were circulating that the rehabilitation of the fallen Democratic star was so complete that he’d started flirting with a run for New York state comptroller next year.

Not so fast, Spitzer. Even former allies of the ex-governor warn that a run for office might be a bridge too far.

Republican political consultant Roger Stone, told The Daily Beast that he was “salivating” at the idea of helping take on the ex-governor.

“The problem with former governor Spitzer is his erotic escapades are not the issue,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on both of Spitzer's attorney-general campaigns, told The Daily Beast.

In addition to Spitzer's alleged involvement with a prostitution ring—he resigned after his name cropped up in an FBI affidavit—his tenure as governor was marred by a noxious relationship with the state legislature, culminating in a major ethics scandal in which the governor's office used state police to try to dig up dirt on Bruno (whose conviction was on unrelated charges).

Investigations into New York’s own “Troopergate” have followed Spitzer's staffers long after the governor left office. Three state officials have pleaded guilty to related crimes, including the production of official-looking documents on Bruno's use of state aircraft to hand off to reporters, while a fourth, the governor's former communications director Darren Dopp, was fined a maximum $10,000 just last month for his participation in the forgery. (Dopp has told the press he intends to sue the commission over the decision.) New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a report blasting the then-governor for directing the state police to snoop on Bruno’s travel—and foment media interest in the legislator. Spitzer apologized, saying his administration had “grossly mishandled” the matter.

Sheinkopf says the whole mess remains a significant political liability.

“It's the abuse of the state police, it's the chaos in Albany he created, and the public will be reminded of it,” he says. Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, a group that advocated transparency in government, also warned that the abuse of power issues raised by the state trooper scandal would have to be re-examined if Spitzer threw his hat back in the ring.

“The full story has not been told and needs to be before there would be the most remote consideration of interest in seeing him return to public life,” Dadey told The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast’s full coverage of the Tiger Woods scandalSpitzer's gradual return to the public eye has generated multiple rumors over the last several months that he might take another stab at electoral politics. This week, the New York Post cited unnamed sources suggesting that Spitzer was considering challenging the sitting state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli. It wasn't the first time the idea was raised in the press; The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder noted in October that a Spitzer column in Slate on the role state comptrollers could play in combatting Washington lobbyists seemed more than a bit suggestive.

The rumors have not been immediately dismissed in political circles. The chairman of the state's Independence Party said he'd be open to putting Spitzer on the ballot if he were to run. And Governor David Paterson lent some credibility to the notion, telling radio host John Gambling that Spitzer might be “ useful” in managing state finances. Of course, given Paterson's anemic approval ratings, his support could hurt Spitzer more than it might help him.

Spitzer would have some advantages. He has much better name recognition than the mostly unknown DiNapoli, who was appointed to his position after the previous comptroller, Alan Hevesi, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of fraud. Spitzer also has a family fortune to draw on to finance his campaign—his father, Bernard Spitzer, is a prominent real-estate developer. But Sheinkopf warned that both of those assets could be turned against him.

“This is potentially the one race where his money won’t matter: Everyone knows everything about him,” he said. “He's a competent fellow and a smart guy, but what’s his unique argument? 'I'm not DiNapoli?' That's not enough. The Republicans will have a field day.”

Indeed, one of Spitzer's nemeses in the GOP, Republican political consultant Roger Stone, told The Daily Beast that he was “salivating” at the idea of helping take on the ex-governor and suggested that Spitzer's scandals would receive a tougher look in the press if he once again became a candidate.

“He will get destroyed,” Stone said via email.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.